Pubdate: Wed, 1 Jul 2009
Source: Mother Jones (US)
Issue: July/August 2009 Issue
Page: 49
Copyright: 2009 Mother Jones and the Foundation for National Progress
Author: Kevin Drum


Have You Ever Looked at Our Marijuana Policy? I Mean, Really Looked at It?

WHEN WE THINK of the drug war, it's the heavy-duty narcotics like 
heroin and cocaine that get most of the attention.

And why not? That's where the action is. It's not marijuana that is 
sustaining the Taliban in Afghanistan, after all. When Crips and 
Bloods descend into gun battles in the streets of Los Angeles, 
they're not usually fighting over pot. The junkie who breaks into 
your house and steals your Blu-ray player isn't doing it so he can 
score a couple of spliffs.

No, the marijuana trade is more genteel than that. At least, I used 
to think it was. Then, like a lot of people, I started reading about 
the open warfare that has erupted among the narcotraffickers in 
Mexico and is now spilling across the American border.

Stories of drugs coming north and arsenals of guns going south.

Thousands of people brutally murdered. Entire towns terrorized. And 
this was a war not just over cocaine and meth, but marijuana as well.

And I began to wonder: Maybe the war against pot is about to get a 
lot uglier. After all, in the 1920s, Prohibition gave us Al Capone 
and the St. Valentine's Day Massacre, and that was over plain old 
whiskey and rum. Are we about to start paying the same price for marijuana?

If so, it might eventually start to affect me, too. Indirectly, sure, 
but that's more than it ever has before.

I've never smoked a joint in my life. I've only seen one once, and 
that was 30 years ago. I barely drink, I don't smoke, and I don't like coffee.

When it comes to mood altering substances, I live the life of a monk. 
I never really cared much if marijuana was legal or not.

But if a war is breaking out over the stuff, I figured maybe I should 
start looking at the evidence on whether marijuana prohibition is 
worth it. Not the spin from the drug czar at one end or the hemp 
hucksters at the other.

Just the facts, as best as I could figure them out. So I did. Here's 
what I found.

In 1972, the report of the National Commission on Marihuana and Drug 
Abuse urged that possession of marijuana for personal use be 
decriminalized. A small wave of states followed this recommendation, 
but most refused; in Washington, President Carter called for 
eliminating penalties for small-time possession, but Congress 
stonewalled. And that's the way things have stayed since the late 
'70s. Some states have decriminalized, most haven't, and possession 
is still a criminal offense under federal law. So how has that worked out?

I won't give away the ending just yet, but one thing to know is this: 
On virtually every subject related to cannabis (an inclusive term 
that refers to both the sativa and indica varieties of the marijuana 
plant, as well as hashish, bhang, and other derivatives), the 
evidence is ambiguous. Sometimes even mysterious. So let's start with 
the obvious question.

hard to tell--in part because drug use is faddish.

Cannabis use among teens in the United States, for example, went down 
sharply in the '80s, bounced back in the early '90s, and has declined 
moderately since. Nobody really knows why.

We do, however, have studies that compare rates of cannabis use in 
states that have decriminalized vs. states that haven't. And the 
somewhat surprising conclusion, in the words of Robert MacCoun, a 
professor of law and public policy at the University of 
California-Berkeley, is simple: "Most of the evidence suggests that 
decriminalization has no effect."

But decriminalization is not legalization. In places that have 
decriminalized, simple possession is still illegal; it's just treated 
as an administrative offense, like a traffic ticket.

And production and distribution remain felonies.

What would happen if cannabis use were fully legalized?

No country has ever done this, so we don't know. The closest example 
is the Netherlands, where possession and sale of small amounts of 
marijuana is de facto legal in the famous coffeehouses. MacCoun and a 
colleague, Peter Reuter of the University of Maryland, have studied 
the Dutch experience and concluded that while legalization at first 
had little effect, once the coffeehouses began advertising and 
promoting themselves more aggressively in the 1980s, cannabis use 
more than doubled in a decade. Then again, cannabis use in Europe has 
gone up and down in waves, and some of the Dutch increase (as well as 
a later decrease, which followed a tightening of the coffeehouse laws 
in the mid-'90s) may have simply been part of those larger waves.

The most likely conclusion from the overall data is that if you fully 
legalized cannabis, use would almost certainly go up, but probably 
not enormously. MacCoun guesses that it might rise by half--say, from 
around 15 percent of the population to a little more than 20 percent. 
"It's not going to triple," he says. "Most people who want to use 
marijuana are already finding a way to use marijuana."

Still, there would be a cost. For one thing, a much higher increase 
isn't out of the question if companies like Philip Morris or R.J. 
Reynolds set their finest minds on the promotion of dope. And much of 
the increase would likely come among the heaviest users. "One person 
smoking eight joints a day is worth more to the industry than fifty 
people each smoking a joint a week," says Mark Kleiman, a drug policy 
expert at UCLA. "If the cannabis industry were to expand greatly, it 
couldn't do so by increasing the number of casual users.

It would have to create and maintain more chronic zonkers." And 
that's a problem. Chronic use can lead to dependence and even 
long-term cognitive impairment. Heavy cannabis users are more likely 
to be in auto accidents. There have been scattered reports of 
respiratory and fetal development problems.

Still, sensible regulation can limit the commercialization of pot, 
and compared to other illicit drugs (and alcohol), its health effects 
are fairly mild. Even a 50 percent increase in cannabis use might be 
a net benefit if it led to lower rates of use of other drugs.

term for this effect in the economics literature is "substitute 
goods," and it simply means that some things replace other things.

If the total demand for transportation is generally steady, an 
increase in sales of SUVs will lead to a decrease in the sales of sedans.

Likewise, if the total demand for intoxicants is steady, an increase 
in the use of one drug should lead to a decrease in others.

Several years ago, John DiNardo, an economist now at the University 
of Michigan, found a clever way to test this via a natural 
experiment. Back in the 1980s, the Reagan administration pushed 
states to raise the drinking age to 21. Some states did this early in 
the decade, some later, and this gave DiNardo the idea of comparing 
data from the various states to see if the Reagan policy worked.

He found that raising the drinking age did lead to lower alcohol 
consumption; the effect was modest but real. But then DiNardo hit on 
another analysis--comparing cannabis use in states that raised the 
drinking age early with those that did it later.

And he found that indeed, there seemed to be a substitution effect.

On average, among high school seniors, a 4.5 percent decrease in 
drinking produced a 2.4 percent increase in getting high.

But what we really want to know is whether the effect works in the 
other direction: Would increased marijuana use lead to less drinking? 
"What goes up should go down," DiNardo told me cheerfully, but he 
admits that in the absence of empirical evidence this hypothesis 
depends on your faith in basic economic models.

Some other studies are less encouraging than DiNardo's, but even if 
the substitute goods effect is smaller than his research 
suggests--if, say, a 30 percent increase in cannabis use led to a 5 
or 10 percent drop in drinking--it would still be a strong argument 
in favor of legalization. After all, excessive drinking causes nearly 
80,000 deaths per year in the United States, compared to virtually 
none for pot. Trading alcohol consumption for cannabis use might be a 
pretty attractive deal.

BUT WHAT ABOUT THE GATEWAY EFFECT? This has been a perennial bogeyman 
of the drug warriors.

Kids who use pot, the TV ads tell us, will graduate to ecstasy, then 
coke, then meth, and then--who knows?

Maybe even talk radio.

Is there anything to this? There are two plausible pathways for the 
gateway theory.

The first is that drug use of any kind creates an affinity for 
increasingly intense narcotic experiences. The second is that when 
cannabis is illegal, the only place to get it is from dealers who 
also sell other stuff.

The evidence for the first pathway is mixed.

Research in New Zealand, for example, suggests that regular cannabis 
use is correlated with higher rates of other illicit drug use, 
especially in teenagers.

A Norwegian study comes to similar conclusions, but only for a small 
segment of "troubled" teenagers.

Other research, however, suggests that these correlations aren't 
caused by gateway effects at all, but by the simple fact that kids 
who like drugs do drugs.

All kinds of drugs.

The second pathway was deliberately targeted by the Dutch when they 
began their coffeehouse experiment in the '70s in part to sever the 
connection of cannabis with the illicit drug market.

The evidence suggests that it worked: Even with cannabis freely 
available, Dutch cannabis use is currently about average among 
developed countries and use of other illicit drugs is about average, 
too. Easy access to marijuana, outside the dealer network for harder 
drugs, doesn't seem to have led to greater use of cocaine or heroin.

So, to recap: Decriminalization of simple possession appears to have 
little effect on cannabis consumption. Full legalization would likely 
increase use only moderately as long as heavy commercialization is 
prohibited, although the effect on chronic users might be more 
substantial. It would increase heroin and cocaine use only slightly 
if at all, and it might decrease alcohol consumption by a small 
amount. Which leads to the question:

CAN WE STILL AFFORD PROHIBITION? The consequences of legalization, 
after all, must be compared to the cost of the status quo. 
Unsurprisingly, this too is hard to quantify.

The worst effects of the drug war, including property crime and gang 
warfare, are mostly associated with cocaine, heroin, and meth. 
Likewise, most drug-law enforcement is aimed at harder drugs, not 
cannabis; contrary to conventional wisdom, only about 44,000 people 
are currently serving prison time on cannabis charges--and most of 
those are there for dealing and distribution, not possession.

Still, the University of Maryland's Reuter points out that about 
800,000 people are arrested for cannabis possession every year in the 
United States. And even though very few end up being sentenced to 
prison, a study of three counties in Maryland following a recent 
marijuana crackdown suggests that a third spend at least one pretrial 
night in jail and a sixth spend more than ten days. That takes a 
substantial human toll. Overall, Harvard economist Jeffrey Miron 
estimates the cost of cannabis prohibition in the United States at 
$13 billion annually and the lost tax revenue at nearly $7 billion.

SO WHAT ARE THE ODDS OF LEGALIZATION? Slim. For starters, the United 
States, along with virtually every other country in the world, is a 
signatory to the 1961 Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs (and its 
1988 successor), which flatly prohibits legalization of cannabis.

The only way around this is to unilaterally withdraw from the 
treaties or to withdraw and then reenter with reservations. That's 
not going to happen.

At the federal level, there's virtually no appetite for legalizing 
cannabis either.

Though public opinion has made steady strides, increasing from around 
20 percent favoring marijuana legalization in the Reagan era to 
nearly 40 percent favoring it today, the only policy change in 
Washington has been Attorney General Eric Holder's announcement in 
March that the Obama administration planned to end raids on 
distributors of medical marijuana. (Applications for pot dispensaries 
promptly surged in Los Angeles County.)

The real action in cannabis legalization is at the state level.

More than a dozen states now have effective medical marijuana laws, 
most notably California. Medical marijuana dispensaries are dotted 
all over the state, and it's common knowledge that the "medical" part 
is in many cases a thin fiction.

Like the Dutch coffeehouses, California's dispensaries are now a de 
facto legal distribution network that severs the link between 
cannabis and other illicit drugs for a significant number of adults 
(albeit still only a fraction of total users). And the result? 
Nothing. "We've had this experiment for a decade and the sky hasn't 
fallen," says Paul Armentano, deputy director of the National 
Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws. California Assemblyman 
Tom Ammiano has even introduced a bill that would legalize, tax, and 
regulate marijuana; it has gained the endorsement of the head of the 
state's tax collection agency, which informally estimates it could 
collect $1.3 billion a year from cannabis sales.

Still, the legislation hasn't found a single cosponsor, and isn't 
scheduled for so much as a hearing.

Which is too bad. Going into this assignment, I didn't care much 
personally about cannabis legalization. I just had a vague sense that 
if other people wanted to do it, why not let them? But the evidence 
suggests pretty clearly that we ought to significantly soften our 
laws on marijuana.

Too many lives have been ruined and too much money spent for a social 
benefit that, if not zero, certainly isn't very high.

And it may actually happen.

If attitudes continue to soften; if the Obama administration turns 
down the volume on anti-pot propaganda; if medical dispensaries avoid 
heavy commercialization; if drug use remains stable; and if emergency 
rooms don't start filling up with drug-related traumas while all this 
is happening, California's experience could go a long way toward 
destigmatizing cannabis use. That's a lot of ifs.

Still, things are changing.

Even GOP icon Arnold Schwarzenegger now says, "I think it's time for 
a debate." That doesn't mean he's in favor of legalizing pot right 
this minute, but it might mean we're getting close to a tipping point.

Ten years from now, as the flower power generation enters its 70s, 
you might finally be able to smoke a fully legal, taxed, and 
regulated joint.    
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