Pubdate: Sun, 24 May 2009
Source: Minneapolis Star-Tribune (MN)
Copyright: 2009 Star Tribune
Author: Rob Kampia
Note: Rob Kampia is executive director of the Marijuana Policy Project.
Bookmark: (Decrim/Legalization)


If We Wish For Our Laws To Prevent Harm, They Need To Be Based On Evidence.

Our nation is having the most intense debate about our marijuana laws 
in more a generation -- one that Minnesotans recently saw play out in 
full force as legislators and Gov. Tim Pawlenty debated medical 
marijuana. As one who has pushed for just such a debate, I'm 
delighted, but as I and other Marijuana Policy Project staffers have 
engaged with journalists and policymakers lately, it's become clear 
that this debate is being hobbled by a series of myths.

If we want marijuana laws that make sense -- that actually prevent 
harm rather than cause it -- we have to get these myths out of the way.

Myth No. 1: Marijuana is illegal because it's dangerous. In fact, the 
first national marijuana ban was passed in 1937 based on a wave of 
hysterical propaganda and newspaper stories that had nothing to do 
with marijuana's actual effects. Goaded by Federal Bureau of 
Narcotics chief Harry Anslinger, newspapers printed wild stories such 
as the San Francisco Examiner's claim that "Marihuana makes fiends of 
boys in thirty days -- Hashish goads users to bloodlust."

Many of these had a distinctly racist undercurrent, featuring 
marijuana-crazed Mexicans and African-Americans attacking innocent white girls.

We now know that, while no drug is harmless, the health risks of 
marijuana are relatively modest. Compared with alcohol, marijuana is 
less addictive, much less toxic, and overwhelmingly less likely to 
provoke violence. In the words of Dr. Leslie Iversen, Oxford 
University pharmacology professor and member of the British 
government's Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs, "Overall, by 
comparison with other drugs used mainly for 'recreational' purposes, 
cannabis could be rated to be a relatively safe drug."

Myth No. 2: Legal marijuana would mean an explosion in marijuana use, 
bringing all the same social and health problems we now see with 
liquor and tobacco. In fact, research suggests that laws banning 
marijuana have little effect on use rates.

A World Health Organization survey published last year found that in 
the Netherlands -- where adults are allowed to possess small amounts 
of marijuana and purchase it from regulated businesses -- the rate of 
marijuana use is only half of ours. When Britain ended most marijuana 
possession arrests in 2004, the rate of marijuana use went down, not 
up. After reviewing data from U.S. states that have decriminalized 
marijuana, the National Research Council concluded, "there is little 
apparent relationship between severity of sanctions prescribed for 
drug use and prevalence or frequency of use."

But even if there were a modest increase in marijuana use, marijuana 
simply doesn't cause the severe health and social problems that these 
two legal drugs cause. Unlike tobacco, for example, marijuana has 
never been shown to cause lung cancer or emphysema.

And the main social harm from booze is violence, with alcohol 
well-established as a major contributor to domestic violence. 
Marijuana, as the journal Addictive Behaviors noted recently, 
decreases aggression and violence during intoxication. Consider how 
often we hear of violence committed "in a drunken rage." Have you 
ever heard of a marijuana user committing mayhem "in a stoned rage"?

Myth No. 3: We must keep marijuana illegal for adults in order to 
keep it away from kids. This seems obvious to most people, but 
efforts to cut teen cigarette smoking tell a different story.

Cigarettes are legal for adults, produced and sold by licensed, 
regulated businesses, and that's actually helped keep them away from 
kids. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, in 
1991, 27.5 percent of U.S. high school students were current 
cigarette smokers. By 2007, that had dropped by over a quarter, to 20 
percent, while current marijuana use jumped from 14.7 percent to 19.7 
percent, a statistical tie with cigarette use.

Why the difference? In 1995, Congress passed the Synar amendment, 
mandating a crackdown on underage tobacco sales, and from 1997 to 
2007 illegal tobacco sales to minors dropped 75 percent. Because 
tobacco sellers -- unlike drug dealers -- are licensed and regulated, 
we can set rules and make sure they're followed. We have no such 
control over marijuana dealers.

The present national debate on marijuana policy is long overdue. But 
if we're going to get it right this time, we can't let the discussion 
be weighed down by myths and mistaken beliefs not supported by the evidence.
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MAP posted-by: Jay Bergstrom