Addressing marijuana legalization and policy reform

This week in North Philly Notes, Clayton Mosher and Scott Akins, provide talking points about the legalization of marijuana, the subject of their new book, In the Weeds

In the Weeds is a historically grounded examination of marijuana policy reform and ultimately the move toward legalization over a period extending back more than 100 years, that also deconstructs the arguments of marijuana prohibitionists/demonizers. Examined under a larger historical lens, and given use of the substance for both medicinal and recreational purposes for thousands of years, we emphasize that prohibition of marijuana constitutes a historical anomaly.  We review the findings of several government commissions on marijuana from a variety of countries from the 1890s to 1970s, almost all of which concluded that marijuana was not a dangerous drug, was not physiologically addicting, and was not a “gateway” to the use of harder drugs. Marijuana prohibitionists (conveniently or deliberately) ignore this history.

Beginning with the passage of the Marijuana Tax Act  in 1937, the U.S. federal government has taken a negative, science-optional, and essentially evidence-free approach to marijuana, most notably reflected in its refusal to remove marijuana from Schedule I status (i.e., no medical applications and high addictive liability/potential for abuse) under the Controlled Substances Act.  This refusal has several negative implications, including depriving scientists from accessing quality marijuana for the research needed to demonstrate its medicinal applications, as well as its possible negative effects; it affects the ability of marijuana-related businesses to secure financial services from banks; prevents the Environmental Protection Agency from regulating pesticides and other chemicals used on cannabis crops, and, allows companies to fire, or refuse to hire, people who test positive for marijuana. The placement of marijuana in Schedule I also ultimately gives the federal government the ability to overturn both medical and recreational legalization of marijuana in states.

In the WeedsIn the Weeds also assesses the outcomes of current marijuana legalization “experiments,” with a focus on Colorado and Washington State (the first states to legalize recreational marijuana, in 2012, with sales commencing in 2014). Marijuana prohibitionists predicted that legalization would lead to skyrocketing youth use of the substance, and that our highways would be full of carnage due to “stoned drivers.” Neither of these outcomes have manifested. Youth use of marijuana in both Colorado and Washington State has stabilized and even declined. And while there have been modest increases in drivers involved in collisions (fatal and otherwise) testing positive for marijuana, and somewhat greater increases in the prevalence of drivers testing positive for marijuana in combination with other psychoactive substances,  we do not have sufficient data to prove that marijuana “impairment” caused these collisions (i.e., finding mere traces of marijuana in one’s system does not prove that the person was impaired, nor that the alleged impairment caused the collision). We also do not have sufficient historical data (i.e., pre-legalization) to determine whether there has been an actual increase in such incidents. It is important to stress that people drove under the influence of marijuana well before its legalization. Legalization did not invent marijuana.

Marijuana prohibitionists emphasize that marijuana use among adults in the U.S. is increasing, as is heavy and frequent use among certain individuals. There are legitimate concerns regarding these increases in heavy and frequent use. However, marijuana prohibitionists have not acknowledged the emerging research indicating that cannabis may serve as a substitute for other drugs such as alcohol, opiates, and even stimulant drugs. And importantly, it is by no means clear that increases in heavy and frequent use of marijuana is attributable to the legalization of recreational or medical marijuana – that is, marijuana use, including heavy use, began increasing in the mid-2000s.

Marijuana prohibitionists (conveniently or deliberately) ignore that, although cannabis is now legal for recreational purposes in 10 U.S. states, pursuit of the substance by law enforcement continues to be a major component of the ongoing war on drugs. In fact, the most recent FBI data indicate that marijuana arrests nationally increased in both 2016 and 2017, reaching almost 600,000 arrests for possession alone in both of these years. Over the last two decades, police in the United States have made more than 11 million arrests for marijuana possession.

Marijuana prohibitionists also conveniently or deliberately ignore the fact that the defining characteristic of marijuana (and other drug law) enforcement in the United States is the gross racial/ethnic disparities in these arrests. Nationally, blacks, who consume marijuana in roughly similar proportions to whites, are about four times more likely to be arrested for marijuana possession – in some U.S. jurisdictions, the disparity ratio is as high as 30.

Even in the rare cases where they do acknowledge the number of arrests and disparities, prohibitionists will claim that none of this is a big deal, because “no one goes to jail for marijuana possession.” This is simply not true. A 2015 report by the Department of Justice found that 11,553 people in the United States were in prison on marijuana-related charges (compared to only 5,800 for heroin). In addition, each year, tens of thousands of people arrested for marijuana possession are held in jail for several days or months because they cannot post bail. There are also collateral costs associated with these arrests – they commonly result in criminal records that show up on background checks when individuals apply to rent apartments or obtain and keep their jobs.

Marijuana prohibitionists have emphasized the fact that the marijuana available today is “not your father’s marijuana” – in particular, that the THC levels in marijuana available in states where the substance is legal is much higher than in the past. This assertion is debatable to begin with – people in the United States and elsewhere who wanted high potency marijuana have always been able to obtain it (consider hashish, for example). While high potency marijuana (especially as contained in edibles and other such products) may be problematic for novice users, there is scientific evidence that more experienced users will respond to higher potency marijuana by titrating their doses to achieve their desired high.  And importantly, one of the advantages of legalization is that consumers are informed of the content of the product they are consuming.  This obviously does not occur when marijuana is only available through the black market.

Marijuana prohibitionists (especially, recently, Alex Berenson in his book Tell Your Children) have emphasized a connection between consumption of cannabis and psychosis/schizophrenia. As we document in In the Weeds, prohibitionists have overstated the results of the complex science on this issue, and confuse correlation and causation.

Among the most significant incentives for recreational marijuana legalization is that the substance can be regulated, controlled, and taxed by government entities rather than the regulation and profit remaining in the hands of criminal enterprises. For governments that have legalized recreational marijuana, the tax revenue has been substantial, far exceeding expectations, and these revenues have been used to fund a variety of societal needs, including drug prevention and treatment programs, general health services, and public education.

In the Weeds concludes that marijuana has been legalized, and the sky has not fallen.

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