T.J. Newton
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Drug Policy .
Exploring Legalized Marijuana
T.J. Newton


For those who are currently following the marijuana legalization debate, the question isn't about whether or not to legalize, but at what doses and quantities, and with what accompanying regulation. Unfortunately, this is not always an easy debate to follow, and for a variety of reasons, there are still some people who want to prohibit the use of marijuana. Some of the confusion arises from studies and research on marijuana consumption. Most of the studies and research lead to the conclusion that marijuana consumption does not lead to social problems under most conditions, and that most individuals do not experience problems under most conditions of marijuana consumption. But there are many studies that attempt to link marijuana to social and individual problems when there is no causal basis for doing so. And adding to the confusion, some people distort both good and bad studies in response to a number of interests, especially the interests of marijuana prohibitionists.

Many prohibitionists still have difficulty understanding that most of the problems associated with marijuana use are actually symptoms of other social and individual problems. This typically results in the misuse of data by prohibitionists conducting research about marijuana consumption, which is most obvious in the current anti-marijuana ad campaign. However, nearly all people agree that under conditions when problems arise, treatment and awareness are far better than incarceration.

Of course, there are some people who disagree strongly. H.R. 1528, the "Defending America's Most Vulnerable Act of 2005," punishes people who, through treatment and awareness, may discuss the appropriateness of behaviors with which there may be an issue. The bill also significantly increases penalties for some offenses that may involve incarceration.

The tactics used by prohibitionists actually reveal the political nature of the debate. While such tactics were obvious in the George W. Bush administration's anti-tobacco-pipe campaign, many advocates of legalization are unaware that there are a number of other issues that sometimes play a role in the debate. A variety of political and private interests, and several racial issues, can both confuse and contribute to the legalization debate, particularly with respect to medical use, drug testing, and policy reform for other drugs.

In the midst of all the confusion, prohibitionists continue to misuse data to suggest social and individual costs that are not caused by marijuana use. Many of the debates surrounding prohibitionists' claims come down to the definitions for addiction, abuse, and dependence. The definitions for these words vary widely, and most describe symptoms related to other social or individual factors. In some instances, attempts to use these words in certain ways have led some to a much broader debate about what can and can't be legislated.

Debate about definitions, as well as what can and can't be legislated, are important, not only in connection with the marijuana legalization debate, but for other reasons as well. However, the fact that marijuana is less harmful than alcohol or tobacco is too often overlooked. Of course, such an argument does raise issues about alcohol and tobacco. But rather than forcing the issues associated with alcohol and tobacco to serve as a model for marijuana legalization, these issues can be addressed through appropriate harm reduction.

Harm reduction is an approach to marijuana regulation that recognizes that the social and individual costs of the war on drugs are higher than the social and individual costs of reforming marijuana policy. Unfortunately, some prohibitionists have misused data to make marijuana appear more harmful than it actually is, seen recently in the George W. Bush administration's ad campaign featuring the slogan "harmless?". Harm reduction typically includes the recognition that treatment and awareness are less harmful to society and the individual than incarceration. However, not everyone advocating harm reduction uses the same legal approach. Legalization is the best legal approach to use, because as the word implies, legalization creates a legal market that is easier to regulate.

Data and Tactics

Many prohibitionists continue to imply that marijuana use causes social problems such as laziness, dangerous driving, and aggression (Earleywine 197-221; Inciardi 92-100). However, studies show that marijuana is only marginally involved in such problems, if it is involved at all (Earleywine 197-221). Of course, this should not downplay the fact that conditions may arise in which individuals using marijuana may benefit from treatment or awareness, but there does not appear to be a causal link between the use of marijuana and social problems (Earleywine 197-221; Inciardi 92-100).

Popular publications imply that marijuana's role in amotivation [laziness], reckless driving, and aggression is a proven fact (e.g. Drug Watch Oregon, 1996; Indiana Prevention Resource Center, 1998; National Institute of Drug Abuse [NIDA], 1998). Yet data reveal that cannabis plays little role in any of these social problems (Earleywine 197).

Prohibitionists also blame marijuana for poor school performance, problems on the job, and crime. But research suggests that marijuana is not the cause of any of these social problems. Instead, marijuana use most likely appears in a subset of people suffering from other social and individual problems, just as it would appear in a subset of ordinary people (Earleywine 197-221; Inciardi).

[Marijuana use] does not correlate with grades in college students. High school students who use marijuana have lower grades, but their poor school performance occurred prior to their consumption of cannabis. Cannabis users do not show worse performance on the job, more frequent unemployment, or lower wages. In addition, long term exposure to cannabis in the laboratory fails to show any meaningful or consistent impact on productivity (Earleywine 220).

As for marijuana and reckless driving, the claims made by the government in the George W. Bush administration's ad campaign are misleading, deceptive, and socially irresponsible. The ad did not reveal that reckless drivers who tested positive for marijuana also usually tested positive for alcohol (Earleywine 197-221). In fact, people who test positive for THC, but negative for alcohol, are not any more likely to be at fault in a traffic accident than a driver who did not consume any drugs or alcohol (Earleywine 197-221). There is a study that has been distorted to show that in a laboratory setting, drivers given THC tended to weave more than drivers given a placebo, although the THC group increased their following distance and reduced their speed (Earleywine 197-221). However, the study may have simply measured anxiety in drivers worried about their performance who overcorrected, or it may have measured bias among drivers given THC. It seems more appropriate to focus on actual accident data, in which case marijuana users drive just as well as other drivers. The omission of data related to alcohol in the George W. Bush administration's ad demonstrates a misuse of data in an attempt to mislead the public, and it contributes to confusion in the marijuana legalization debate.

In another series of ads I've dubbed "Nick n' Narc," the George W. Bush administration attempted to link marijuana and terrorism. The best response to these ads was the linking of terrorism to the purchase of petroleum - buying gas helps terrorists. The ads raise interesting points, but they anger different groups of people for the same reason: the ads neglect the social and individual factors that contribute to terrorism, automobile travel, and the enjoyment of marijuana. The George W. Bush adminsitration was irresponsible to imply that terrorists would be any less terrifying in a world in which marijuana didn't exist.

Prohibitionists also argue that marijuana is a "gateway" or "stepping-stone" to other drugs. Most of the evidence suggests that the correlation between marijuana use and the use of other drugs is related to underlying personality characteristics that vary among individuals (Earleywine 49-65). Philosophically, the argument that marijuana is a gateway or stepping-stone is easy to defeat. In a world in which no other drugs existed besides marijuana, there would be nothing there to try, so clearly information about other drugs plays more of a role than smoking marijuana (Earleywine 49-65). Someone raised on an island who smokes marijuana would not run around asking for drugs he or she didn't know about. Some have also argued that gateway and stepping-stone theories reveal underlying social problems such as poverty or neglect; correlations between the use of marijuana and other drugs are a result of the conditions on the street, not the smoking of marijuana (Bertram et. al; Earleywine; Gray; Inciardi). Although actual data on the subject of gateways and stepping stones remains limited, there is data showing that most marijuana users do not ever try cocaine or heroine (Earleywine 49-65).

There is also a debate about the subjective effects of marijuana, such as its effect on perceptions, emotions, thoughts, sexuality, spirituality, sleep, and other subjective effects (Earleywine 97-119; Inciardi 92-100). For most people, this is what makes marijuana enjoyable. Fortunately, it is hard to describe consciousness, and impossible to legislate cognition. People's personal experiences are personal. While the debate is interesting sometimes when prohibitionists try to integrate a physicalist disease argument with an argument about cognitive perceptions (Earleywine; Inciardi), the topic of subjective effects is mostly something marijuana users can enjoy sharing with one another.

Something most marijuana users probably also share is outrage over the recent "bust" on tobacco pipes, which some people use to smoke marijuana. It was an attempt by the George W. Bush administration to embarrass, frighten, and bring financial hardship on people who sell glass, not drugs. The people targeted by the Bush administration were engaged in a legal business, making sales they believed were legal, over a medium (the Internet) that is still surrounded with legal questions. Given the complexity of the situation, there were certainly other ways of calling attention to any concerns besides shutting these people down. It shows the tactics the Bush administration was willing to use, and the extent to which that administration was willing to distort facts about the causes of social problems. It amounted to blaming pipe retailers for the world's problems, and the courts should not stand for it.

Political Factors and Debates

The tactics used in the George W. Bush administration's anti-tobacco-pipe campaign help to reveal more about the political nature of the marijuana legalization debate. The anti-tobacco-pipe campaign attempts to blame the world's problems on tobacco pipe retailers. Anyone willing to resort to such tactics could not possibly take the debate seriously, and when one considers the distortion of facts used in the George W. Bush administration's ad campaign, it is obvious that the Bush administration did not take the debate seriously.

It is not as obvious that the sloppy tactics used by the Bush administration may simply distract from other issues that play a role in the marijuana legalization debate. There is evidence that a number of political and private interests, along with a variety of racial issues, play a role in shaping the administration's policies and tactics (Bertram et. al; Gray).

The [1989-1992 George H.W.] Bush administration's 1989 proposals to evict "first time and casual users" from public housing, notify their employers, and suspend them from school... had far more dire implications for inner city residents than for suburban dwellers. [...] "Basically, it's a war against minorities" (Bertram et. al 42-43).

Often, these issues are connected to debates about medical use, drug testing, and reforming policies for other drugs (Bertram et. al; Earleywine; Gray; Inciardi).

Many issues connected to the marijuana legalization debate involve speculations by prohibitionists about the consequences of marijuana use. Usually, prohibitionists misuse data and distort facts about marijuana use, which skew speculation about social consequences. For example, opponents of legalization misused data to attempt to blame crime on the use of marijuana, and they proceeded to argue that the social consequences of legalization are too high (Earleywine 197-221; Inciardi 92-100). In the same way, misusing data about the social cost of marijuana use related to driving behavior and substance "abuse" are used to skew speculations about the financial cost of legalizing marijuana, which most advocates of legalization argue would be lower than the financial cost of the war on drugs (Bertram et. al; Earleywine 197-221; Gray; Inciardi 92-100). Most of the research supports the advocates of legalization, because prohibitionists have misused data. Even so, concerns about financial costs must give way to concerns about the social and individual costs of the war on drugs, which is more harmful to society and individuals than treatment and awareness.

The term "drug abuse," used by many prohibitionists to make their arguments, has become a catchall for words with definitions that are so distorted that the distinctions are lost. Other people believe that the words addiction, abuse, and dependence mean different things, although the definitions offered by prohibitionists are confusing, often politically motivated, and actually describe individual and social problems unrelated to marijuana use (Earleywine 29-47).

Marijuana addiction proves difficult to define. [...] Experts assert that cannabis's addictive power parallels caffeine's (Franklin, 1990; Hilts 1994). [...] [One] study had experts rank 18 drugs on how easily they "hook" people and how difficult they are to quit. Marijuana ranked 14th, behind ...nicotine (ranked first), alcohol (ranked 8th), and caffeine (ranked 12th). A political atmosphere influences diagnoses in ways that make them appear unscientific. [...] The term "abuse" could mean any one of over a dozen combinations of different symptoms. Dependence requires three of any seven symptoms, providing over 30 potential combinations of symptoms (Earleywine 32-45).

Although prohibitionist definitions are highly suspect, the debate is still frustrating and tends to distract from the argument for marijuana legalization. Definitions often come up in debates about the health effects or the medical use of marijuana (Earleywine143-166), and the ways the definitions are used politically have lead many to conclude that prohibitionists are going too far in trying to legislate social and individual matters (Inciardi). But the simple point that marijuana is less harmful than alcohol or tobacco is often lost.

Comparing marijuana to alcohol and tobacco raises many issues about alcohol and tobacco. Some of those issues have already been addressed through legislation that has reduced or eliminated some problems, although there are problems that remain as well as problems associated with the legislation. There are sharply opposed views on both sides of the argument, but rather than force the issues associated with alcohol and tobacco to serve as a model for marijuana legalization, these issues can be addressed through appropriate harm reduction.

Harm Reduction, Legalization, Treatment and Awareness

Harm reduction often includes a collection of ideas related to the realization that the social and individual costs of the war on drugs are higher than the social and individual costs of reforming marijuana policy (Bertram et. al; Earleywine; Gray; Inciardi). Generally, all ideas about harm reduction focus on a move toward treatment and awareness, and a move away from incarceration (Earleywine 223-245; Inciardi 18-19; 75-108). Debates among harm reduction advocates can include issues surrounding the regulation of marijuana, as well as issues related to treatment and awareness (Earleywine 223-245; Inciardi 18-19; 75-108). However, not all harm reduction advocates support legalization (Earleywine 223-245; Inciardi 18-19; 75-108).

Legalization offers the benefits of a legal market that will be easier to regulate than other legal approaches. Advocates of legalization have proposed a variety of regulatory options, with debates concentrating on marketing and advertising restrictions, restrictions on sales to minors, restrictions on use, and restrictions on dose and quantity (Earleywine 223-245; Inciardi 18-19; 75-108). Legalization would also minimize exposure to other drugs, and reduce expenses related to law enforcement (Earleywine 223-245; Inciardi 18-19; 75-108). In addition, legalization offers the added benefit of tax revenue to help pay for treatment and awareness (Earleywine 223-245; Inciardi 18-19; 75-108).

Most consumers would prefer legal cannabis with competitive pricing, detailed labeling, and assurance of quality, to the underground market's product (Earleywine 240).

Treatment and awareness programs have improved a great deal since their inception, but there is still work to be done. For example, an awareness program that attempts to link marijuana and terrorism is socially irresponsible and does not make people aware of anything related to the use of marijuana. Such awareness programs are often politically motivated, and can sometimes shape certain aspects of treatment programs. While there are many good treatment programs in the U.S. and elsewhere, some of the materials used can reflect political goals, and tend to misuse definitions of addiction, abuse, and dependence by overextending the usefulness of the words. However, many counselors and drug courts have one-on-one relationships with patients, and tend to be better equipped to handle the social and individual conditions that prohibitionists associate with marijuana use. Overall, most treatment programs work better than incarceration and cause less harm, which is why H.R. 1528 makes no sense. It increases harmful penalties that do not work, while punishing people who could benefit from treatment and awareness.

Harm reduction, legalization, and treatment and awareness offer marijuana users a multitude of options in the marijuana legalization debate. Legalization also offers hope to societies suffering from the harm caused by the war on drugs. While conditions may arise in which a small percentage of individuals using marijuana may benefit from treatment or awareness, there does not appear to be a causal link between the use of marijuana and social or individual problems. Unfortunately, prohibitionists continue to misuse and distort data related to the legalization of marijuana. However, most evidence related to marijuana use suggests that society and individuals would be better off if marijuana were legalized.

On March 26, 2009, President Obama stated that he did not think that legalizing marijuana would be a good strategy for stimulating the economy, at least in terms of the economic recession of 2008-2009. However, legalizing marijuana could contribute to economic growth. And the Obama administration may be taking positive steps toward marijuana policy reform.

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Selected works cited

Bertram, Eva and Morris Blachman, Kenneth Sharpe, and Peter Andreas. (1996). Drug war politics: the price of denial. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press.

Earleywine, Mitch. (2002). Understanding marijuana: a new look at the scientific evidence. New York: Oxford University Press.

Gray, Mike. ed. (2002). Busted: stone cowboys, narco-lords and Washington's war on drugs. New York: Nation Books.

Inciardi, James A. ed. (1999). The drug legalization debate. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.

United States. (2005). Cong. House of Representatives. Defending America's Most Vulnerable: Safe Access to Drug Treatment and Child Protection Act of 2005. 109th Congress, H.R. 1528. Washington: http://thomas.loc.gov.

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