Friday, August 15, 2014
As I noted a few weeks ago, a new podcast called Marijuana Today has started up to take a weekly look at the latest in marijuana business and politics.
I had the chance to appear as a panelist on this week's episode alongside Taylor West (Deputy Director of the National Cannabis Industry Association), Adam Smith (drug policy reform movement veteran), and the show's host, Kris Lotlikar. Though I'm biased, I thought it was a great conversation and I had a lot of fun doing it. We talked about Colorado's new youth anti-marijuana ads, federal roadblocks to marijuana research, and Gavin Newsom's latest comments on marijuana legalization, among other things.
Wednesday, August 13, 2014
I haven’t blogged for a while, but I’ve been enjoying Doug’s and Alex’s and Rebecca’s posts over the summer.
After starting up several new projects over the summer, I’m finally able to begin blogging again. In my first few posts, I’m actually going to focus on one of the projects that consumed my summer time -- a symposium paper I’m writing tentatively called The Local Option for Marijuana. The paper asks whether states should allow local governments to ban marijuana sales, notwithstanding state legalization of the drug. Doug, Alex, and I have debated the merits of the local option before – see posts and comments here, here, and here. I think we identified most of the major arguments both for and against local control. But it also became clear to me that many of our arguments depended on contested assumptions about the effects of local control. For example, local control looks a lot less appealing if it simply displaces – rather than reduces – the harms associated with marijuana distribution (DUIs, etc.). But it’ll probably be decades before we can know with any certainty what happens when local communities ban vs. allow marijuana distribution. And that will simply be too late for most states, which must decide now whether to grant local governments the option of banning marijuana sales.
Fortunately, we do have decades of experience with local control of alcohol that could prove instructive. Since the mid-to-late 1800s, states have delegated power to local governments to control – even ban -- the distribution of alcohol. Indeed, hundreds of counties inhabited by roughly 10% of the nation’s population remain “dry” today. Social scientists have exploited county-by -county variations to test the effects of various local controls on alcohol consumption, cirrhosis, traffic fatalities, etc. In this article, I’m poring through that research for lessons about local control over marijuana. I have a few tentatively formed conclusions that I’ll share in the coming days. As always, I’m open to comments, critiques, and suggestions – sources, avenues of inquiry, etc.
August 13, 2014 in Current Affairs, History of Alcohol Prohibition and Temperance Movements, Medical Marijuana State Laws and Reforms, Recreational Marijuana State Laws and Reforms | Permalink | Comments (1)
Thursday, August 7, 2014
This morning's New York Times has this lengthy new article about the modern businesses surrounding marijuana reform headlined "Start-Ups Seize Marijuana Opportunities as Big Companies Hold Back." Here are excerpts:
When Garett Fortune’s brother was found to have cancer in early 2013, it was so advanced that all he could do was to try to live out the remainder of his life in as little pain and discomfort as possible. That meant taking about 30 pills a day, Mr. Fortune said — until his brother tried marijuana. “I saw him go from 30 pills a day to almost zero,” he said. “It helped his appetite and the nausea. He had a way better quality of life at the end than he would have without the cannabis. It made me a proponent of the industry.”
It also gave Mr. Fortune the idea for a business. With more states legalizing marijuana for medical uses — and, in Colorado and Washington, recreational ones — Mr. Fortune identified one of the industry’s challenges: packaging. The old standby, the resealable plastic bag, was not sufficiently effective, especially for a regulated industry, and Mr. Fortune already owned OdorNo, a company that made odor-proof bags for human and animal waste.
Mr. Fortune proposed a new product, odor-proof and child-resistant marijuana bags, to OdorNo’s advisory board. He expected the members to laugh him out of the room, but they did not. “Every single one of them told me: ‘This is the biggest opportunity on the planet right now. Follow that.’”
In May he licensed out production and distribution of OdorNo, and he and his team began building FunkSac in Denver. Although FunkSac bags are awaiting government approval, Mr. Fortune said he had hundreds of thousands of orders from cultivators, dispensaries and wholesalers. The company plans to begin delivering them this month and estimates it will have first-year revenue of about $2 million. Mr. Fortune said he had been contacted by dispensaries in 17 of the 22 states where medical marijuana was legal. “Right now,” he said, “it’s like drinking from a fire hose.”
To many, today’s cannabis industry resembles a modern-day Gold Rush. Troy Dayton, co-founder and chief executive of the ArcView Group in San Francisco, a network of 250 high-net-worth investors that backs cannabis start-ups, said more than 30 early-stage companies contact it every week. In the last year, he said, the group sent about $12 million in funding to 14 companies.
The size of the legal cannabis industry in the United States, measured by sales of the plant, was $1.5 billion in 2013, according to ArcView, which projects it will reach $2.6 billion in 2014 and $10 billion by 2018 — figures that do not include the growing numbers of ancillary businesses. The entire industry is dominated by small businesses, Mr. Dayton said, both because it is so new and because marijuana’s legality remains murky. Banks, for example, have been reluctant to take deposits or make loans to dispensaries because the drug is still illegal under federal law.
“You can’t have a national business,” Mr. Dayton said, because the laws vary by state. Opportunities for small businesses also exist because the stigma associated with the industry has discouraged bigger companies from getting involved. “You can’t find another industry growing at this clip that doesn’t have any major players,” he said. “That gives the little guy a chance to make a run at this.”...
SpeedWeed, a Los Angeles delivery service, allows customers to place an order online or by phone and have it delivered — depending on traffic — within 45 minutes. Although there are hundreds of marijuana delivery services in Los Angeles, AJ Gentile, a founder, said SpeedWeed was the largest. “Delivery services here are typically guys driving around in their car with a big box of weed,” he said.
Mr. Gentile said that SpeedWeed worked only with cultivators its legal team had vetted and that along with its delivery service, it planned to sell proprietary software to dispensaries nationwide. He estimated that the company had 20,000 legal customers and that revenue would double this year, up from $1.7 million in 2013.
Biological Advantage, founded in April, has a system of products it plans to introduce this month that are applied to a marijuana plant’s soil and leaves to enhance photosynthesis. The company’s chief executive, John Kempf, is also founder of Advancing Eco Agriculture, a crop-nutrition consulting company he started that has invested $400,000 in Biological Advantage. Mr. Kempf said his companies were a bit ahead of the game, anticipating what the market would need. “Growers aren’t yet looking at nutrition as a means for improving the medicinal concentrations in plants,” he said. “But they will.”
Tuesday, July 22, 2014
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."
Wednesday, July 16, 2014
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%
Tuesday, July 15, 2014
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).
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:
- The Los Angeles Times reports that the "DEA may be losing the war on marijuana politics." As the story explains, "the Drug Enforcement Administration has found itself under attack in Congress as it holds its ground against marijuana legalization while the resolve of longtime political allies — and the White House and Justice Department to which it reports — rapidly fades."
- Seattle's only recreational marijuana shop is already out of product and it doesn't expect to reopen until July 21.
- At Balloon Juice, mistermix argues that New York Governor Andrew Cuomo should not be considered a progressive, citing his involvement in watering down the state's new medical marijuana law: "Cuomo is the governor of one of the most liberal states in the nation. His deal with the progressive Working Families Party makes him a lock for re-election. Medical marijuana is fairly popular (here’s a recent poll showing 78% approval). Yet after considering all that, he still didn’t have the guts to let an already hobbled law pass without further restrictions.
- Marijuana Business Daily reports on a recent Nevada Gaming Control Board ruling that "shows that the casinos are taking a hard line against any connections to cannabis."
- The Cannabist (via Denver Post) reports on yet another tax issue facing marijuana businesses. The IRS requires a 10 % penalty when employee withholding taxes are not paid through the Electronic Federal Tax Payment System. But "pot shops in Colorado often have little choice but to pay employee withholding taxes in cash since banks won’t take their business." Colorado Senator Michael Bennet and Rep. Ed Perlmutter have written a letter to the IRS asking the agency to waive the penalty.
Tuesday, July 8, 2014
As 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.
Monday, June 30, 2014
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.”
Friday, June 20, 2014
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.
Wednesday, June 18, 2014
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.)
Monday, June 16, 2014
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.
Monday, June 2, 2014
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.
Saturday, May 31, 2014
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.
Friday, May 16, 2014
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.
Thursday, May 15, 2014
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.
Tuesday, May 13, 2014
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 Gordon, Will 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.
Wednesday, April 30, 2014
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.
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
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.