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Drug warriors are still crying 'reefer madness.' The facts don't support them

Those concerned about the negative effects of drugs should welcome efforts to control the cannabis market

In their op-ed article against cannabis legalization, former drug czar William J. Bennett and Seth Leibsohn yearn for a time when fear-mongering, not facts, drove the marijuana policy debate in America. Those days are over.

Bennett and Leibsohn blame the "marijuana lobby" for re-shaping the way Americans think about what they consider to be a truly dangerous drug. But the reality is that voters' views on pot have evolved in recent years based on both the failures of prohibition and the success of legalization and regulation. For decades, those opposed to amending cannabis criminalization warned that any significant change in marijuana policy would lead to a plethora of unintended consequences. Yet the initial experience in Colorado and Washington, in addition to many other states’ deep-rooted experiences regulating the production and distribution of marijuana for therapeutic purposes, has shown these fears to be misplaced.

For example, neither the imposition of statewide medical marijuana legalization nor the establishment of dispensaries is associated with increases in violent crimes, burglary or property crimes, according to the available literature. A federally commissioned study appearing in the Journal of Studies on Alcohol and Drugs determined that there are "no observed associations between the density of medical marijuana dispensaries and either violent or property crime rates." A second paper, published in PLOS One, concluded that legalizing medical marijuana access at the state level "is not predictive of higher crime rates and may be related to reductions in rates of homicide and assault." 

Similarly, incidences of violent crime in Denver, the epicenter of Colorado’s commercial marijuana industry, fell significantly following the opening of retail marijuana businesses in 2014. Between Jan. 1 and April 30 last year, violent crime and property crime dropped 10.6% compared with that same span one year earlier.

Liberalized marijuana laws also are not predictive of upticks in overall cannabis use by young people. Authors of a July 2014 paper published by the nonpartisan National Bureau of Economic Research assessed federal data on youth marijuana use and treatment episodes for the years 1993 to 2011 — a period when 16 states authorized medical cannabis use. Here is what they determined: "Our results are not consistent with the hypothesis that the legalization of medical marijuana caused an increase in the use of marijuana among high school students. In fact, estimates from our preferred specification are small, consistently negative and are never statistically distinguishable from zero."

Likewise, state survey data released last August by the Colorado Department of Public Health & Environment found that fewer high school students in the state consumed cannabis in 2013 as compared with 2011. (Marijuana legalization went into effect in Colorado in 2012, although retail sales of cannabis to adults did not begin until Jan. 1, 2014.) According to the survey, the percentage of high schoolers who reported using marijuana within the past 30 days fell from 22% in 2011 to 20% in 2013 — a percentage that is below the national average.

In short, government can regulate cannabis in a manner that satisfies the seller, the consumer and the taxman — and the sky won't fall. Just the opposite is true. Regulations, such as age restrictions for consumers and licensing requirements for commercial producers and merchants, are effective and proven alternatives to prohibition.

For instance, the public's overall consumption of alcohol and tobacco, and young people's use in particular, now stands at near-historic lows. According to recent federal government figures, alcohol consumption within the past 30 days among young people has fallen from 70% of 12th-graders in 1980 to 40% today. Monthly tobacco use among 12th-graders has similarly plunged, from nearly 40% in the late 1970s to just 16% today.

These results have not been achieved by imposing blanket criminalization upon society, but rather by regulation and public education.

Policymakers, as well as pundits like Bennett and Leibsohn, should welcome the opportunity to bring these necessary and long-overdue controls to the cannabis market.

A pragmatic regulatory framework that allows for the legal, licensed commercial production and retail sale of cannabis to adults but restricts its use among young people — coupled with a legal environment that fosters open, honest dialogue between parents and children about cannabis' potential harms — best reduces the risks associated with the plant's use or abuse.

It makes no sense from a public health perspective, a fiscal perspective or a moral perspective to perpetuate the prosecution and stigmatization of those adults who choose to responsibly consume a substance that is objectively safer than either alcohol or tobacco.

Paul Armentano is the deputy director of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws and coauthor of the book "Marijuana Is Safer: So Why Are We Driving People to Drink?" He is also a senior policy advisor for Freedom Leaf Inc. 

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