Saturday, November 2, 2013
In their 2012 book Marijuana Legalization: What Everyone Needs to Know, Jonathan Caulkins and three other drug policy scholars identify the impact of repealing pot prohibition on alcohol consumption as the most important thing no one knows. Are cannabis and alcohol complements, so that drinking can be expected to increase along with pot smoking? Or are they substitutes, implying that more pot smoking will mean less drinking? For analysts attempting to calculate the costs and benefits of legalizing marijuana, the question matters a lot, because alcohol is considerably more dangerous than marijuana by most measures. If the two products are complements, states that legalize marijuana can expect to see more consumption of both, exacerbating existing health and safety problems. But if the two products are substitutes, legalizing marijuana can alleviate those problems by reducing alcohol consumption.
Reviewing the evidence in the Journal of Policy Analysis and Management, Montana State University economist D. Mark Anderson and University of Colorado economist Daniel Rees find that “studies based on clearly defined natural experiments generally support the hypothesis that marijuana and alcohol are substitutes.” [Study Here] Increasing the drinking age seems to result in more marijuana consumption, for instance, and pot smoking drops off sharply at age 21, “suggesting that young adults treat alcohol and marijuana as substitutes.” Another study found that legalizing marijuana for medical use is associated with a drop in beer sales and a decrease in heavy drinking. These results, Anderson and Rees say, “suggest that, as marijuana becomes more available, young adults in Colorado and Washington will respond by drinking less, not more.”
That conclusion is consistent with earlier research in which Anderson and Rees found that enacting medical marijuana laws is associated with a 13 percent drop in traffic fatalities. [Study Here] That effect could be due to the fact that marijuana impairs driving ability much less dramatically than alcohol does, although the fact that alcohol is more likely to be consumed outside the home (resulting in more driving under its influence) may play a role as well....
Anderson and Rees note that UCLA drug policy expert Mark Kleiman, who co-wrote Marijuana Legalization and has been advising Washington’s cannabis regulators, recently described a worst-case scenario for legalization featuring an increase in heavy drinking, “carnage on our highways,” and a “massive” increase in marijuana consumption among teenagers. “Kleiman’s worst-case scenario is possible, but not likely,” they conclude. “Based on existing empirical evidence, we expect that the legalization of recreational marijuana in Colorado and Washington will lead to increased marijuana consumption coupled with decreased alcohol consumption. As a consequence, these states will experience a reduction in the social harms resulting from alcohol use. While it is more than likely that marijuana produced by state-sanctioned growers will end up in the hands of minors, we predict that overall youth consumption will remain stable. On net, we predict the public-health benefits of legalization to be positive.”
Notably, this commentary and the research it emphasizes appears only to consider the public health benefits that could result from folks substituting marijuana use for alcohol use. I have long thought that another possible public health benefit could flow from marijuana legalization if some heavy cigarette smokers end up smoking less in total because they sometimes substitute a few joints for a few packs of cigs. Similarly, one might further speculate that there might be a positive "reverse gateway" effect from marijuana legalization with respect to other dangerous drug use and abuse: perhaps fewer folks will try using, or end up harmfully abusing, harder drugs like ecstasy and heroin and meth and oxycodone if they can get always get a cheap and legal buzz from marijuana.
Of course, a lot of research about the use and abuse of various drugs will be needed in order to come to dependable conclusions about the full public health impact of modern marijuana reform developments. Still, especially when everyone is understandably all worked up about the Obamacare roll-out and broader health care reform realities, it is fun to speculate that modern marijuana reforms could end up being the most consequential and positive public health development of the Obama era.
I have long been drawn to the marijuana legal reform movement due to my general affinity for expanding personal freedom and my generally disaffinity for big-government programs like the war on drugs that seem very costly and mostly ineffective. But I have always respected the concerns expressed by serious people that pot prohibition is a public health necessity and that even modest moves toward marijuana legalization could prove costly and harmful in various ways. Without getting too much into the weeds of an empirical debate, I wonder if those who are vigorously opposed to (or even just generally resistant to) marijuana reform movements would still oppose reform if (and when?) empirical evidence starts to show that (some? many? all?) US public health measures and metrics are improved in the wake of marijuana legalization reforms.
Colorado could have more than 100 recreational-marijuana stores open Jan. 1, according to newly released numbers from the state's Marijuana Enforcement Division. The division, which oversees Colorado's regulation of marijuana businesses, accepted 136 applications in October from people seeking to open recreational pot shops. The division also accepted 28 applications for recreational marijuana-infused-products businesses and 174 applications for recreational cultivation facilities.
The businesses that applied in October will have a decision made on their applications by the end of the year, said Julie Postlethwait, a spokeswoman for the Marijuana Enforcement Division. That means they are in line to open Jan. 1, the earliest date for recreational-marijuana sales in Colorado.
By law, all of the applications came from people currently operating medical-marijuana businesses in Colorado. But the tallies represent just a fraction of the state's medical-marijuana industry. Colorado has 517 medical-marijuana dispensaries, 138 medical-marijuana-infused products businesses and 736 medical-marijuana-cultivation facilities, according to the Marijuana Enforcement Division.
"It's expensive," Meg Collins, the executive director of the Cannabis Business Alliance, said in explaining why so few medical-marijuana businesses are seeking to add a recreational component. "In the discussions I've had with folks, I think that one of the things that possibly forestalled people from immediately jumping in is the financial consideration."
Application fees for new recreational-marijuana businesses start at $500 and licensing fees range from $2,750 to $14,000, depending on the type of business and other factors. Postlethwait said the division has not finished its accounting on how much money it collected in October, but estimated that application fees alone brought in around $179,000.
Only two of the businesses that have applied indicated they would make a full conversion to recreational sales, Postlethwait said. The rest intend to operate jointly as medical- and recreational-marijuana stores. In some cases, those businesses will have to divide the shops with a wall and give each shop a separate entrance.
Local bans and moratoriums on recreational pot sales — including in places such as Colorado Springs and Boulder, each of which has dozens of medical-marijuana dispensaries — have also kept recreational applications down, said Mike Elliott, the executive director of the Medical Marijuana Industry Group. Still, Elliott said more businesses are applying for recreational licenses this month and they, too, could receive permission to open shortly into the new year.
Tuesday, October 22, 2013
For marijuana advocates, the last 12 months have been a period of unprecedented success as Washington and Colorado became the first states to legalize recreational use of marijuana. And now for the first time, a clear majority of Americans (58%) say the drug should be legalized. This is in sharp contrast to the time Gallup first asked the question in 1969, when only 12% favored legalization.
Public support for legalization more than doubled in the 1970s, growing to 28%. It then plateaued during the 1980s and 1990s before inching steadily higher since 2000, reaching 50% in 2011. A sizable percentage of Americans (38%) this year admitted to having tried the drug, which may be a contributing factor to greater acceptance.
Success at the ballot box in the past year in Colorado and Washington may have increased Americans' tolerance for marijuana legalization. Support for legalization has jumped 10 percentage points since last November and the legal momentum shows no sign of abating. Last week, California's second-highest elected official, Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom, said that pot should be legal in the Golden State, and advocates of legalization are poised to introduce a statewide referendum in 2014 to legalize the drug....
Independents' growing support for legalization has mostly driven the jump in Americans' overall support. Sixty-two percent of independents now favor legalization, up 12 points from November 2012. Support for legalization among Democrats and Republicans saw little change. Yet there is a marked divide between Republicans, who still oppose legalizing marijuana, and Democrats and independents.
Americans 65 and older are the only age group that still opposes legalizing marijuana. Still, support among this group has jumped 14 percentage points since 2011. In contrast, 67% of Americans aged 18 to 29 back legalization. Clear majorities of Americans aged 30 to 64 also favor legalization....
Whatever the reasons for Americans' greater acceptance of marijuana, it is likely that this momentum will spur further legalization efforts across the United States. Advocates of legalizing marijuana say taxing and regulating the drug could be financially beneficial to states and municipalities nationwide. But detractors such as law enforcement and substance abuse professionals have cited health risks including an increased heart rate, and respiratory and memory problems.
With Americans' support for legalization quadrupling since 1969, and localities on the East Coast such as Portland, Maine, considering a symbolic referendum to legalize marijuana, it is clear that interest in this drug and these issues will remain elevated in the foreseeable future.
Friday, September 20, 2013
A couple of my students have noticed a recent report on a new study linking marijuana use and a lack of motivation. And one of these students earned extra credit by doing the following effective formal write up of the study and some of the questions it prompts:
As we consider the downsides of a potential legalization regime, one of the questions that remains hotly debated is: “what exactly are the health/lifestyle hazards of marijuana use?” While information (and misinformation) abound, a new study may buttress those who condemn marijuana usage because they feel it encourages laziness and a lack of motivation in youth.
The study, conducted by researchers at three London-based universities, focused on cannabis users who had had “psychotic-like experiences” while using cannabis and found that heavier users (“HU”)* and younger users (i.e. users in their adolescence, or “YU”) had decreased levels of dopamine compared to peers. The lowest levels were found in younger heavy users (“YHU”). This result surprised the researchers, who were expecting the opposite because psychosis has been tied to increased levels of dopamine.
While the research took a different turn, the researchers tied this finding to another theory: the lower dopamine levels may explain the “lack of motivation” that many attribute to heavy users of marijuana. The limited parameters of the study does not provide any hard science on users who have not experienced psychotic episodes, but Dr. Michael Bloomfield, who led the study, believes that “the findings would apply to cannabis users in general, since we didn’t see a stronger effect in the subjects who have more psychotic-like symptoms.” However, he believes that this would need more testing.
It is worth noting that a recent study by researchers at Columbia University, concentrating on users who averaged 517±465 puffs per month (“ppm”), had similar results with regard to the YHU population, but overall found that compared to other addictions, such as alcoholism and cocaine and heroin dependence, mild or moderate cannabis addiction was not associated with decreased dopamine levels.
While this data and debate is certainly intriguing, how does it relate back to our analysis of the perils of a legalization regime? Several questions are unanswered: (1) How does this data compare to alcohol use? (2) What about YHUs of alcohol? (3) Can a regulatory system deal with these problems effectively by mitigating the YHU numbers? (4) Has our current regulatory regime had an impact with regard to YHUs and alcohol?
Thursday, September 19, 2013
Minnesota sheriff asserts "approximately 54 percent of males arrested for violent crime test positive for marijuana in Hennepin County." Really?
The U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) recently announced that it does not intend to challenge policies in Colorado and Washington state that legalized the sale and recreational use of marijuana to adults — despite the fact that these state laws are in opposition to federal law.
As president of the Major County Sheriffs’ Association, I have joined a broad coalition of law enforcement officers from across the country to express our extreme disappointment with this unprecedented decision.
As law enforcement officials with decades of experience, we know that keeping neighborhoods safe will become more difficult for our men and women on the front lines because of the DOJ’s decision.....
Marijuana is an addictive gateway drug that harms Minnesota’s children and public safety in every community in our state. As sheriff of Hennepin County, I am concerned that legalization of marijuana in other states and reduced federal prosecution will increase the availability of marijuana in Minnesota.
I have seen firsthand in Hennepin County that there is a direct connection between marijuana and violent crime. Drug task forces here have linked marijuana to assaults and homicides. In the Hennepin County Adult Detention Center, marijuana is the most commonly detected drug among the 36,000 inmates who are booked into the facility each year. According to our most recent data, approximately 54 percent of males arrested for violent crime test positive for marijuana in Hennepin County.
The student who sent me the link to this claim by Hennepin County sheriff Rich Stanek remarked that this number seems very high. I share this reaction, in part because I think advocates against modern marijuana reforms would be frequently stressing a link between marijuana and violent crime if it was common to find in more than a few justidictions that over half of all males arrested for violent crimes tested positive for marijuana. (Of course, we all know that correlation does not prove causation and that prohibition rather than legalization might be the reason marijuana users turn to crime, but such a statistic still struck me as potentially quite valuable for the anti-reform forces in the broader debate.)
Intrigued by the data claim made here by Sheriff Stanek, I have now written via e-mail directly to the Hennepin County Sheriff's Office seeking more information about the basis for these claims linking marijuana use and violent crime. (I quickly got this automated response to the e-inquiry: "Emails are answered when staff is available to view them and respond. It may take several days before your email is viewed. Thank you for your patience.")
While patiently waiting for more information concerning these violent crime data claims from the Hennepin County Sheriff's Office, I did a little digging about drug testing of arrestees and found that the Office of National Drug Control Policy released this 2012 Annual Report on arrestee drug abuse. With a focus on five major US cities (none in Minnesota), this report found that in 2012, "the proportion of [big city] arrestees testing positive for marijuana ranged from 37 percent in Atlanta to 58 percent in Chicago," but it also reported that only "17 percent (Atlanta) to 27 percent (Chicago) of [these] arrestees in 2012 had a violent crime as one of the charges recorded for the current arrest."
In other words, though there appears to be extant (and seemingly rigorous) data from the ONDCP report to support a claim that a majority of total arrestees in some urban areas may test positive for marijuana, there is still reason to suspect that nonviolent drug arrestee (particularly those arrested for marijuana offenses) will be disproportionately among those testing positive for marijuana, as opposed to those who are arrested for violent crimes. (And there are other interaction and intersectionality concerns with the data here too, as a significant percentage of arrestees in the ONDCP groups tested positive for multiple drugs in their system and reported alcohol and prescription drug abuse, too.)
Interestingly, two of the five cities that are the focus of the ONDCP report are in medicial marijuana states (Denver and Sacremento), while the three others are in prohibition states (Atlanta, Chicago and New York). It might be interesting (though surely challenging) for a sophisticated empiricist to use the ONDCP data to explore whether big-city arrestee drug use data is potentially impacted by marijuana laws in a particular state.
September 19, 2013 in 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 | Permalink | Comments (3)
Monday, August 19, 2013
[S]ome health professionals say it’s a matter of picking your poison. "It’s like trying to compare different weapons. Both have the potential to cause harm," said Dr. Scott Teitelbaum, professor and vice chairman of the Department of Psychiatry and chief of the Division of Addiction Medicine, at University of Florida. "I don’t know that there’s a clear answer."
For starters, the term toxic can be vague. Dr. Cynthia Lewis-Younger, medical director of the Florida Poison Information Center in Tampa, said toxic can be "anything that causes harm. It is possible to drink enough water to poison yourself. It’s more related to the dose than anything else."
The Marijuana Policy Project’s claim that marijuana is "less toxic" rankles some health professionals and anti-drug organizations who criticize the inference that using the drug is okay....
Our rulingAn ad from the Marijuana Policy Project claims marijuana is "less toxic" than alcohol. Our job as fact-checkers in this case is not to decide whether marijuana is good or harmful. We're focused on whether the drug in its natural form is "less toxic" than alcohol.
In that regard, science and statistics present a strong case:
- Deaths or even trips to the hospital are much more likely due to alcohol;
- Scientists could not find any documented deaths from smoking marijuana;
- A study found the safety ratio for marijuana (the number of doses to cause death) is much greater than compared to alcohol. Put another way, marijuana is 100 times less toxic than alcohol.
Overall, we rate this claim Mostly True.