George Skelton's reefer rhetoric ("Longtime marijuana use might make you a loser," March 31) hearkens back to a time when marijuana policy was largely shaped by propaganda and prejudice. Times have changed.
Never in modern history has there existed greater public support for ending our nation's nearly century-long experiment with pot prohibition and replacing it with a taxed and regulated adult marketplace.
Greater than 6 in 10 American adults now believe that "the use of marijuana should be made legal," according to just-released nationwide polling data provided by the Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research. In California, 60% of registered voters say that they will vote in favor of an initiative this November "that would legalize marijuana for recreational use under California law and allow government to tax" its retail sales, according to the results of a February Probolsky Research poll.
Unlike Skelton, most Californians understand that the ongoing enforcement of cannabis prohibition financially burdens taxpayers, encroaches upon civil liberties, engenders disrespect for the law and disproportionately impacts young people and communities of color.
But voters do not desire replacing more than a century of criminalization with a marijuana free-for-all. They are aware of the reality that pot possesses some level of risk and that it can be abused. In fact, it is precisely because cannabis is a psychotropic substance with misuse potential that society ought to regulate it accordingly. By contrast, advocating for the herb's continued criminalization does nothing to offset these risks; it compounds them.
Marijuana prohibition drives markets underground, where they are controlled by people who typically operate outside the boundaries of law. Regulation, by contrast, allows for lawmakers to establish legal parameters regarding where, when and how a cannabis market for adults may operate. Legalization also provides oversight regarding who may legally operate in said markets and provides guidelines so that those who do can engage in best practices.
Such regulations already exist for alcohol and tobacco, two substances that are far more dangerous and costlier to society than cannabis. (Specifically, a 2009 review published in the journal of the group British Columbia Mental Health and Addictions estimated that health-related costs per user are eight times higher for drinkers of alcoholic beverages than they are for those who use cannabis, and are more than 40 times higher for tobacco smokers.) The imposition and enforcement of tobacco and alcohol regulations, coupled with public awareness campaigns highlighting these products' risks and acknowledging the distinctions between their use versus abuse, has proved effective at reducing the public's overall consumption of these substances, especially among teens.
One would think Skelton would welcome such efforts, since he wishes to emphasize the purported association between heavy marijuana use and the greater likelihood of economic adversity later in life. But as the UC Davis study he cites at length made clear, such a relationship was only observed and not shown to be causal. The study's authors wrote, "We do not purport to report a causal relationship between cannabis dependence and economic/social problems; cannabis dependence could be a marker of a life trajectory characterized by social and economic adversity." This explanation is certainly plausible. Separate studies using similar methods observe a positive association between early-onset cigarette smoking and lower educational and economic attainment later in life. But I doubt that Skelton would suggest that cigarette smoking is a root cause of unemployment.
It is also likely that those facing social and economic adversity are more likely than those who are not to turn to the use of legal and illegal intoxicants as a coping mechanism. For example, studies find that those persons recently laid off are more likely to turn to cigarette smoking as compared with those who remain employed. It is hardly surprising that many of these same people are likely to turn to other readily accessible intoxicants, such as alcohol and cannabis, as well.
Finally, the study's finding that this observed association between early-onset marijuana use and lower economic prospects later in life is dose-dependent reinforces the notion that distinctions ought to be made between cannabis use and abuse, just as we make similar distinctions with alcohol. Unfortunately, a legal environment in which marijuana is criminalized and its consumers are stigmatized is not conducive to imposing such common-sense, evidence-based practices. A pragmatic regulatory framework that allows for the legal, licensed commercial production and retail sale of cannabis to adults but restricts and discourages its use among young people best reduces the risks associated with the plant's use or abuse. It also provides an environment whereby consumers can best learn the skills and knowledge to readily delineate between the two behaviors.
That is why most Californians welcome the opportunity to bring necessary and long-overdue regulatory controls to the marijuana market, and why they will vote to do so in November.
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. He lives in Vallejo.
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