Pubdate: Sat, 05 Apr 2014
Source: National Post (Canada)
Copyright: 2014 Canwest Publishing Inc.
Author: David Frum
Bookmark: (Cannabis - Canada)


As more jurisdictions consider legal marijuana sales, David Frum 
writes on the oft-ignored downsides, including real risks to teenagers

America's 50 states are sometimes called "laboratories of democracy." 
Although the expression is intended to highlight in flattering terms 
how innovative they can be, it also suggests that the states' 
political experiments can and do fail. In the event of failure, the 
hope must be that damage can be stopped at the state line. Today, the 
experiment of state-by-state marijuana legalization is failing before 
our eyes - and failing most signally where the experiment has been 
tried most boldly. The failure is accelerating even as the forces 
pushing legalization are on what appears to be an inexorable march.

In November 2012, the states of Colorado and Washington voted to 
legalize the sale of marijuana to any adult consumer. Advocates of 
legalization carried the vote with a substantial campaign budget, a 
few million dollars, and a brilliant slogan: "Drug dealers don't ask 
for ID." The implied promise: Marijuana legalization would be joined 
to tough enforcement to keep marijuana away from minors. After all, 
persistent and heavy marijuana use among adolescents has been shown 
to reduce their IQ as adults by 6 to 8 points. An Australian study of 
identical twins found that a twin who started using cannabis before 
age 17 was 3 times more likely to attempt suicide than the twin who 
did not. People in Colorado had good reason to worry about teen drug 
use. Colorado voters had approved a limited experiment with medical 
marijuana in 2000. A complex series of judicial and administrative 
decisions in the mid-2000s overthrew most restrictions on the 
dispensing of marijuana. Between 2009 and 2! 012, the number of 
dispensaries jumped past 500, and the number of medical cardholders 
multiplied from roughly 1,000 to more than 108,000.

With so many medical-marijuana card-holders walking about, it was 
simply inevitable that some would re-sell their marijuana to underage 
users. A 2013 study of Colorado teens in drug treatment found that 
74% had shared somebody else's medical marijuana. The number of 
occasions on which they had shared averaged over 50 times. According 
to a report by the Rocky Mountain High-Intensity Drug Trafficking 
Area, Colorado teens, by 2012, were 50% more likely to use marijuana 
than their peers in the rest of the country.

Debates about marijuana tend to travel pretty fast into the domain of 
libertarian ideology: I'm a consenting adult, why can't I do what I 
want? Yet the best customers for the marijuana industry are not 
adults at all. The majority of people who try marijuana quit by age 
30. Adults in their twenties are significantly less likely than high 
school students to smoke; 14% of twenty-somethings say they smoke 
marijuana, while 22.7% of 12th-graders smoke at least once a month, 
and 6.5% say they smoke every day.

Why do people quit using marijuana as they mature? Your guess is as 
good as anybody else's, but whatever the reason, the trend presents 
marijuana sellers with a marketing problem. Yet there is promising 
news from the emerging marijuana industry's point of view: People who 
start smoking in their teens are significantly more likely to become 
dependent than people who start smoking later: about 1 in 6, as 
opposed to 1 in 10. Start them young; keep them longer. Very 
rationally, then, the marijuana industry is rolling out products 
designed to appeal to the youngest consumers: cannabis-infused soda, 
cannabis-infused chocolate taffy, cannabis-infused jujubes.

The promise that legalization will actually protect teenagers from 
marijuana is false. So, too, are the other promises of the 
legalizers. It is false to claim that marijuana legalization will 
break drug cartels. Those cartels will continue to traffic in harder 
and more lucrative drugs, such as heroin, cocaine and 
methamphetamine. Criminal cartels may well stay in the marijuana 
business, too, marketing directly to underage users. Public policy is 
about trade-offs, and marijuana users need to face up to the 
trade-off they are urging on American society. Legal marijuana use 
means more marijuana use, and more marijuana use means above all more 
teen marijuana use.

Proponents of marijuana legalization often question why the law bans 
marijuana but not alcohol or tobacco. One important difference is 
that alcohol and tobacco are drugs on the decline. Since 1980, per 
capita consumption of alcohol has dropped almost 20%. One-third of 
Americans smoked tobacco in 1980; fewer than one-fifth smoke today. 
The progress against drunk driving is even more remarkable: 
Fatalities caused by drunk drivers have decreased by more than half since 1982.

The reduction in tobacco and alcohol use has been hastened by 
increasingly restrictive laws that govern where and how these 
products may be consumed. Tobacco-smoking has been banned on planes, 
in restaurants, and in almost all public places. The drinking age, 
reduced in the 1970s from 21 to 18 in most states, was restored to 21 
by federal action in the 1980s. Tobacco taxes have been steeply 
hiked. Bars that served intoxicated patrons face rising tort risk.

With marijuana, however, the law is heading in the opposite 
direction, and has been for some time. Since 1996, 20 states and the 
District of Columbia have approved "medical marijuana" laws, whereby 
people who obtain a prescription from a doctor can legally use or 
purchase marijuana. As in Colorado, many of these supposed medical 
regimes are degenerating into legalization by another name. Oregon, 
for example: At the end of 2012, it was home to 56,531 
medical-marijuana patients. The majority of these 56,000-plus 
permissions were approved by only nine doctors. One doctor - an 
80-year-old retired heart surgeon in Yakima - approved 4,180 
medical-marijuana applications in a span of 12 months. Only 4% of 
Oregon's medical-marijuana patients, as of the end of 2012, suffered 
from cancer. Only 1% were diagnosed with HIV/AIDS. The large 
majority, 57%, cited unspecified "pain" as the ailment for which 
treatment was sought. Yet none of the nine doctors who wrote the 
majority of the mariju! ana prescriptions was a pain specialist.

Fewer than 2% of California card holders have HIV, glaucoma, multiple 
sclerosis or cancer: One survey found that the typical California 
medical-marijuana patient was a healthy 32-year-old man with a 
history of drug and alcohol abuse. Here, too, some doctors are 
signing thousands of recommendations after only the scantiest 
examination - or none at all. An NBC news investigator in Los Angeles 
visited one dispensary, was examined by a man who later proved to be 
an acupuncturist and massage therapist, and then received a 
prescription signed by a doctor who lived 67 miles away.

In the words of Los Angeles police chief Charlie Beck, most 
dispensaries are "for-profit businesses engaged in the sale of 
recreational marijuana to healthy young adults." By early 2012, Los 
Angeles contained almost eight times as many dispensaries as 
Starbucks coffee shops. The city became alarmed that the customers 
who congregated at these dispensaries were active in crimes from 
robbery to murder. By July, the City Council voted unanimously to 
shut down all of the nearly 800 known dispensaries in the city. The 
marijuana lobby succeeded in preventing that ban from going into 
effect, so the next year, the city government tried a different 
approach: a local referendum called Proposition D to cap the number 
of dispensaries at 135, raise taxes on marijuana sales, and forbid 
dispensaries to locate near primary, middle, and high schools.

The proposition was approved, but this approach also proved 
ineffective. In the words of Medical Marijuana Business Daily (yes, it exists):

Officials have actually only forced about 70 dispensaries to close so 
far. While some other dispensaries shut down on their own to avoid 
legal troubles, most did not. That means at least 700 - possibly more 
- - illegal shops are still open.

"What happened is that we're really trying to put a Band-Aid on some 
crazy open wound, and it's not big enough to stop the bleeding," said 
Adam Bierman, who runs the consultancy MedMen. "Prop D as a concept 
is half decent, but there's really no way to enforce it."

Marijuana does possess certain medicinal properties. So does opium. 
But we don't allow unscrupulous quacks to write raw opium 
prescriptions for anyone willing to pay $65. And if we did, would 
anybody be surprised that the vast majority of opium buyers were not 
recovering from surgery - and that many of them shared or resold some 
of their opium to underage users?

Some older adults have a hard time crediting the dangers of marijuana 
use because they imagine the marijuana on sale today is the same 
low-grade stuff they smoked in college. The marijuana sold in the 
1980s averaged between 3-4% THC, the psychoactive ingredient. Today's 
selectively bred marijuana averages over 12% THC, with some strains 
reaching 30%. Hundreds of YouTube videos will show you how to combust 
a marijuana wax with butane, to boost the THC content to 90%. As 
marijuana consumers shift from smoking to ingesting marijuana, they 
can ingest larger and larger doses of THC at a time. Since 2006, 
Colorado emergency rooms have seen a steep rise in the number of 
patients arriving panicked and disoriented from excess THC, including 
a near doubling of patients ages 13 and 14.

It's said that nobody ever died from a marijuana overdose. Nobody 
ever died from a tobacco overdose either, but that doesn't prove 
tobacco safe. Of all the dangers connected to marijuana, the most 
lethal is the risk of automobile accident. Marijuana related fatal 
car crashes have nearly tripled across the United States in the past decade.

Marijuana legalizers may counter: Can't we just extend laws against 
drunk driving to stoned driving? Unfortunately, it's not so easy. 
What exactly defines marijuana impairment remains fiercely contested 
by an increasingly assertive marijuana industry. It took Colorado 
four tries to enact a legal definition of marijuana impairment: five 
nanograms of THC per millilitre of blood. Yet even once enacted, the 
standard remains very difficult to enforce. Alcohol impairment can be 
detected with a breathalyzer. Marijuana impairment is revealed only 
by a blood test, and long-established law requires police to obtain a 
search warrant before a blood test is administered.

More important than catching impaired drivers after the fact is 
deterring them before they get behind the wheel. In the absence of a 
blood testing kit, marijuana users themselves will find it difficult 
to know how much is too much. Time recently quoted a spokesperson for 
the Colorado Department of Transportation: "It's not like alcohol. 
People metabolize it differently. There are different potencies," the 
official said. "So there's really no solution in terms of saying 
'You're now at the limit.' I just don't think there's enough research 
that we can say, 'Wait x amount of hours before getting on the road.' 
I don't know whether it's five hours or 10 hours or the next day. We 
just don't know."

Back in 2007, a survey by the National Highway Traffic Safety 
Administration found that on any given Saturday night, about 12% of 
drivers tested positive for alcohol; about 6% for marijuana. Since 
then, 10 more states and the District of Columbia have adopted 
medical-marijuana regimes, which surely means even more buzzed 
drivers on the roads.

Yet the most pervasive harm of marijuana may be psychic rather than 
physical. A battery of studies have found regular marijuana use to be 
associated with worse outcomes at school, social life, and work. I 
use the cautious phrase "associated with," because it's far from 
clear whether marijuana use is a cause or an effect of other problems 
- - or (most likely) both cause and effect. An isolated, underachieving 
kid starts smoking marijuana. That kid then descends deeper into 
isolation and underachievement. Marijuana may not have been the 
"cause" of the kid's malaise, but it intensifies the malaise and may 
inhibit or even prevent his emergence from it.

The negative spiral of despondency leading to marijuana use, leading 
to deeper and more protracted despondency, makes the present moment a 
particularly unpropitious one for marijuana legalization. The United 
States is currently recovering feebly from the gravest economic 
crisis since the Great Depression. Prospects for young people 
especially have narrowed. Are we really going to say to them: "Look, 
we haven't got jobs for you, your chances at marriage are dwindling, 
you may be 30 before you can move out of your parents' place into a 
home of your own, but we'll make it up to you with pot, video games 
and online porn"? They want to start life, but they are being offered 
instead only narcotic dreams.

As human beings, our judgment is not only imperfect, but is prone to 
fail in highly predictable ways. Insert a recurring charge onto our 
phone bill, and we will soon cease to notice it. We evolved under 
conditions where sugars and salt were scarce, and so we will eat far 
more than we need if given the chance. We overestimate our luck and 
will gamble our money in ways that make no mathematical sense. Our 
brains are wired for addictions. If a substance can trigger that 
addiction, it can overthrow all the reasoning and moral faculties of the mind.

Lucrative industries have arisen to exploit these weaknesses in ways 
highly harmful to their customers. And the bold irony is that when 
their practices are challenged, they'll invoke the very principles of 
individual choice and self-mastery that their industry is based on 
negating and defeating. So it was with tobacco. So it is with casino 
gambling. So it will be with marijuana.

Proponents of marijuana legalization do make a valid point when they 
worry that marijuana laws are enforced too punitively - and that this 
too punitive approach inflicts disparate punishment on minority users 
as compared with white users. Ordinary marijuana users should receive 
civil penalties; repeat users belong in treatment, not prison; 
communities should experience law enforcement as an ally and 
supporter of local norms, not an outside force stamping young people 
with indelible criminal records for mistakes that carry fewer 
consequences for the more affluent and the better connected. It's 
also true, however, that these alternative methods can succeed only 
if the background rule is that marijuana is illegal. It's very often 
the threat of criminal sanction that impels users to seek the 
treatment they need, while still young enough to turn their lives around.

The illegal U.S. market for marijuana is already twice as big as the 
market for coffee. As that market is legalized, it will expand, and 
the industry that serves the market will be emboldened to hire 
lobbyists to promote its continued expansion. The vision offered by 
some academics of a legal but non commercial marijuana market shows 
little realism about American government. American legislatures 
exhibit notoriously poor resistance against cheque-book-wielding 
special interests.

The resistance will be all the weaker since the costs of marijuana 
legalization will be borne by people to whom American legislatures 
pay scant attention anyway. Marijuana retailers will be located most 
densely in America's poorest neighbourhoods, just as liquor and 
cigarette retailing is now. Out of whose pockets will the marijuana 
taxes of the future be paid? Whose addiction and recovery services 
will be least well funded? In a society in which it is already 
sufficiently difficult for people to rise from the bottom, who'll 
find that their rise has become harder still?

Commentary Magazine
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