Marijuana Law, Policy & Reform

Editor: Douglas A. Berman
Moritz College of Law

Sunday, January 6, 2019

Another notable commentary about the risks of marijuana legalization (without accounting for harms of prohibition)

I spotlighted in this recent post Alex Berenson's notable new Wall Street Journal commentary under the full headline "Marijuana Is More Dangerous Than You Think: As legalization spreads, more Americans are becoming heavy users of cannabis, despite its links to violence and mental illness."  I now see that Berenson, who has a forthcoming book on this topic, has followed up his WSJ effort with this new New York Times opinion piece headlined "What Advocates of Legalizing Pot Don’t Want You to Know: The wave toward legalization ignores the serious health risks of marijuana."  

Though both pieces cover similar ground, I find Berenson's NYT piece is much less effective because it mostly involves assailing advocates for marijuana reform based on claims about the risks of marijuana without engaging serious with the harms of marijuana prohibition.  Here are excerpts:

This huge shift in public attitudes [on marijuana legalization] comes even though most Americans do not use the drug. Only 15 percent of people over 12 used it even once in 2017, according to a large federal survey.  That year, only three million people tried it for the first time. Instead, the change has been largely driven by decades-long lobbying by marijuana legalization advocates and for-profit cannabis companies.

Those groups have shrewdly recast marijuana as a medicine rather than an intoxicant. Some have even claimed that marijuana can help slow the opioid epidemic, though studies show that people who use cannabis are more likely to start using opioids later.

Meanwhile, legalization advocates have squelched discussion of the serious mental health risks of marijuana and THC, the chemical responsible for the drug’s psychoactive effects.  As I have seen firsthand in writing a book about cannabis, anyone who raises those concerns may be mocked as a modern-day believer in “Reefer Madness,” the notorious 1936 movie that portrays young people descending into insanity and violence after smoking marijuana....

Scientists must do much more research to understand how cannabis can cause psychosis, and the strength of the link. But hospitals are already seeing the effect of these new use patterns.  According to the federal Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality, in 2006, emergency rooms saw 30,000 cases of people who had diagnoses of psychosis and marijuana-use disorder — the medical term for abuse or dependence on the drug. By 2014, that number had tripled to 90,000....

I am not a prohibitionist. I don’t believe we should jail people for possessing marijuana. But the advocacy community has sharply overstated the level of marijuana-related incarceration.

Many people are arrested for marijuana possession, but very few end up imprisoned. California reported in 2013, the most recent year for which this data is available, that only 441 of its 134,000 prisoners were incarcerated for all marijuana-related crimes. If arrests for marijuana possession are a major racial justice concern, the solution is decriminalizing possession, turning it into a violation equivalent to littering.

But advocacy groups don’t view decriminalization as an acceptable compromise. They want full legalization, making marijuana a state-regulated and -taxed drug that businesses can sell and profit from.

As I see it, what "decades-long lobbying by marijuana legalization advocates" has been mostly about is the extraordinary harms of marijuana prohibitions, which are borne disproportionately by people of color and the poor.  Younger persons are the most consistent supporters of marijuana reform, and it is not generally medical benefits, but drug war costs, that seem to fuel their interest in ending prohibition.

Berenson not unreasonable suggests that so-called "decriminalization" can help address the drug war problems and harms of prohibition, but that has not been the lived experience in states and localities that have tried decriminalization reforms. Especially in urban area, disparate enforcement of marijuana rules and regulations keep the harms of prohibition largely in place (especially because serious expungement efforts have only moved forward in full legalization states).

I make these points while being especially eager to take seriously the public health and public safety concerns that Berenson and others are eager to raise as marijuana reform continues to gain steam.  But I think it particular important to not lose sight of the harms of prohibition, and the severely unequal distribution of those harms, even as we take seriously the risks of legalization.

Prior related post:

Flagging concerns about potential links between marijuana, mental illness and violence

Medical Marijuana Commentary and Debate, Recreational Marijuana Commentary and Debate | Permalink


the main risks about legalizing marijuana is is losing control of your cannabis intake and the addiction of marijuana. Since many marijuana users believe what they’re doing won’t hurt them, they feel much more comfortable falling into a habit of constantly using the drug.

Posted by: kevin joseph | Jan 7, 2019 1:29:42 AM

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