Going to Pot: Why the Rush to Legalize Marijuana Is Harming America (2016)

Chapter 3

Legalization and Its Effects

Those who have experimented with legalization and decriminalization of marijuana laws have come to regret it. The state of Alaska is a telling and complicated case in point. In 1982 the state decriminalized the possession of marijuana for those over nineteen years of age. Yet by 1990 the residents of the state had had enough of that experiment. Among other problems, “the state’s 12 to 17-year-olds used marijuana at more than twice the national average for their age group.”1 Here again, the law was meant for adults, but use among children went up. In 1990, Alaskans voted to recriminalize marijuana possession, by a vote of 54.3 percent to 43.7 percent.2 Alaskans defeated a re-legalization measure in 2000 by a vote of nearly 60 percent to 40 percent.3 In 2004, another attempt to legalize marijuana in Alaska failed. However, memories are short, and now that the pro-legalization movement has marshaled its resources and grown, in 2014, Alaska once again put a full legalization measure on the ballot. The campaign to legalize in Alaska received a $200,000 infusion of support from the Marijuana Policy Project.4 Indeed, the legalization measure was passed in November 2014.

One need not look back to the Alaskan experience to refresh memories. Already we can see what is taking place in Colorado. The negative effects are not just hitting children. Like Laurie Roberts of the Arizona Republic, Maureen Dowd experienced a dose of buyer’s remorse, and a lot of other bad things, too. A liberal columnist for the New York Times, Ms. Dowd “nibbled off the end and then, when nothing happened, nibbled some more” of a marijuana-laced candy bar she’d bought at a Denver-area pot shop.5 “What could go wrong with a bite or two?” she thought. “Everything, as it turned out.”6

I felt a scary shudder go through my body and brain. I barely made it from the desk to the bed, where I lay curled up in a hallucinatory state for the next eight hours. I was thirsty but couldn’t move to get water. Or even turn off the lights. I was panting and paranoid… I strained to remember where I was or even what I was wearing, touching my green corduroy jeans and staring at the exposed-brick wall. As my paranoia deepened, I became convinced that I had died and no one was telling me.

It took all night before it began to wear off, distressingly slowly. The next day, a medical consultant at an edibles plant where I was conducting an interview mentioned that candy bars like that are supposed to be cut into 16 pieces for novices; but that recommendation hadn’t been on the label.7

“Hadn’t been on the label.” Exactly. One wonders, if a warning were on the label, whether that would entice others to go for the additional “high” or convince them to keep their “dose” low. Such a label may have saved Ms. Dowd from being convinced she had died; others could just as easily seek greater and greater highs. Indeed, given the way we know the brain adjusts to doses, seeking and needing ever more, that would likely be the case for most regular users. If the word dangerous does not seem appropriate here, we cannot think of a case where it would.

Adults like Ms. Dowd, though, are not our main concern. She is beyond the age of initiation, and addiction is unlikely to become an ongoing problem for her. Our concern is the younger, innocent population. As the science writer David DiSalvo puts it, “Going even a little overboard [with marijuana, as Ms. Dowd did] can send a novice brain into a whirlwind.”8 That is the brain we care most about, the novice brain.

Some Unintended Consequences of Legalization

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The journal Slate, while reporting on some of the economic benefits to the Colorado government from sales of marijuana, titled its article “Going to Pot?” because it detailed what it called many of the “unintended consequences” of the state’s new legalization regime. Unintended, possibly; unexpected, not really. “So-called edibles are being blamed for an increase in the number of pot-related emergency room visits, including those from a half-dozen or so children who unknowingly ate pot-laced treats.”9

Since the de facto and actual legalization of marijuana in Colorado, some users who are not satisfied by the THC content of the average marijuana cigarette have sought a more euphoric high. Hence, they have developed laboratories known as butane hash oil (BHO) labs to extract the THC. The process entails forcing butane through an extraction tube, which is filled with marijuana that has been finely ground. The result is a product consisting of butane and a very high concentration of THC. Once the butane has completely evaporated, there is a viscous mass. The product frequently has a THC concentration ranging from 60 to 90 percent. This hash oil is consumed by smoking, or more commonly by vaporization called dabbing. The manufacturing process is extremely dangerous, as butane is a very volatile and explosive solvent. For example:

Colorado authorities are also dealing with a rash of fiery house explosions caused by pot enthusiasts making THC-rich hash oil in their homes through a dangerous process that involves heavy amounts of butane, a highly flammable gas that can linger and ignite. Earlier this week in a suburb of Colorado Springs, firefighters responded to one such explosion at an apartment and found two adults and a 3-year-old child trapped inside.10

In addition, “Hash oil–making is believed to have caused a blast that destroyed a townhouse. All told, firefighters have responded to more than 30 such explosions this year [the first half of 2014] already, roughly three times the number from all of last year, according to the Rocky Mountain High Intensity Drug Trafficking Area agency.”11 The HIDTA is a drug-prohibition enforcement program run by the Office of National Drug Control Policy, whose mission is to enhance and coordinate America’s drug control efforts among local, state, and federal law enforcement agencies. Not unexpectedly, as the number of BHO lab explosions have increased, so have the resulting injuries.

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Then there are the two Denver deaths, one of a nineteen-year-old who jumped to his death while high, the other of a woman whose husband shot her after eating “Karma Kandy.”12 Even more from a recent New York Times report: “Sheriffs in neighboring states complain about stoned drivers streaming out of Colorado and through their towns” and “nine children have ended up at Children’s Hospital Colorado in Aurora after consuming marijuana, six of whom got critically sick.”13 This is not so surprising when you find a fourth grader in Greely selling his grandmother’s pot brownies to fellow students on the playground, as was reported this past April.14

There also has been a sizable increase in marijuana-related DUI admissions to treatment centers.

Arapahoe House is Colorado’s largest provider of community detox services with three centers located across metro Denver in Aurora, Commerce City and Wheat Ridge. New data showing the number of clients driving under the influence (DUI) of marijuana from January 1–May 31, 2014 compared to the same time period in 2013 indicates admissions have nearly doubled from 8 percent to 15 percent since recreational legalization went into effect.15

The truth is that Colorado is about to wreak a great deal of havoc, and we do not think the mainstream media gets it. A recent CNN report on the recreational use of marijuana in Colorado found the following: just since last year, “thousands of strains of marijuana have hit the market”; “business is booming.” One shop reported ten thousand customers a month, a large percentage of whom came from out of state. But when the CNN reporter showed one of the more popular strains on television, with the clumps of marijuana in her hand, someone at the network transposed lights and sparkles onto her hand as well, to show the “magic” and euphoric effect that strain’s producers advertise. It looked like Tinker Bell in a Disney production, enticing and desirable. The story glamorized the product.16 Not everyone shares this rose-colored glasses perspective. In October 2014, Colorado Governor John Hickenlooper, a Democrat, was asked during a debate what he would say to other states considering similar measures. His response: “I’m not saying it was reckless because I’ll get quoted everywhere, but if it was up to me I wouldn’t have done it, right? I opposed it from the very beginning. In matter of fact, all right what the hell, I’ll say it was reckless.”17

Dear Bill:

I wanted to relate to you my family’s experience with drug abuse and its consequences. My wife and I live in Colorado and are firmly against the state’s legalization of marijuana. It was dismaying, to say the least, when the law was passed not by a small margin in 2012.

Our son, the middle child of three, started using marijuana in middle school in the mid 1990s. We firmly believe in the “gateway” aspect of the drug as he progressed to experimentation with ecstasy, cocaine, and considerable consumption of alcohol in high school. It got so bad that in his junior year we were forced to intervene. We sent him, against his wishes, to a seven-week rehab in the woods and then directly on to a therapeutic shelter.

In the past we’ve gotten/forced him into multiple rehabilitation programs, none of which he successfully completed. He’s now 30, has a girlfriend, and has a decent job here in Colorado. My wife and I would agree that he’s currently a functional substance abuser with a dark side that we find hard to penetrate.

The effects have been costly. Besides the tens of thousands of dollars we spent in various programs, the impact on relationships within the family have been consequential. His siblings want the best for him but they are many times wary of his motives. Our marital relationship has suffered and at one point we separated briefly, fifteen years ago because of disagreements in how to handle our situation.

Let no one say that marijuana is just a simple, no-risk additive to the pleasure levers of life. The legalization step is a serious and a dangerous development for our culture. My personal conviction is that Colorado will rue the day that this law was passed.

Karl in CO

Legalization’s Effect on Youth Drug Use

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We know that the three factors that most affect youth drug use are perceived risk/social acceptability, availability, and cost. Legalization will negatively affect all three factors.

Legality changes the cultural perception of the risks and acceptability of marijuana usage, particularly among the young. As Drs. Robert DuPont and Herbert Kleber have pointed out, “The Monitoring the Future survey, conducted by the University of Michigan since 1975, found that the rate of marijuana use in youths is inversely related to ‘perceived risk’ and ‘perceived social disapproval.’ ”18 As perceived risk goes up, use goes down; as perceived social disapproval goes up, use goes down. Turning marijuana into medicine, making heroes and punch lines out of dealers of marijuana on television and in movies, legalizing its recreational use, refusing to enforce the laws on it, having news reports depict marijuana with sparkles and lights as if it were magic, all contribute toward lowering not only perceived risk, but also social disapproval. When the President of the United States makes jokes about drug abuse (speaking about the White House pastry chef’s excellent pies recently, the President told a group, “I don’t know what he does—whether he puts crack in them”)19 or compares marijuana to alcohol and cigarettes, the perception of danger drops even lower and use goes up even higher:

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As the White House’s Office of National Drug Control Policy states on its own Web site, “Legality increases the availability and acceptability of drugs.”20

Legalization will most certainly increase availability. The number of marijuana dispensaries exploded when some limitations on medical marijuana were removed. Full legalization will only lead to an ever-growing number of marijuana stores. Also, as supply grows, the cost will go down, leading to more usage by our youth.

Big Marijuana—The Need to Create Abuse and Dependence

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There is an even darker truth to legalization. We know that among consumers of alcohol, the top 10 percent (the heaviest drinkers) imbibe 50 percent of total alcohol consumed, and that the top 20 percent accounts for 80 percent of alcohol consumption. Profits in the legal alcohol business are driven by heavy use of alcohol. Tobacco profits also are driven by heavy users. The widespread usage of tobacco is a phenomenon of the late nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Before the arrival of Big Tobacco companies, cigarettes were hand-rolled. The large tobacco companies created uniform, pre-rolled and packaged cigarettes produced on a mass scale. Having delivered greater supply, these companies set out to increase demand through mass marketing. It worked well for Big Tobacco’s bottom line, but not so well for the health of Americans. Profits in the legal marijuana business likewise will be driven by heavy users. As was written by Professors Mark A. R. Kleiman, Jonathan P. Caulkins, and Angela Hawken in their book Drugs and Drug Policy:

When we create a licit industry selling an abusable drug, the resulting businesses will have a strong profit incentive to create and sustain abusive consumption patterns, because people with substance-abuse disorders consume most of the product. Supplying moderate or controlled use is merely a side business. So if we create a licit cannabis or cocaine industry, we should expect the industry’s product design, pricing and marketing to be devoted to creating as much addiction as possible. If you think that marketing executives earn their large salaries, and TV networks earn their huge per-second rates for advertising time, by actually influencing consumption decisions, that thought should give you chills.21

Importantly, those most susceptible to addiction are the young.

We know the costs to individuals and society of excessive alcohol and tobacco use. According to the authors of the preceding quote, because of increased availability, much lower prices, and decreases in stigma and personal risks (such as the risk of arrest), legalization of marijuana could mean “four to six times as much cannabis to be consumed after legalization as is consumed now.”22 That number could of course be lower, but given what we know of the direction legalization, de-stigmatization, and reduced perceived harm have already had on consumption, it could be much higher as well. Already saddled with Big Alcohol and Big Tobacco, can we really afford the personal, health, and economic costs that will necessarily follow from legalized Big Marijuana? We all should be very afraid.