Pubdate: Thu, 01 Sep 2016
Source: SF Weekly (CA)
Column: Chem Tales
Copyright: 2016 Village Voice Media
Author: Alex Halperin

Poorly Informed


A few years into the state legalization experiment, we know one big 
thing: A legal marijuana industry can function more or less like any 
other kind of business.

What don't we know? Pretty much everything else. We don't know what 
legalization will mean for youth marijuana use, or which medical 
conditions marijuana can treat. With less than three full years of 
legalization in Colorado and Washington state, there's still very little data.

There are, of course, statistics that can be wielded for partisan 
advantage. Take road safety, a favorite issue for legalization 
opponents. Project SAM, the most prominent U.S. anti-pot group, said 
in a February report that in Colorado, the number of driving 
fatalities in which the driver tested positive for THC climbed from 
6.9 percent in 2006 to 19.3 percent in 2014, the first full year of 

With some added perspective, the alarming figure loses some of its 
oomph. Across the same time period, in Colorado and Washington, where 
marijuana use is above national rates, the total number of traffic 
fatalities fell, and both states are safer for driving than the 
country at large, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety 
Administration, based on fatalities per 100,000 population. (Both 
states saw a significant jump in fatalities in 2015.)

The available science strongly suggests that drunken driving is far 
more hazardous than stoned driving. The most dangerous states for 
driving tend to be deep red and have not legalized medical or 
recreational marijuana.

As with all things weed, there are further complications: Unlike 
alcohol, there's no accepted way to measure how high someone is. 
Drivers can test positive for THC days or weeks after they last used.

In short, it's way too early to draw conclusions about the 
relationship between legalization and road safety. So far, the 
results have not been catastrophic. The same can be said for just 
about every aspect of legalization's impact.

One reason cannabis opponents have struggled to win support is they 
haven't found a compelling argument for why legalization is more 
problematic than prohibition. No one has done this before, so there 
aren't any disastrous precedents. They have to convince the public 
that the largely unknown risks of legalization are worse than the 
known risks of the status quo.

There are plenty of cautionary tales. Every adult in America knows 
someone they think would be better off if they hadn't smoked so much 
pot. Opponents are forced to argue that legalization will exacerbate 
problem use, though, as with driving, the available data doesn't 
necessarily support their case.

With something so new, it's impossible to predict where the risks are 
most severe, but you can take some reasonable guesses. In the same 
February report, Project SAM lists a few variables that demand "more 
sophisticated data ... on both the consequences of legalization and 
the economic costs of such a policy." It includes "potency and price 
trends," "mental health effects of marijuana," "emergency room and 
hospital admissions," "worker productivity," and "the effect on the 
market for alcohol and other drugs."

A legalization supporter might ask to know more about the industry's 
economic impact: jobs created, GDP growth, that kind of stuff.

The statistics will accumulate over time, but they're a poor 
substitute for what we actually want to know about legalization, 
which is how it will alter daily life, and what it means for life at 
home and on the job. How will it change the way Americans raise their 
children and care for their elderly parents?

A few things are known about marijuana: It doesn't cause fatal 
overdoses. It has never caused problems comparable to efforts to 
prohibit it, and it may have important medical uses. That's not a bad 
beginning for a big social experiment, but it's important to remember 
that it is an experiment; mass-market legalization may create or 
illuminate problems with weed that have not previously been apparent. 
So far, the closest brush the industry has had with a crisis involves 
the use of pesticides, something that was not widely anticipated but 
appears manageable.

So far, legalization's haphazard rollout has largely vindicated 
supporters who maintain that marijuana should never have been banned 
in the first place. This leaves opponents no choice but to scare us 
with misused statistics. Perhaps in the future, the roles will 
reverse and put the industry on the defensive.

The truth is that crises are impossible to predict. A plant 
contaminant could sicken people or wipe out crops and jobs. Perhaps 
in a few years, kindergarten teachers will start to notice an 
increase in a specific learning disability.

We know the problems created by prohibition. Will legalization be any 
better? There's only one way to find out.
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MAP posted-by: Jay Bergstrom