Marijuana Law, Policy & Reform

Editor: Douglas A. Berman
Moritz College of Law

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Tuesday, July 22, 2014

Could Vermont become the first state to legislatively legalize marijuana?

The question in the title in this post is prompted by news yesterday that Vermont has contracted with RAND to study the possible effects of legalizing marijuana in the state.  

A study like this could provide political momentum and support for a planned 2015 legalization bill.  Though, of course, its actual impact will depend in large part on what the study finds.  At the very least, however, it indicates that a critical mass of elected officials in Vermont have more than just a passing interest in legalization.  

Also of note, Vermont's Governor, Peter Shumlin has been praised by NORML in the past for his support of reforming marijuana laws.  Shumlin is up for reelection this year.  Assuming he retains office, his presence would go a long way toward making legalization via legislation a real possibility.  (Some may recall that New Hampshire's legislative legalization efforts hit a road block earlier this year after opposition from their Governor.)

And, whatever the political outcome, I'm sure RAND's report will be interesting reading for all who follow this issue, especially since the news story indicates Beau Kilmer--whose work in this area is consistently must-read--will be meeting with Vermont officials next week to get the study going.

Here's some highlights from the story about the upcoming study:

Rand Corp. representatives will be in Vermont next week to begin work on a study of the effects that marijuana legalization might have on the state's economy, individual health and public safety.

 

The international, nonprofit research organization was chosen to conduct the study, which was mandated in a bill passed by the Legislature last session.

 

The state will pay $20,000 toward the study, which will be augmented by as much as $100,000 in private donations, officials said Friday.

 

Rand Corp. declined to comment on the research until the organization's senior policy analyst Beau Kilmer meets with Vermont officials next week. More details on the study would be released then, Rand spokesperson Warren Robak said.

 

"We were looking for someone who wasn't going to make a case that we legalize or not legalize," Spaulding said, adding that Rand is "very well-respected."

 

The report generated by Rand should give Vermont legislators the facts they need to have a well-informed debate next winter, one lawmaker says.

 

"I think the study will help with legislators and the public who inherently think it's a good idea but want evidence they can hold up to show people," said state Sen. David Zuckerman, P/D-Chittenden. Zuckerman said he will propose a marijuana regulation and legalization bill in the 2015 legislative session.

 

"It can work in other states," Zuckerman said. "We just have to make some changes."

July 22, 2014 in Current Affairs, Recreational Marijuana Data and Research, Recreational Marijuana State Laws and Reforms | Permalink | Comments (0)

Wednesday, July 16, 2014

Latest polling shows rich, white, midwestern guys aged 30-44 most likely to favor pot legalization

As this press release details, the "latest research from YouGov shows that most Americans (51%) support legalizing marijuana, while 37% oppose it."  And, as the title of this post highlights, I find especially interesting the demographics of which groups of persons are most in favor of legalization as reflected in these detailed breakdowns:

Male: 54% to 36%

Age 30-44: 60% to 28%

Democrat: 62% to 27%

White: 52% to 37%

Income $100+: 57% to 32%

Midwest: 55% to 31%

July 16, 2014 in Current Affairs | Permalink | Comments (0)

Tuesday, July 15, 2014

New "Marijuana Today" podcast on marijuana business, policy and politics

My good friend Kris Lotlikar has started a new podcast called "Marijuana Today," releasing the first episode yesterday.  I just listened to it and can't recommend it enough.  Anyone interested in marijuana law and policy who wants something to help pass the time while working out or commuting will definitely enjoy it.  

Kris has a long history in drug policy, having served as the first executive director of Students for Sensible Drug Policy.  He's now in business, as co-founder and president of an alternative energy company, Renewable Choice Energy.  Kris has also continued his involvement in drug policy and he is affiliated with the Arcview Group

Unlike other marijuana-related podcasts, which seem to be targeted at users, Marijuana Today takes a serious look at marijuana policy and features experts in business, law, politics, and more. 

The first episode includes (among other things) an insightful discussion on the differences between Colorado and Washington's legalization laws, a discussion about the flaws and features of New York's new medical marijuana law, and some interesting news about the status of medical marijuana licenses in Massachusetts.  Joining Kris Lotlikar on the episode are: Kris Krane, Managing Partner of the marijuana dispensary consulting firm 4Front Advisors; community organizer Dan Goldman; and Oregon political mover Adam Smith.  

I've been in touch with Kris about appearing on a future episode myself and hope to do so as soon as scheduling permits.

You can listen to it at the link above or via iTunes (just search for "Marijuana Today" in Podcasts). 

July 15, 2014 in Current Affairs | Permalink | Comments (0)

Monday, July 14, 2014

Seattle's only marijuana store out of product, the DEA losing ground on legalization, Cuomo's medical marijuana problem, and more

This weekend saw a number of noteworthy posts and articles on marijuana law issues.  Among them:

July 14, 2014 in Current Affairs | Permalink | Comments (0)

Tuesday, July 8, 2014

Lines form to greet start legal recreation marijuana sales in Washington

WapotAs reported in this AP article, headlined "Line forms early, trucks deliver goods as Washington’s legal pot sales start," today officially kicks off legal recreational marijuana sales in a second US state. Here are the basics:

Marijuana growers loaded trucks with boxes of packaged pot on Tuesday as lines of customers grew outside a handful of stores poised to be the first to sell recreational cannabis legally in Washington state.

“I voted for it, and I’m just so excited to see it come to be in my lifetime,” said Deb Greene, a 65-year-old retiree who waited all night outside Cannabis City, the only licensed shop in Seattle. “I’m not a heavy user; I’m just proud of our state for giving this a try.”

Tuesday’s start of legal pot sales in Washington marks a major step that’s been 20 months in the making. Washington and Colorado stunned much of the world by voting in November 2012 to legalize marijuana for adults over 21, and to create state-licensed systems for growing, selling and taxing the pot. Sales began in Colorado on Jan. 1.

The final days before sales have been frenetic for growers and retailers alike throughout Washington. Cannabis City owner James Lathrop and his team hired an events company to provide crowd control, arranged for a food truck and free water for those who might spend hours waiting outside, and rented portable toilets to keep his customers from burdening nearby businesses with requests to use the restrooms.

Store openings are expected to be accompanied by high prices, shortages and celebration. As soon as the stores were notified Monday, they began working to place their orders with some of the state’s first licensed growers. Once the orders were received through state-approved software for tracking the bar-coded pot, the growers placed their products in a required 24-hour “quarantine” before shipping it Tuesday morning.

Sea of Green Farms co-owner Bob Leeds got an early start Tuesday as he loaded about seven pounds of marijuana into boxes for a drive to Bellingham and delivery to the Top Shelf Cannabis store in time for its 8 a.m. opening. The pot was packaged in 1 gram plastic bags. An AP survey of licensees awarded by Washington state to store owners showed that only about six planned to open Tuesday, including two stores in Bellingham, one in Seattle, one in Spokane, one in Prosser and one in Kelso. Some were set to open later this week or next, while others said it could be a month or more before they could acquire marijuana to sell.

Officials eventually expect to have more than 300 recreational pot shops across the state. Pot prices were expected to reach $25 a gram or higher on the first day of sales — twice what people pay in the state’s unregulated medical marijuana dispensaries. That was largely due to the short supply of legally produced pot in the state. Although more than 2,600 people applied to become licensed growers, fewer than 100 have been approved — and only about a dozen were ready to harvest by early this month.

Nevertheless, John Evich, an investor in Bellingham’s Top Shelf Cannabis, said his shop wanted to thank the state’s residents for voting for the law by offering $10 grams of one cannabis strain to the first 50 or 100 customers. The other strains would be priced between $12 and $25, he said.

July 8, 2014 in Current Affairs, History of Marijuana Laws in the United States, Recreational Marijuana State Laws and Reforms | Permalink | Comments (0)

Monday, June 30, 2014

Bill Clinton on medical marijuana: "I think we should leave it to the states"

A couple of weeks ago, likely 2016 presidential candidate Hillary Clinton said medical marijuana should be available for some patients under appropriate circumstances.  Her husband, former president Bill Clinton, appears to have gone a bit further in support of marijuana law reform in these remarks on Meet the Press over the weekend:

 

"I think there's a lot of evidence to argue for the medical marijuana thing," Clinton said. "I think there are a lot of unresolved questions, but I think we should leave it to the states. This really is a time when there should be laboratories of democracy, because nobody really knows where this is going."

 

While Clinton stopped short of endorsing legalization at the federal level, he said he supports states' experimentation.

 

"There’s all these questions, and I think that I like where it is now," he said. "If the state wants to try it, they can. And then they’ll be able to see what happens.”

June 30, 2014 in Current Affairs | Permalink | Comments (0)

Friday, June 20, 2014

Senate to vote on medical marijuana spending amendment

A few weeks ago, the House passed an amendment to the Department of Justice's budget bill that would restrict it from using funds to prevent states from implementing their own medical marijuana laws.  As I discussed at the time, I think the vote was incredibly significant politically, though the text of the amendment itself is actually quite  narrow.  

One of the key questions has been whether the amendment would gain any traction in the Senate.  Yesterday, news came that Senator Rand Paul has introduced the amendment and Cory Booker will has signed on as a co-sponsor.  It appears the vote will be coming soon (possibly today).  It will be very interesting to see how it plays out.

June 20, 2014 in Current Affairs, Federal Marijuana Laws, Policies and Practices, Medical Marijuana State Laws and Reforms | Permalink | Comments (0)

Wednesday, June 18, 2014

Hillary Clinton, Rand Paul, ASA's new ad, and the shifting politics of drug policy

As the 2016 presidential election gets underway, two of the most prominent would-be contenders spoke about drug policy yesterday.   

Hillary Clinton was asked about medical and recreational marijuana laws at a CNN forum.  Clinton left herself a lot of wiggle room in her answer, particularly with respect to Colorado and Washington, saying she "wait and see what the evidence is" (or, perhaps, wait and see who her opponents and and what the polling says in the states she needs to win?  I kid, I kid.)  Still, her comments on medical marijuana are notable.  In 2008, Clinton took the "I don't think it's a good use of federal resources" approach to the issue, without saying anything that might sound like an endorsement of medical marijuana use.  Yesterday, Clinton was much more expressly supportive of medical marijuana, commenting: "I think for people who are in extreme medical conditions and who have anecdotal evidence that it works, there should be availability under appropriate circumstances."  It's far from endorsing state medical marijuana laws or changing federal drug laws.  But it is also a much stronger endorsement of medical marijuana than in her 2008 campaign (and, in my opinion, stronger than Obama's comments in 2008.)

 

Meanwhile, on the Republican side, Rand Paul criticized the drug war generally yesterday, telling the Iowa State Republican Party Convention: "If you look at the War on Drugs, three out of four people in prison are black or brown. White kids are doing it too. In fact, if you look at all the surveys, white kids do it just as much as black and brown kids -- but the prisons are full of black and brown kids because they don’t get a good attorney, they live in poverty, it’s easier to arrest them than to go to the suburbs. There’s a lot of reasons."  Rand Paul has said very similar things before, but the fact that he would include this in his remarks to an important primary state Republican audience says a lot about the new politics of drug policy.

Last but not least, Americans for Safe Access (disclosure: I serve on their board) released its latest ad targeting a medical marijuana-state Congressperson for voting against the recent medical marijuana budget amendment.

   

It's hard to believe how quickly the politics of drug policy are changing.  It wasn't that long ago that former Virginia Senator Jim Webb (who has also been mentioned as a possible 2016 presidential candidate) was lamenting the fact that "few candidates or elected officials these days even dare to mention the mind-boggling inconsistencies and the long-term problems that are inherent in [our criminal justice system]” because they believe that “to be viewed as 'soft on crime' is one of the surest career-killers in American politics.”  (The quote is from Webb's 2008 book A Time to Fight.) 

June 18, 2014 in Current Affairs, Federal Marijuana Laws, Policies and Practices | Permalink | Comments (0)

Monday, June 16, 2014

Changing Pot Laws Prompt Child-Endangerment Review

The title of this post comes from this Associated Press article published yesterday on marijuana and child custody issues.  Here's how it begins:

A Colorado man loses custody of his children after getting a medical marijuana card. The daughter of a Michigan couple growing legal medicinal pot is taken by child-protection authorities after an ex-husband says their plants endangered kids.

 

And police officers in New Jersey visit a home after a 9-year-old mentions his mother's hemp advocacy at school.

 

While the cases were eventually decided in favor of the parents, the incidents underscore a growing dilemma: While a pot plant in the basement may not bring criminal charges in many states, the same plant can become a piece of evidence in child custody or abuse cases.

 

"The legal standard is always the best interest of the children, and you can imagine how subjective that can get," said Jess Cochrane, who helped found Boston-based Family Law & Cannabis Alliance after finding child-abuse laws have been slow to catch up with pot policy.

 

No data exist to show how often pot use comes up in custody disputes, or how often child-welfare workers intervene in homes where marijuana is used.

 

But in dozens of interviews with lawyers and officials who work in this area, along with activists who counsel parents on marijuana and child endangerment, the consensus is clear: Pot's growing acceptance is complicating the task of determining when kids are in danger.

The full article is worth a read.  Those interested in more about the issue may want to check out the website for the Family Law & Cannabis Alliance, which is mentioned in the article. 

June 16, 2014 in Current Affairs | Permalink | Comments (0)

Monday, June 2, 2014

New op-ed on marijuana and the NFL cites Friday's vote to defund medical marijuana raids

One of my favorite sports journalists Jason La Canfora has this editorial out today calling for the NFL to reconsider its stance on medical marijuana.  Of particularly interest to me, La Canfora cites Friday's vote in the House as a sign that the NFL is behind the times on this issue.  

The times, they are a changin'-- no matter which side of this issue you are on, and on Friday alone the House passed an amendment restricting the DEA from targeting medical marijuana operations in states where it is legal; a bill that was backed by bipartisan support.

La Canfora highlights one of the reasons why the House vote is such an important political development.  Medical marijuana reform is now--in a very real and concrete way--an issue with bipartisan support in Congress.  And I think this changes perceptions when it comes to the prospect of changing federal law and the status quo on enforcement practices.  It begins to turn the tables politically as far as which side of the issue is perceived as the mainstream and which side is perceived as out-of-touch.  

Despite all of the polling and state-level reforms, support for medical marijuana has been seen as out-of-the-mainstream in DC.  It was an issue that might get a coalition of very progressive Democrats and very-libertarian-leaning Republicans to muster 160 votes in the House.  But that was about it.  And, as a result, there was a sense that a politician who supported medical marijuana was taking a "far-left" (e.g., Barney Frank) or "far-right" (e.g., Ron Paul) position.  But now, supporting reform means you're siding with the majority of a bipartisan group in a Republican-controlled Congress. 

I think Friday's vote also has real implications for how this issue will be perceived in the 2016 presidential race.  In the past, candidates who opposed federal interference with state medical marijuana laws did so tepidly and the position was seen as a bit risky--something you didn't want to talk about if you could avoid it (see, e.g., President Obama.)  This vote makes me think it is even more likely that, in 2016, candidates who don't support marijuana law reform (at least to some degree) will be the ones on the defensive.  To be sure, this shift did not start with Friday's vote, but I think it will be seen as one of the most significant milestones in the journey.  

And, returning to La Canfora's article, the changing politics of marijuana may have implications for the NFL as well.  Here's the start of his excellent piece:

Enough with the NFL's Reefer Madness already. It needs to stop.

 

I fully realize that nothing of significance changes in this league without a fight between the league and its union, but the fact that lighting up a joint is dealt with in a draconian fashion, while domestic abuse punishment is often meted out in a far-less severe manner, is just one of many incongruous corollaries to the NFL's weed policy.

 

At a time when the government's approach to pot is taking a dramatic turn, and the drug is being increasingly legalized to some degree or another in state after state, for young stars in their prime like the Browns' Josh Gordon and the Cardinals' Daryl Washington to both be potentially missing all of next season, if not longer, for using marijuana, is ludicrous (now, if you want to kick Washington out of the league for 2014 for other transgressions, you won't get an argument out of me).

 

This is getting ridiculous.

June 2, 2014 in Current Affairs, Medical Marijuana Commentary and Debate, Sports | Permalink | Comments (0)

Saturday, May 31, 2014

"Why Republicans are slowly embracing marijuana"

The title of this post is the headline of this recent Los Angeles Times article, which includes these excerpts:

Marijuana is a political conundrum for the GOP, traditionally the stridently anti-drug, law and order party. More than half the voters in the country now live in states where medical marijuana is legal, in many cases as a result of ballot measures. The most recent poll by the Pew Research Center found most Americans think pot should be legal, a major shift from just a decade ago when voters opposed legalization by a 2-to-1 margin.

Most GOP stalwarts, of course, continue to rail against liberalization of the laws. Rep. Andy Harris of Maryland, a physician, declared during floor debate that medical marijuana is a sham. Real medicine, he said, “is not two joints a day, not a brownie here, a biscuit there. That is not modern medicine.”

But in a sign of how the times are changing, he found himself challenged by a colleague from his own caucus who is also a doctor. Rep. Paul Broun (R-Ga.) spoke passionately in favor of the bill. “It has very valid medical uses under direction of a doctor,” he said. “It is actually less dangerous than some narcotics prescribed by doctors all over the country.” Georgia is among the many states experimenting with medical marijuana. A state program there allows its limited use to treat children with severe epileptic seizures.

The rise of the tea party, meanwhile, has given an unforeseen boost to the legalization movement. Some of its more prominent members see the marijuana component of the War on Drugs as an overreach by the federal government, and a violation of the rights of more than two dozen states that have legalized cannabis or specific components of it for medical use.

Pro-marijuana groups have lately taken to boosting the campaigns of such Republicans, even those running against Democrats. A notable case is in the Sacramento region, where the Marijuana Policy Project recently announced it was endorsing Igor Birman, a tea partier seeking to knock out Democrat Ami Berra in a swing congressional district.

May 31, 2014 in Criminal justice developments and reforms, Current Affairs, Federal Marijuana Laws, Policies and Practices, Medical Marijuana Commentary and Debate | Permalink | Comments (0)

Friday, May 16, 2014

New study on marijuana and driving in Colorado

Following up on yesterday's post about driving and marijuana legalization, the Cannabist reports that a new study has been released showing an increase in the number of Coloradans in fatal car crashes that tested positive for marijuana.  The study focused on the period from 2009-2011, when Colorado's commercial medical marijuana market came into being.  It does not include post-legalization data.  

Like other studies on marijuana and car fatalities, the study's tests cannot determine whether the drivers were actually impaired or whether they had smoked marijuana at some earlier date.  As a result, we don't know whether the positive tests are simply the result of increased use or indicative or an increase in impaired driving.  

Adding to the complexity, the story notes that traffic fatalities in Colorado decreased overall during the relevant time period.  If there had been a significant rise in marijuana-impaired drivers on the road (as opposed to a rise in people testing positive because of a general increase in use), we might imagine that it would have resulted in an overall increase in traffic fatilities.  Of course, it could be that marijuana impaired driving led to an increase in fatalities but that the increases were more than offset by other developments (e.g., innovations in car safety, effectiveness at deterring other forms of reckless driving, etc.). 

In any event, it will be interesting to see if any future studies are able to tease out whether (and to what extent) legalization is resulting in more marijuana impaired driving.  Here's the beginning of the Cannabist story:

One study shows that more drivers involved in fatal car accidents in Colorado are testing positive for marijuana — and that Colorado has a higher percentage of such drivers testing positive for marijuana than other states even when controlled for several variables. But the data the researchers use do not reveal whether those drivers were impaired at the time of the crash or whether they were at fault.

 

“[T]he primary result of this study may simply reflect a general increase in marijuana use during this … time period in Colorado,” the study’s authors write.

May 16, 2014 in Current Affairs, Medical Marijuana Data and Research, Recreational Marijuana Data and Research | Permalink | Comments (0)

Thursday, May 15, 2014

Drugged driving is a real concern, but it has little to do with marijuana legalization

Yesterday, Westword reported on the results of a weekend DUI checkpoint in Colorado.  The police caught 21 people driving under the influence of alcohol and none driving while high (or on other drugs.)  The cops did make one marijuana possession arrest, however: a minor in possession.  

Since these figures are from a single checkpoint, they can't be more broadly extrapolated; they qualify as anecdotal. But in this case, alcohol arrests led marijuana busts 21 to one -- and the single exception involved underage possession, not driving under the influence of cannabis.

As Westword notes, data from a single checkpoint means very little.  But it did get me to thinking more about the connection between marijuana legalization and driving under the influence.  

It's always struck me as a bit odd that anytime a marijuana legalization law is proposed, driving under the influence is one of the first areas of concern.  This isn't because I think people should be driving while high.  Far from it.  

What is odd to me about the connection is that it seems to imply that drug imparied driving isn't a big problem already.  And I'm not just talking about marijuana.  I'm talking about all drugs.  

Breathalyzers test for only one mind-altering substance: alcohol.  But Americans use a range of other substances--legal and illegal--that could impair driving.  From prescription medications to cocaine to marijuana.  

Regardless of whether marijuana is legalized, we should be thinking a lot more about how to prevent impaired driving.  We should make sure more officers are trained in conducting road-side testing for impairment (which is currently the only way to catch people who are driving while high on anything other than alcohol.)  We should be putting more research dollars into developing impairment testing devices for prescription drugs, marijuana, etc.  

It shouldn't take a marijuana legalization ballot measure to get people concerned about drug impaired driving.  

The other thing I find odd about this part of the legalization debate is that it seems to assume legalization will result in a dramatic increase in marijuana-impaired driving.  I'm not so sure that legalization is likely to lead to much of an increase in stoned driving, however.  At least not the way it is currently being implemented.  

One of the reasons we have so many DUIs is that alcohol is so often consumed outside the home, in settings like sporting events, restaurants, family gatherings, etc.  We allow alcohol to be sold and publicly consumed in places that we know many people are driving to and from.  

By contrast, Colorado doesn't license "marijuana bars."  Users buy their marijuana to go.  

So, even if marijuana legalization significantly increases the total amount of marijuana use (something that itself remains to be seen), that doesn't mean driving while high will necessarily increase at the same rate.  If most new use incidents occur in the user's home--e.g., a person smoking a joint after work at home--then increases in use may not result in much of an increase in stoned driving at all.  

If states were to start licensing marijuana bars or selling marijuana at suburban sports stadiums, then it would be a different story.  But so long as marijuana is being sold exclusively on a "to go" basis, I'm not sure that legalization will result in noticeable increases in impaired driving.

Again, this doesn't mean stoned driving isn't an issue of concern.  I think we should all be more concerned about the dangers of impaired driving (including alcohol, an area where we can certainly still do far more than we are doing.)  But it shouldn't take a proposal to legalize marijuana to put drug impaired driving on the public policy agenda.

May 15, 2014 in Current Affairs, Recreational Marijuana State Laws and Reforms | Permalink | Comments (7)

Tuesday, May 13, 2014

NFL reportedly plans to decrease punishments for marijuana use

Via ESPN, the NFL may be getting ready to decrease penalties for players who test positive for marijuana while also increasing the threshold for triggering a positive test:

It would be too late to help Josh GordonWill Hill or anyone else in danger of lengthy suspensions for violations of current rules. But when and if the NFL's new drug policy is finalized and announced, it will include changes specific to marijuana and other drugs of abuse.

A source told ESPN.com on Tuesday that the renegotiation of the drug policy, which has been going on since 2011 and includes testing for HGH, also will significantly increase the threshold for a positive marijuana test and reduce the punishments for violations involving that drug.

As alluded to in the article, the news comes just a few days after it was reported that Brown's receiver Josh Gordon is facing a year-long suspension for marijuana use.  (The Josh Gordon story generated an interesting discussion of marijuana use and the NFL on Pardon the Interruption yesterday (the segment begins at 11 minutes 30 seconds into the linked clip.)) 

On a related note, some readers may remember news coverage a few months ago of NFL players who use marijuana for pain relief, preferring it to more addictive pain killers.  Though the league's new policy would not directly address the medical use of marijuana among players, it may be a nod to that trend.  It will be interesting to see more about the policy--particularly what threshold the NFL sets for a positive test--if/when the details are released.

May 13, 2014 in Current Affairs, Medical Marijuana Commentary and Debate, Sports | Permalink | Comments (0)

Wednesday, April 30, 2014

Congress rejects proposal to let VA doctors recommend medical marijuana

Tom Angell of marijuana majority alerted me to the news that Congress today rejected an amendment that would have let VA doctors recommend medical marijuana to patients in medical marijuana states.  The vote was 222 against, 195 in favor, with 14 not-voting.  

A few of the no votes caught my eye: Democrats Ann Kirkpatrick of Arizona (a medical marijuana state), Rick Larson of Washington (a legalization state), Sandy Levin of Michigan (a medical marijuana state) and last but not least DNC Chair Debbie Wasserman Schultz of Florida (a soon-to-be-medical marijuana state.)  

I imagine all four took votes that were both very much at odds with their districts generally and their core supporters in particular.  Of course, the Democratic party has quite a history of abandoning its base (usually to its own detriment in my opinion) in recent years, so I can't say I'm surprised to see there are still some tone-deaf Democrats in Congress on this issue.  

In fact, in many ways the vote is notworthy for coming as close as it did.  I believe the last House vote on a marijuana reform proposal was 163 to 262 in 2012 (though there may be a more recent vote I'm forgetting), so support for changing marijuana laws seems like it may be picking up.  

 

April 30, 2014 in Current Affairs, Federal Marijuana Laws, Policies and Practices, Medical Marijuana Commentary and Debate | Permalink | Comments (0)

Tuesday, April 29, 2014

This is your brain on drugs: what a recent fMRI study can and can’t tell us about the effects of marijuana use

Two weeks ago (okay, I'm late to the party), news broke of a new study showing that the brains of casual marijuana users are different than those of non-users. The study was just published in the Journal of Neuroscience and can be found here.

The researchers used magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) to scan the brains of 40 young adults aged 18-25. 20 of those subjects were casual marijuana users and 20 were non-users. Controlling for other behaviors such as alcohol and tobacco use, the researchers found that marijuana use was correlated with changes to the shape, size, and density of particular areas of the brain. From the study:

“The results of this study indicate that in young, recreational marijuana users, structural abnormalities in gray matter density, volume, and shape of the nucleus accumbens and amygdala can be observed. Pending confirmation in other cohorts of marijuana users, the present findings suggest that further study of marijuana effects are needed to help inform discussion about the legalization of marijuana.”

The study generated a lot of media coverage, and, unfortunately, over-statements of the study’s actual implications for ongoing policy debates. For example, the Society for Neuroscience issued a press release for the study. The release, while titled with appropriate caution (“Brain Changes are Associated with Casual Marijuana Use in Young Adults”), relays unsupported claims from scientists regarding the ramifications of the study. One of the authors, Hans Breiter, is quoted as saying ““This study raises a strong challenge to the idea that casual marijuana use isn’t associated with bad consequences.” And Carl Lupica, a researcher from the National Institute on Drug Abuse who was not involved with the study, similarly suggests that “This study suggests that even light to moderate recreational marijuana use can cause changes in brain anatomy.”  

The problem is that the study doesn’t necessarily support such conclusions. The study’s findings, while intriguing and valuable, are still quite limited. For one thing, the study will need to be replicated. The subject pool of 40 is rather small. That’s not reason enough to dismiss the study -- much brain science research relies on small n studies, because MRIs are cumbersome and expensive, and one can find statistically significant results with small pools – but it is reason to be particularly cautious about the results pre-replication.

Second, correlation doesn’t equal causation. Law policymakers commonly ignore this important scientific concept, but even scientists sometimes get ahead of themselves and jump to conclusions not warranted by a study’s design. In this study, for example, it is quite possible that people who use marijuana have differently sized and shaped brains to begin with; for example, maybe their brains are simply wired to seek out more risky behaviors and that’s why they’ve decided to use an illicit substance. Since we don’t know the size and shapes of these brains before they started using marijuana, we can’t say which came first: the marijuana usage or “the structural abnormalities in gray matter density, volume, and shape of the nucleus accumbens and amygdala.”

Third, even if the study’s results could be replicated and even if they could (somehow) demonstrate a causal connection between marijuana use and brain structure, it’s not clear from this study anyway why we should care. To be sure, different areas of the brain are associated with different functions and I wouldn't want to tinker with the size, shape, or density of my brain. But the study’s author’s can’t yet say that the changes they observe in brain structure necessarily cause negative changes in behavior.  For example, some studies suggest that the nucleus accumbens might play a role in drug addiction. But it’s not clear whether that changes observed in this study are associated with (let alone cause) marijuana addiction or any other bad behavioral outcomes; indeed, the authors made a point of excluding “dependent” marijuana users from the subject pool.

Law and neuroscience is a very promising field. It is generating intriguing findings concerning important issues like culpability. But as the best in this nascent field know, there is still much to be learned about the brain. This study is an intriguing development and clearly worthy of more follow ups. I think research on the brain cold help us understand marijuana’s effects and put them in perspective with those of alcohol, tobacco, cocaine, etc. But for now, bold statements about the import of brain science for policy debates over marijuana seem premature.

April 29, 2014 in Criminal justice developments and reforms, Current Affairs, Medical Marijuana Commentary and Debate, Medical Marijuana Data and Research, Medical Marijuana State Laws and Reforms, Recreational Marijuana Commentary and Debate, Recreational Marijuana Data and Research, Recreational Marijuana State Laws and Reforms, Science | Permalink | Comments (2)

Monday, April 28, 2014

Oregon Rep. Blumenauer releases campaign ad on marijuana reform

Via DrugWarRant, Portland Congressman Earl Bluemenauer has released a campaign ad highlighting his support of marijuana reform.  It was not that long ago that supporting marijuana legalization was considered a political death sentence.  Though Blumenauer is in a safe seat without much of a reelection challenge, his ad is the latest sign that politicians are starting to catch up to the changing politics on this issue.  

 

April 28, 2014 in Current Affairs | Permalink | Comments (1)

Thursday, April 24, 2014

Justice Stevens says marijuana should be legal

My good friend Tom Angell of Marijuana Marjority just alerted me to some big news from an NPR interview today with retired Justice John Paul Stevens.  

Justice Stevens says he supports marijuana legalization

Retired Justice John Paul Stevens made some news in an interview with NPR's Scott Simon on Thursday.

 

Scott asked him if the federal government should legalize marijuana.

 

"Yes," Stevens replied. "I really think that that's another instance of public opinion [that's] changed. And recognize that the distinction between marijuana and alcoholic beverages is really not much of a distinction. Alcohol, the prohibition against selling and dispensing alcoholic beverages has I think been generally, there's a general consensus that it was not worth the cost. And I think really in time that will be the general consensus with respect to this particular drug."

Justice Stevens had a few notable opinions related to marijuana hile on the Court.  Perhaps most famously, Justice Stevens authored the majority opinion in Raich, a case upholding the federal government's power to prosecute minor marijuana cases.  Of course, that decision had everything to do with the commerce power and little to do with Stevens' view of marijuana policy.  

A somewhat lesser known case gave us hints of his policy views, however.  In Morse v. Frederick (aka the "Bong Hits for Jesus" student speech case), Justice Stevens wrote a dissent that concluded by linking marijuana and alcohol prohibition:

Reaching back still further, the current dominant opinion supporting the war on drugs in general, and our antimarijuana laws in particular, is reminiscent of the opinion that supported the nationwide ban on alcohol consumption when I was a student. While alcoholic beverages are now regarded as ordinary articles of commerce, their use was then condemned with the same moral fervor that now supports the war on drugs. The ensuing change in public opinion occurred much more slowly than the relatively rapid shift in Americans’ views on the Vietnam War, and progressed on a state-by-state basis over a period of many years. But just as prohibition in the 1920’s and early 1930’s was secretly questioned by thousands of otherwise law-abiding patrons of bootleggers and speakeasies, today the actions of literally millions of otherwise law-abiding users of marijuana, and of the majority of voters in each of the several States that tolerate medicinal uses of the product, lead me to wonder whether the fear of disapproval by those in the majority is silencing opponents of the war on drugs. Surely our national experience with alcohol should make us wary of dampening speech suggesting—however inarticulately—that it would be better to tax and regulate marijuana than to persevere in a futile effort to ban its use entirely. 

 

Even in high school, a rule that permits only one point of view to be expressed is less likely to produce correct answers than the open discussion of countervailing views. Whitney, 274 U. S., at 377 (Brandeis, J., concurring); Abrams, 250 U. S., at 630 (Holmes, J., dissenting); Tinker, 393 U. S., at 512. In the national debate about a serious issue, it is the expression of the minority’s viewpoint that most demands the protection of the First Amendment . Whatever the better policy may be, a full and frank discussion of the costs and benefits of the attempt to prohibit the use of marijuana is far wiser than suppression of speech because it is unpopular.

 

I respectfully dissent.

April 24, 2014 in Current Affairs | Permalink | Comments (0)

Tuesday, April 15, 2014

Holder is "cautiously optimistic" about legalization in Colorado and Washington

From the Huffington Post today, Attorney General Eric Holder makes some noteworthy commenst on marijuana legalization.  Holder said he was "cautiously optimistic" about the implementation of legalization in Colorado and Washington so far.  But, he noted, "we will be monitoring the progress of those efforts and if we conclude that they are not being done in an appropriate way, we reserve our rights to file lawsuits."

Another interesting note, the article describes Holder's decision not to reschedule marijuana as a "political" one and quotes Holder as saying:

"I think that given what we have done in dealing with the whole Smart on Crime initiative and the executive actions that we have taken, that when it comes to rescheduling, I think this is something that should come from Congress," Holder said. "We'd be willing to work with Congress if there is a desire on the part of Congress to think about rescheduling. But I think I'd want to hear, get a sense from them about where they'd like to be."

Though Holder's comments aren't much different from what the administration has said already, HuffPo's description of rescheduling as a "political" decision brings to mind the flexibility of the CSA.  The CSA purports to provide scientific criteria for classifying and regulating mind-altering substances.  But, as I've written  about elsewhere, the criteria are so open-ended that they don't do much to constrain administrative decision-making.  

Though I doubt Congress will take Holder up on the offer to work with the on rescheduling marijuana, if this issue does start to gain momentum in Washington, I hope that legislators will use the opportunity to rethink the CSA's classification scheme at a more fundamental level.  In its current incarnation, it is too malleable and incoherent to effectively guide administrators.    

April 15, 2014 in Current Affairs, Federal Marijuana Laws, Policies and Practices | Permalink | Comments (0)

Wednesday, March 26, 2014

NORML and DPA blog posts on CBD-only "medical marijuana" laws

As Rob explained last week, calling Alabama's CBD-only law a medical marijuana law is a stretch for a number of reasons.  Yesterday, bloggers for NORML and the Drug Policy Alliance weighed in on the emergence of CBD only laws.  Both posts are well worth reading in their entirety.

For NORML, Paul Armentano discussed measures in Utah and Alabama, saying that describing them as medical marijuana laws is "far from accurate." 

For DPA, Amanda Reiman discussed the idea of CBD-only legislation more generally:

So, is CBD-only legislation a good thing?

 

Yes and no.

 

In some states, the only way medical marijuana is going to get its foot in the door is through the strictest of incrementalism. And, preventing access to an effective, safe and natural medicine for families in those states is of course, not a preferred outcome.

 

But, what about the children and adults with cancer, HIV and other serious illnesses in those states whose use of THC rich medicine might ease the nausea and pain associated with their treatments?

 

The adoption of CBD-only legislation might be a way to start the conversation in some states, but it should not be the end.

March 26, 2014 in Current Affairs | Permalink | Comments (0)