Going to Pot: Why the Rush to Legalize Marijuana Is Harming America (2016)
Our country is now moving in two directions on marijuana: at the very time that study after study comes out revealing the dangers of marijuana use, public opinion is moving further down the road of legalization. However, it is not just public opinion that has changed, it is the media as well.
In July of 2014, the New York Times editorial board saw fit to write a major house editorial calling for the legalization of marijuana. Its arguments were not that different from arguments on the right—from the likes of the National Review or congressmen like Dana Rohrabacher. As we’ve pointed out, marijuana erases a lot of traditional political distinctions. It unites Barney Frank with Ron Paul and the New York Times with the National Review.
In its house editorial “Repeal Prohibition, Again” of July 27, the editors at the Times not only ignored modern science and research, they ignored the recent writing of their longest-standing op-ed contributor, Maureen Dowd.
Interesting to us is that the Times has spilled no shortage of ink decrying the dangers of sugar and sugar beverages, especially for our youth, or the dangers of tobacco use and advertising to our nation’s children; nor has it failed to note the importance of expending more money on early childhood education programs, because of the importance of our youths’ brain development and of closing our nation’s educational achievement gaps.
But none of those previous concerns were taken seriously in the promotion of the legalization of marijuana by the Times. The Times made several claims that are simply contradicted by arguments the editors have made in the past about the health of our nation’s youth with regard to other products or policies, and it raised outdated red herrings in its characterization of those who would disagree with their position. Indeed, as we pointed out earlier, the outcome of such legalization would be far more dangerous than sugar beverages to our youth, and would reverse almost every gain efforts at better early childhood education could produce.
The Times cited a seemingly alarming number of arrests of those who have possessed marijuana. Arrests, however, do not tell the story. What is the conviction and incarceration rate for mere marijuana possession? In fact, it is very low. Recall what the pro-legalization publication Rolling Stone magazine wrote: “Not all [marijuana] arrests lead to prosecutions, and relatively few people prosecuted and convicted of simple possession end up in jail… [of those that do,] most of these were involved in distribution. Less than one percent are in for possession alone.”
But what of the fact that a large number of people are arrested? Is there any crime committed in America for which the number of violators leads to the argument that the law should be dispensed with? Or, rather, does the number of violators lead one to the argument that enforcement of the law should be stronger? Think of almost any crime in America, and the answer is usually the latter. For marijuana, though, its supporters go in a different direction.
The Times then tried to bolster its case by citing the racial disparities in these arrests. Again, with almost any other crime, would anyone make the argument that because there is a disparity in who is arrested, the law should be done away with? Or, rather, does the disparity not lead one to argue for more even enforcement, i.e., targeting all communities the same way? If a good many nonminorities are breaking the law, any law, target them more, and we advocate that absolutely, but do not let up on enforcement simply because one group is getting away with what another group is not. Would the Times argue for dispensing with bank fraud or insider-trading laws simply because one group (white men in white collars) is disproportionately arrested for breaking them? Of course not.
The greatest offense to common sense and modern science came when the editors wrote:
There is honest debate among scientists about the health effects of marijuana, but we believe that the evidence is overwhelming that addiction and dependence are relatively minor problems, especially compared with alcohol and tobacco. Moderate use of marijuana does not appear to pose a risk for otherwise healthy adults. Claims that marijuana is a gateway to more dangerous drugs are as fanciful as the “Reefer Madness” images of murder, rape and suicide.
There are legitimate concerns about marijuana on the development of adolescent brains. For that reason, we advocate the prohibition of sales to people under 21.
Addiction and dependence are not relatively minor problems for adults or for children who use marijuana. Indeed, over 4.4 million Americans aged twelve and older meet the clinical criteria of the American Psychiatric Association for marijuana dependence or abuse, according to Department of Health and Human Services survey results.1 In their book on drugs and drug policy, Professors Kleiman, Caulkins, and Hawken stated that:
Full legalization would involve both increased availability, as in the Netherlands, and also much lower prices. If the likely price effect on consumption is about threefold, and we add in some additional growth due to increased availability and decreased stigma and personal risk (such as arrest and the loss of employment) for users, we might expect something like four to six times as much cannabis to be consumed after legalization as is consumed now.2
Assuming the same proportion of dependents or abusers to users as is currently known, we should expect sixteen million to twenty-four million dependents or abusers. Of course these are estimates and the numbers could be lower, but given the trend of availability, decreased stigma, and decreased sense of harm, the numbers could be much higher, too!
Meanwhile, the comparison to addiction to and dependence on other dangerous products is no excuse to make society suffer even more. Does the Times think asbestos should be legalized and used to build college campus dorms as an educational cost-saving measure for families because, after all, more college students are harmed by binge drinking (with a legal but regulated product) than ever would be by asbestos inhalation? Or perhaps we could save money on eldercare by allowing nursing homes to use asbestos because more of their patients will die from Alzheimer’s than late-onset lung cancer or COPD? Adding to the catalog of unhealthy products in America does nothing to reduce problems we already have; it only serves to increase the harm by adding yet another dangerous substance to the marketplace.
As for moderate use of marijuana not appearing to pose a risk for adults, why did the Times not consult its own pages and employees? Would “nibbling… a bite or two” of a candy bar made with marijuana constitute “moderate use”? That’s what Maureen Dowd wrote about having done the very previous month—and the result? “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 strained to remember where I was or even what I was wearing… I became convinced that I had died and no one was telling me.” We would argue it is pretty “risky” for an adult to think she has died and to be unable to summon the will or strength to get a glass of water.
Then, of course, our side is labeled with having the mind-set of Reefer Madness by the Times as well as others. When will the legalizers enter the new century? Reefer Madness is a movie from the 1930s, predating World War II. It is outdated and irrelevant to the discussion of marijuana today. How about a slightly newer television show? Perhaps Weeds, the Showtime series, would be more apt. This is the story of a fictional marijuana-selling family that works with cartels and kills off competitors as well as federal agents.
Let’s acknowledge that today’s marijuana is at least five times stronger than the marijuana of the past. The THC levels of today’s marijuana average around 15 percent, but go as high as 20 percent and above in the dispensaries found throughout the states that have legalized it for “medicinal” or recreational use. The marijuana of today is simply not the same drug it was in the sixties, seventies, or eighties, much less the 1930s. It is much more potent, leading to a great many more health risks. Undoubtedly Maureen Dowd would not have written about the same experience, if she had sampled what marijuana used to be.
Finally, the Times makes the legitimate point that marijuana does, in fact, negatively affect the adolescent brain. Yes, it certainly does. As we’ve demonstrated, study after study has come out over the past ten years showing links between marijuana use and psychosis, as well as decreases in IQ in the teen marijuana-using population. These are permanent decreases, indicating permanent brain damage. Now, can the Times tell us of one substance—be it tobacco, alcohol, or prescription drugs—for which age restrictions have worked to keep that substance out of the hands of those below the prescribed age? Teens use alcohol and tobacco in such large numbers precisely because they are legal products. More marijuana is used now because its status has been changed from something that is dangerous and forbidden to something considered “medicinal” and even recreational in four states. It is a substance whose dangers the President of the United States recently downplayed, in the face of the very evidence his own Office of National Drug Control Policy, DEA, and National Institute on Drug Abuse promulgate.
It is ironic that less than three months after its editorial calling for the legalization of marijuana, the Times published an article in the Education section by Abigail Sullivan Moore, which is entitled, “This Is Your Brain on Drugs.” As we have done in this book, her piece cites several recent studies documenting the harm smoking marijuana does to the brain and body, particularly in teens and young adults. In discussing the very negative impact that smoking marijuana has on college students, she quotes Dr. Breiter from Northwestern University, who said, “If I were to design a substance that is bad for college students, it would be marijuana.”3 Apparently, the editorial board of the Times was dismissive of this medical science regarding the serious threat posed by marijuana when it elected to advocate legalization.
It was the stigma and illegality of marijuana that kept its usage levels below those of cigarettes and alcohol. That will change ever more as the legality of marijuana becomes more widespread and its use becomes less stigmatized. Legality is the mother of availability, and availability, as former health, education, and welfare secretary Joe Califano recently put it, is the mother of use. As the New York Times reported only two months before its legalization editorial, regarding the state of Colorado: “Hospital officials say they are treating growing numbers of children and adults sickened by potent doses of edible marijuana.”4
Our general point has been this: there are two conversations about marijuana taking place in this country. One, we fear, comes from an old understanding of low-THC marijuana that doesn’t exist anymore; the other takes seriously the science of the new marijuana and its effect on the teen as well as the adult brain. If one truly cares about our public health, one needs to recognize the dangers inherent in the higher THC content of today’s marijuana.
Beyond left and right, though, it is critical in terms of public, health, and legal policy to understand that there is such a thing as legal havoc, just as there are such things as personal, familial, and cultural havoc. The juggernaut of the movement to decriminalize, medicalize, and legalize marijuana in America is creating havoc in every possible category. To borrow from Abraham Lincoln, it wrecks and renders everything it touches. A recent Associated Press report from Colorado notes that “the legalization of marijuana has contributed to an increase in the number of younger people living on the city’s streets.”5 Homeless people with felony backgrounds are now moving into Denver in an effort to work in the pot industry.6
In addition to neighborhood and street havoc, we are just beginning to see a crop of new legal problems, as well. Marijuana dispensaries are now challenging the appropriateness of being taxed, because they don’t wish to admit that they are breaking federal law. If they declare taxable income from the sale of marijuana, they argue they would be self-incriminating by admitting to a violation of federal drug law. This is occurring just as proponents of legalization argue that tax revenues would enrich state coffers. Meanwhile the US Attorney General refuses to enforce federal marijuana law, sowing confusion among US Attorneys about what to do. Former Drug Czar John Walters has pointed out that we may soon start seeing civil lawsuits against dealers for marketing and selling dangerous and addictive products. The tort bar could, indeed, become even wealthier.
In the end, though, the havoc we see most—in too many of our daily lives, in our families’ lives, and in our friends’ lives—is that done to children and families. In January, the Atlantic published an article under the pseudonym “Leah Allen.” It was titled, “My Dad Will Never Stop Smoking Pot.” She couldn’t have summed up better what we see too frequently. In the article she writes of how her father’s marijuana addiction affected her family while she was growing up. Here’s how she opened:
There’s a lot of discussion about pot right now, as different states push towards legalizing it for medical or personal use. As I listen to the various arguments—about health, morality, criminal justice, personal freedom—they all come back to the same thing for me: Dad, Dad, Daddy. The family element is almost always missing from the debates: What does smoking pot do, not only to users but to their children?
… [F]ear came most palpably for us while my dad was driving. He was likely to get distracted by other cars, by songs on the radio, or, in later years, by photos on his phone, sometimes turning his attention completely away from the wheel. NIDA notes that marijuana more than doubles a driver’s risk of being in an accident. Many of our road trips ended early with broken-down cars left on the side of the road. On good days, my dad would forget to fill them with gas or change the oil. On bad days, he would nudge into something and a tire would go.
I don’t know when my dad started to smoke. I do know that before he smokes a joint he can get antsy, angry. His temper is fast and sharp. He hit my mom when she was pregnant and that’s when she left him. I was three. I also know that after he smokes, my dad is relaxed, soothed, likely to go off on dreamy tangents about colors and pictures.7
Ms. Allen continues about how her father would often forget her brother, sister, and her when he took them to events; he forgot birthdays and dinners. Her brother became addicted to marijuana at age twelve and dropped out of school, and now lives with their dad. Her sister also is now a marijuana smoker. While Ms. Allen’s policy prescriptions do not make sense to us, she does conclude her article this way: “My dad will never stop smoking pot. Sometimes I wonder about the man he might have been, and the lives we all might have had, if he’d never started.”
Any parent of a child who becomes dependent on marijuana can empathize with Ms. Allen, as can any grown child of a parent who is dependent. The devastation that befalls families that succumb to substance abuse is long. It is tragic, and it is avoidable, but only if we urgently take this issue seriously. Two of the strongest disincentives to initiate smoking marijuana have been taken away from adolescents. In times past, poll after poll would show that children who did not smoke marijuana said their reasons were that it was illegal, and that it was dangerous or unhealthy. Society has changed that, and the perceived harms of marijuana, especially among young people, are at an all-time low. Usage is creeping up to an all-time high.
While society has deemed unhealthy such products as cigarettes, sugar, and trans fats, marijuana is proliferating in legality and use. So too are its negative effects, from more drugged driving to more treatment admissions to more ER visits. Additionally, studies from respected medical journals and schools of medicine come out several times a year pointing to new research on the dangers of marijuana, be it to the brain, heart, or lungs.
How this happened can be summed up by a look at the cultural and political shift that began in the mid-1990s, when leaders and politicians stopped speaking of the harms of marijuana. When anti-drug ads became less prevalent, when arguments on behalf of marijuana use were no longer answered, when a market was found to create medical marijuana and call marijuana medicine because of its analgesic effects, and when Hollywood made punch lines out of the use of marijuana in blockbuster movies and popular television shows: that is when the public became much more accepting of the use of marijuana.
To families who struggle with addiction, marijuana is anything but funny, and it is not medicinal. We understand there are people with cancer or AIDS who are in great pain, suffering terribly, and who need strong relief or an appetite enhancer. We would deny almost nothing to them. They are, however, an extremely small percentage of those who get medical marijuana recommendations. As previously discussed, Arizona’s distribution of medical marijuana cards indicates that only 3.76 percent of cardholders use marijuana to ease the symptoms of cancer. Another 1.53 percent suffer from glaucoma, while 1.06 percent have AIDS. These numbers are similar in other medical marijuana states where statistics are available. In the meantime, more and more marijuana from these dispensaries is ending up in the hands of adolescents, supplied by adults who have medical marijuana cards.
We anticipate that the states that have legalized recreational use will regret it, as have residents of cities across America, such as Mendocino County, Baltimore, and Anchorage. Even the residents of the Netherlands are now regretting their loose marijuana laws. Likewise, residents of Great Britain are lamenting the lowering of the criminal classification of marijuana.
We need not engage in scare tactics that have plagued the drug debate ever since the movie Reefer Madness came out in 1936. We simply ask readers to do their own research and not blindly accept the arguments on behalf of marijuana legalization or medicalization without some critical thinking and common sense. Almost every argument on behalf of legalization has a better countervailing argument. We have tried to make those here. It is not because we are invested in any financial outcome, as some who promote marijuana legalization are; it is because we are invested in the safety of our children and the strength and productivity of our nation. We urge those states still considering legalization or medicalization to look at what is happening in places like Colorado and ask if that is what they want for themselves—more use, more harm, more treatment. We do not believe the numbers will improve there, but that they instead will become dramatically worse. As Dr. Christian Thurstone at the University of Colorado said when asked, “When will we know if things in Colorado are getting worse?” “They already have.”
William Shakespeare has Edgar in King Lear say: “The worst is not/So long as we can say ‘This is the worst.’ ” If nothing else in this book worries our readers about the consequences of the legalization of marijuana, hopefully this prediction from marijuana research expert Professor Jonathan Caulkins of Carnegie Mellon University will influence their thinking about the ongoing debate: “My best guess is that legalizing marijuana would only double, or perhaps triple, abuse and dependence, from 4 to 8 or even 12 million people in the United States.”8 How many of these millions of substance abusers/dependents will be adolescents, since we know that the factors that most influence adolescent use of drugs, including marijuana, are availability, price, and perceived risk/stigmatization? Legalization will make all these barriers easier to surmount, whether full legalization or the back door of medical marijuana. Who will be held accountable for the many lost to abuse and dependence?
We would like to leave it up to the states that have embarked on these dangerous experiments to come to terms with what they have unleashed. We stand ready to help them in any way we can to reverse their decisions. But in the meantime, our main goal is to stop the juggernaut of legalization. We believe that with the argument now joined, sunlight will be the greatest disinfectant. We hope that there will be a larger national debate about the legalization of marijuana, whether medical or recreational. The discussion should be informed both by public awareness of the higher potency of today’s marijuana and by the ever-increasing body of scientific evidence documenting the many adverse consequences of smoking marijuana. This argument is, after all, about our most precious and valuable assets: the health and well-being of our children and our country.