Pubdate: Thu, 30 Mar 2017
Source: National Post (Canada)
Copyright: 2017 Canwest Publishing Inc.
Author: Colby Cosh
Page: A12


When the federal Liberals set a Canada Day 2018 deadline for marijuana
legalization last weekend, they erected a new landmark in our
country's history. I do not refer to the proposed changes to the law;
you would, after all, have to be crazy to take a Liberal promise of
this kind to the bank. But whether or not the Liberals make their
Cannabis Day target, its mere creation is bound to change the way we
talk about pot.

Legalization is a reality now, something that has a birthday. Old
canards, theories, and dreads are destined to get a last airing before
we become preoccupied with concrete policy specifics - and then, when
the unthinkable actually happens, we shall start having arguments
based on actual data.

Yes, fine, I'm probably kidding myself. But I am old enough to have
seen several generations of dishonest, contrived arguments against
marijuana legalization come and go. I'm not a big pot smoker, although
it is a point of honour with me to admit in print that I have done it
plenty of times. What I am is a news consumer. It will mean much more
for my quality of life if we can progress one inch beyond the
persistent bad faith and phoniness in the discussion - the disguised
religious prejudices, the "I heard" and the "some say", the endless
pretending that marijuana isn't socially ubiquitous.

On Monday the great and good Medicine Hat News published a short
article outlining the views of Glen Motz, the fairly new (by-elected)
MP for the city and its surrounding area. Medicine Hat-Cardston-Warner
is one of the most socially conservative ridings on the national map,
and Motz is a retired policeman. He talked about the Liberals' pot
plan, and the results were about what you would expect. He allegedly
made a point of "drawing on his policing background" for the
interview: this is supposed to make it sound as though he has more
information about marijuana than the rest of us, rather than having
lived under a powerful taboo for his entire adult life as friends and
neighbours and relatives nervously avoided the M-word.

Motz said something about traffic deaths increasing in Colorado and
Washington since those states legalized marijuana for recreational
use. As the News helpfully rejoined, overall traffic fatality rates in
those states have not gone up significantly, and they remain low
compared to the rest of the U.S., although in Washington they have
found, for whatever it's worth, that more fatally injured drivers had
traces of THC in their bloodstream when the coroner got to them.

Motz also observed, correctly, that primitive attempts at creating
instant roadside tests for marijuana impairment have been abominable.
He thinks that without a pot breathalyzer, legalizing the drug is
"putting the cart before the horse." That seems like a proverb one
might use to describe worrying about a roadside marijuana test before
we know whether there is any social or public-health need for police
to have one.

What leapt out at me in Motz's stream of consciousness was a claim
that "health-care costs are starting to rise" in the
recreational-marijuana states. What could this mean? The U.S. doesn't
have single-payer universal public healthcare, and its programs for
the poor, the aged, and veterans are all administered federally. But
if Motz wants to bring up health-care costs, we can certainly go there.

One of the most remarkable economic findings of any kind on piecemeal
marijuana acceptance in the U.S. appeared in the journal Health
Affairs last July. It became famous almost immediately as the
"Medicare Part D study": two policy specialists at the University of
Georgia in Athens looked at data on 87 million pharmaceutical
prescriptions paid for by the federal government from 2010 to 2013.
They found that when individual states legalized medical marijuana (as
28 now have), doctors in those states began to fill fewer
prescriptions addressing medical conditions for which there is some
evidence that marijuana might help - anxiety, nausea, seizures, and
the like.

By "fewer" I mean "a lot fewer." The study estimated, for example,
that medical marijuana reduced prescriptions for pain medication by
about 1,800 per physician per year. That estimate could be off by an
order of magnitude and still be pretty impressive. It is only one
study, but when the researchers double-checked their results by
looking at conditions that nobody thinks marijuana is indicated for,
they found no declines in prescribing.

Marijuana is still an outlawed Schedule I drug under U.S. federal law,
doctors even in medical-marijuana states "recommend" the stuff rather
than formally prescribing it, and patients have to pay for it.
Moreover, pot may be relatively unpopular with the (mostly
pension-age) Medicare-eligible population. The Medicare Part D study
shows, if nothing else, that American medicine is already making heavy
professional use of marijuana. The authors think it might have saved
Medicare half a billion dollars over the four-year study period.
Perhaps there are concomitant harms that this study does not account
for. It is hard for me to imagine what they might be, but I am not a
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MAP posted-by: Matt