On November 2nd, California voters will be asked to determine whether they’d like to change the legal status of marijuana, and for the first time ever, advocates of legalization may actually accomplish their goals. There are a number of reasons why a well-intentioned voter would choose legalization, from the potential billions of dollars in tax revenue to the reduced burden of non-violent drug cases on a mired legal system. Unfortunately, without the opportunity to vote for decriminalization rather than full legalization, these voters are being presented with a false choice between a senseless century-old prohibition policy and a new option designed not to maximize the safety of California’s citizens, but rather to greatly enrich a chosen few.
Proposition 19 – Marijuana legalization and taxation
Proponents of Proposition 19 have many valid arguments working in their favor. Foremost among them is the simple but wide-reaching argument that marijuana users, like users of most other drugs, should not be jailed for their personal use. Study after study shows that the vast majority of those who experiment with drugs do not develop dependence or addiction problems, and that those who do develop such problems benefit far more from addiction treatment than from incarceration. In fact, supporters of legalization often cite Portugal as an example of a country that has reaped great social benefit from treating drug abuse and possession as a public health, rather than criminal, issue. Portugal, however, has never legalized any drug; their possession, rather, has been decriminalized, while the drug trade itself remains illegal. The crucial benefit of this approach speaks to the strength of market forces: by keeping drugs illegal, we keep them expensive enough to provide a disincentive to serious and widespread abuse. If fully legalized, the extreme reduction in cost, along with the clever and predatory marketing of marijuana in less stigmatized formats- cookies, lollipops, teas – could drive use up far closer to the levels currently seen for alcohol abuse, and with 15 million American dependent on alcohol, we all know how that fight is going. Given the high public cost of treatment and the correlated increase in depression, schizophrenia, and other related disorders, the perceived financial windfall of legalization may be nothing more than a cloud of smoke. The increase in use however is almost certain.
Driving while high – Polydrug use and marijuana
There is also the question of road safety. While proponents of marijuana are quick to point to a handful of studies that proclaim low to no risk when operating a motor vehicle, they are often too eager to ignore numerous other studies including simulation studies and research from countries such as Australia and Canada, which keep national databases on accident statistics. In Australia, one such study found a 300% to 600% increase in fatal car accidents when drivers were positive for THC (depending on concentration), and Canadian studies have shown that the combination of marijuana and alcohol can be more dangerous for drivers than the combination of alcohol and benzodiazapines. Given that nearly half of individuals admitted to drug addiction treatment include marijuana among their polydrug use pattern, the notion that newly legal marijuana users would not combine their pot use with alcohol or other drugs seems highly dubious. It certainly won’t help that drivers might suddenly be able to buy their weed brownies in the same place as their Bud Light.
Legalization versus decriminalization – Who really benefits from prop 19?
There is no doubt, however, about the one California group that stands to unequivocally gain from the legalization, not decriminalization, of marijuana- the entrepreneurs that have staked their claim to what they see as potentially a very big business. Decriminalization, by diverting marijuana users from the legal system and focusing our efforts on getting compulsive users into treatment, will both save taxpayer money and do far more for public health than legalization or the status-quo. What it will not do is make men like Richard Lee, Oakland’s major marijuana-sales benefactor and one of Prop 19’s biggest financial supporters, any richer. As California voters cast their ballot in a few short weeks, they should by all means carefully consider making a statement about our nation’s failed drug policies and misplaced law enforcement priorities. They should also carefully consider the solution that isn’t being presented as an option- and why.
4 responses to “Proposition 19 – Marijuana legalization or nothing? The business of weed”
As a scientist why are you suggesting the only possibility that marijuana will be mixed with alcohol and make worse drivers? What about the people who will completly replace alcohol with marijuana, becoming better drivers? In fact if we think about it a bit we can think of many possibilities of what might happen if marijuana is legalized. Why limit your suggestions to your personal bias?
The Australian study appears to be a correlation. Obviously people who use illegal drugs are in a risk taking demographic that you would expect to get into more car accidents. A much better study would be to have people take a driving test (or simulator) before and after smoking pot.
Currently my father is dieing from alcohol addiction. In the past year he has had half a dozen blood transfusions and spent over a month in intensive care units. For this reason I choose a safer alternative that for me is less addictive than caffeine, one that doesn’t cause me to vomit blood, screw up my blood chemistry, kill my liver, become addicted, lose my motor coordination causing injuries from falling, become stupid or belligerent….
The fact is our current laws encourage people to use a very dangerous intoxicant and discourage use of safer intoxicants like marijuana.
First of all Brandon, I’d like to say that I’m sorry for what your father is going through. Having seen my father struggle with a seriously debilitating condition, I know how hard that is. Regarding my scientific bias, I think everyone should admit they have a bias and do their best to overcome it. Given the short nature of blogging pieces, at least on my site, I chose to focus on more evidence to support my point, obviously. People like you keep me honest and balanced, but fortunately this time, I think I still come out okay. Firstly, there is certainly a possibility that some individuals will switch to marijuana use, but overall, when more drugs become legal, more people use all of them, not just a few. This is especially true for the population of interest, who will almost certainly abuse both. Still, there could be other options.
To bolster the Australian study, here are two simulator studies showing that marijuana use alone, AND in conjunction with alcohol, produce significant impairment in driving performance.
Consequences follow any choice, even if they are unintended. Making marijuana legal does not mean the problems generated from it will become less. It is likely legalization would increase the amount of use and increase the experimentation with other drugs such as meth or heroin. The problems may not be the same but are likely to impact a high percentage of users and their families.
The social impact will be the effect on productivity and personal ambition. The losses from this cannot be truly measured.
So the key reason why did Proposition 19 organizer? To hear its promoters tell it, the effect (56 percent against, 46 percent for) stemmed from the variety of factors: fear of alter, a lower than anticipated turnout by young voters, and the best campaign by opponents to draw a dire picture belonging to the possible social consequences associated with legal marijuana, from stoned drivers creating deadly crashes to organisations slowed down by employees reporting to figure in too mellow any mood to function.