Monday, February 3, 2014

The Case Against Legalizing Marijuana

Why is the media unabashedly promoting marijuana legalization yet wringing its hands over the increase in heroin use, at least for the first news cycle after Phillip Seymour Hoffman died with a heroin needle in his vein?

Is it that heroin is that much more dangerous? In fact, many, many more lives have been ruined as the result of marijuana addiction.

Even superstars at the peak of their career have been brought down by weed--the latest example: Justin Bieber, who, according to NBC News, was so out of control that on his private plane he refused the pilot's repeated requests that he stop smoking pot on the plane for everyone's safety, then abused the flight attendants, and now faces jail time for endangering a flight. Perhaps not surprising, he just announced he's retiring.  He's far from the only one. Here's a link to ten celebrities with photos of them before and after their drug abuse: MacCauley Culkin, Britney Spears, George Michael, Courtney Love, Whitney Houston, Amanda Bynes, Kate Moss, Mischa Barton, Amy Winehouse, and of course, Lindsay Lohan.

And in countries in which pot was legalized, use increased dramatically. For example, after marijuana became legal in the Netherlands, use among 18-20 year olds nearly tripled.

The percentage of teens 12 to 17 is highest in medical-marijuana states. And already in Colorado, use among children is skyrocketing. It's understandable. With pot legal to adults, the black marketeers simply are redirecting their marketing efforts to children. Dr. Christian Thurstone, Colorado Child and Adolescent Psychiatric Society president and youth addiction researcher at the University of Colorado-Denver, reported that his clinic has been “inundated with young people reporting for marijuana-addiction treatment... Every day, we see the acute effects of the policy of legalization. And our kids are paying a great price.”

Last month on CNN, Kevin Sabet, former Obama administration drug abuse advisor, reported that since legalization in Colorado, a pre-employment drug testing firm reports a 44 percent increase in the number of job applicants who tested positive for marijuana. 

A review of the literature makes clear that contrary to legalization advocates' claims, in every case, legalization resulted in greater abuse, more crime, etc.And lest you think I overestimate pot's dangers, see THIS. And a new study shows that the damage is not just to adults, not just to children, but to unborn fetuses. Update: The evidence continues to mount. THIS finds that marijuana use increases the risk of heart attack and stroke, even in the young.

Even legalization advocates, for example, Mark Kleiman, in the current Washington Monthly acknowledges:
About a quarter of the sixteen million Americans who report having used cannabis in the past month say they used it every day or almost every day. Those frequent users also use more cannabis per day of use than do less frequent users. About half of the daily- and near-daily-use population meets diagnostic criteria for substance abuse or dependence—that is, they find that their cannabis habit is interfering with other activities and bringing negative consequences, and that their attempts to cut back on the frequency or quantity of their cannabis use have failed. (Those estimates are based on users’ own responses to surveys, so they probably underestimate the actual risks.)
And then, of course, there are the extreme cases. A substantial number of these daily users spend virtually every waking hour under the influence. Legal availability is likely to add both to their numbers and to the intensity of their problems. Jonathan Caulkins has done a calculation suggesting that legalization at low prices might increase the amount of time spent stoned by about fifteen billion person-hours per year, concentrated among frequent heavy users rather than among the more numerous Saturday-night partiers. Every year, hundreds of thousands of cannabis users visit emergency departments having unintentionally overdosed, experiencing anxiety, dysphoria, and sometimes panic. Presumably many others suffer very unpleasant experiences without seeking professional attention."
Is that what you want for your child, your sibling, your spouse, your parent, for America?

Forget about those extreme millions, the last thing the U.S. student body and workforce needs is to be less motivated and more memory-impaired and prone to serious cardiovascular disease, cancer, and vehicle accidents and the resultant mayhem and death. Here, for example, even the liberal Obama Administration issued this summary just of the public health consequences of legalizing marijuana. Here, for example, is a report linking pot to lung and other cancers. Alcohol and tobacco costs Americans more than $350 billion every year, mainly public health costs. Just what we need: making more available a drug that makes you stupid, lazy, and more likely to get a life-threatening illness. A new Harvard/Northwestern study finds that even casual use causes significant damage to the brain.

Do we really want another Big Tobacco? It would no doubt unleash its ultra-sophisticated marketing machine on a whole new line of products: every imaginable brand of pot.  We'd see pot commercials on the Superbowl, a pot section in every 7-11 and supermarket. Already one group led by a former Microsoft executive has vowed to raise $100,000,000 to create The Starbucks of Pot. Use and abuse would skyrocket and the big beneficiary would be the likes of the R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Co.

But you claim, "Legalization will eliminate the black market." Think again, dude. Already in Colorado, because marijuana is taxed at 29 percent, a black market already is burgeoning, in which you can buy pot for--you guessed it--29% less. And as with all sin taxes, you can bet the tax rate will only go upward from 29%. For example, in most states, the taxes (federal, state, and sales) on a pack of cigarettes exceeds 100%.) Of course, the higher the tax rate on pot, the bigger the black market. And with marijuana legal only to people over 21, the black market and its unsavory types will, of course, as I mentioned, simply refocus its marketing toward children. So all legalization does is expand the number of places that people can buy your memory-impairing, motivation-killing, cancer/heart-disease-causing drug, especially to children. Yippee!

And lest you think that when they grow up, the kids will stop in time from it hurting their career, an authoritative study found that pot users who started as teens, suffered lifetime effects even if they stopped.
But what about for medicinal use? Marijuana is available in capsule form by prescription. No need to make it available through "pot dispensaries." Everyone knows the "medical marijuana" argument is a sham and another way kids more easily access pot. According to a study by Seattle's public health department, 39 percent of children who use pot said it originally came from a medical marijuana dispensary. 

A pothead, trying to play gotcha, asked me, "Hey dude, would you outlaw alcohol?" Yes, I would. Alcohol causes harm wildly in excess of its benefits. Of course, the perfect is the enemy of the good, and a black market in alcohol would arise just as in Prohibition but, net, there would be less use and thus less damage to humankind. Indeed, alcohol use dropped by 30 to 40 percent during Prohibition. (Here is the original study.) I enjoy a glass of wine but would gladly give it up for the societal benefits that would derive from a new Prohibition. At the risk of using a term that is becoming obsolete, I believe we've become a too permissive society, prioritizing "do what the hell you want" over "be responsible." And that message filters right down to children.

Our Socratic pothead then tried, "Next you're going to want to outlaw ice cream?!" Marijuana's risk profile is far worse. 

But what about the libertarian argument that people should be able to do what they want as long as it doesn't harm others? Well, pot harms everyone: the user, his or her family, employer, the drivers and pedestrians who are in accidents because of the slow-reflexed, often glacial-driving pothead. How often do you see a car creeping on the freeway? Yes, some are old people who should have their licenses revoked but many are blitzed. A study by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration found that 18 percent of drivers in fatal accidents tested positive for a non-alcoholic mind-altering drug, mainly marijuana. And this 2013 study found almost twice as many drivers in fatal car accidents tested positive versus a control group. And since legalization in Washington, data from the Washington State Patrol and Toxicologist shows a 40% increase in the share of driver cases in which the driver tested positive.

The following two paragraph has been added thanks to reader Rex's comments.

You might ask, "But what about enforcement? You can't stop substance abuse altogether." Of course not but, again, the perfect is the enemy of the good. You can significantly reduce pot and alcohol's damage to humankind by not making it legally purchasable, with law enforcement only going after big producers and distributors, with law enforcement against users only in response to citizen complaints, in which case the punishment would be a ticket that costs about the same as a carpool violation: $500. That could cover all or more of the cost of enforcement with individuals.

You might also ask, "What about decriminalizing rather than legalizing pot?" No good: That would send a message to everyone, including kids, that pot isn't bad. Its use would then increase.

In sum, as a nation, can one reasonably assert that America will be better off if its population used more pot? Even if more taxes were raised by legalization, is that how we want to do it? Is that the sort of country we're trying to build? Do you believe your children and grandchildren would be better off with pot legalized and so available to kids through parent stashes and the black market that will, if it's legal for adults, target kids?
And then there's the opportunity cost. If pot and alcohol were not as readily available, more people, although certainly not everyone, would more likely pursue one of the countless more rewarding, less harmful recreations: from learning to mentoring, writing to painting to befriending.

Pot should be illegal and if our legislators cared a whit about us, they'd also make alcohol and tobacco illegal.

Care to disagree? 


Matt Dubuque said...

How is this not also an argument for the prohibition of alcohol consumption?

If I merely substitute the word "alcohol" for "marijuana" in your analysis, the logic remains the same.

Do you support the prohibition of alcohol? If not, I would like to understand why.

Marty Nemko said...

Indeed, Matt, as I wrote in the article.

Rex said...

As usual, very nicely written. Disagree...The arguments sound nice but they ignore economic facts...Admittedly, this is an enormously complex issue, and I know very little about this, but the costs of enforcement are too great...

According to the first website, for example, the government would save $88 billion a year with legalization of all drugs. Of course, you are right that there would be a lot more users, but you have to admit that putting someone in prison for buying drugs is totally unreasonable...Quality would go up, and price would go down with legalization. All drug-related crimes would cease to exist, even prostitution would decline and that's just the tip of the iceberg.

There are so many ways that extra money could be used. The anti-tobacco war has been enormously successful, and has succeeded in making smoking uncool...all without prohibition. A similar advertising campaign could be initiated for smoking drugs of all kinds, and extra money could be given to police for enforcing traffic safety. Sensors that detect drug use might be mandated by court for repeat DUI offenders when they attempt to drive their vehicle. Employers can increase the use of drug screens...The possibilities for limiting use are endless...

Marty Nemko said...

Rex, those are from organizations biased towards legalization, so their "analysis" cleverly makes bogus assumptions--e..g., that enforcement will be down to individual users and those found guilty would go to jail. Enforcement would be not much different than it is today: trying to stop the big distributors. Punishment for individual use would be a ticket, like a speeding ticket, which would cover much of the cost of that enforcement.

Rex said...

OK...I changed my mind after reading the following:

Also read some of Carl Hart's High Price...very informative...

I agree with you...legalization is not the way to go...But I think all drugs should definitely be decriminalized...that includes not just marijuana but also heroine, cocaine, meth, mdma, etc. That should keep usage and accessibility down while also saving money on law enforcement and prisons.

Marty Nemko said...

But decriminalization will send a message to everyone, including youth, that drugs--including heroin, ecstasy, etc--are not that bad. Their use will increase.

Again, as I wrote in my revision, I am not in favor of pot patrols canvassing neighborhoods for an individual smoking a joint in the evening after work. But trying to shut down the Big Boys seems to be well worth the effort.

Rex said...

I might be missing something here, but what is the difference between decriminalization and what you are advocating? We would still be after the large dealers under Portugal there was complete decriminalization of all drugs, a decline in drug use and drug-induced death, increased spending on prevention and treatment etc.

In Carl Hart's book...his experiments and those of others clearly show that drugs are not necessarily addictive substances. Many other factors eg income, community, education level, etc. influence addiction. What kills people is lack of proper information regarding how to use drugs. "Addicts" are not brain-dead zombies...most want to get high without dying in the process...

Decriminalization would make education about how to take drugs much less taboo. If I had children, I would much rather forbid them from using drugs AND have their physician/counselor/school/substance abuse specialists tell them about how to avoid their perils eg "Don't smoke or inject drugs, oral consumption is safer, don't combine drugs with alcohol, don't use and drive, make sure you get enough sleep because repeat use of stimulants + lack of sleep can cause permanent brain damage" Fact is there are virtually zero fatal overdoses on one drug alone. The fatal ones always involve alcohol or another drug...the local police could come in and talk with kids about the current drug situation in their town, to talk about fines, laws, to discourage usage etc...

Marty Nemko said...


First, Hart is a true outlier. A former drug dealer from the Miami ghetto, who views an attempt to control drugs as an anti-Black initiative, he defies a wide consensus that drugs are addictive:

Regarding Portugal, sure, entities such as the libertarian Cato Institute calls Portugal a success but the Wikipedia entry reports that "other organizations such as the Association for a Drug-Free Portugal says overall consumption of drugs has increased 4.2$ and claim the benefits of decriminalization are "overegged," exaggerated.

Logic--which in the case of a correlational national study when so many covariates are at play--must trump one study because of the endless possible methodological flaws. And logic and basic supply-demand economics strongly suggest that when you make something more available and, indeed, have doctors and others telling people how to use the drugs, which increases awareness, more people will use them. And the last thing we need is that.

By the way, Portugal's definition of decriminalization is not what you imply: "Recreational use of cannis is forbidden by law."

Rex said...

I look at it this way: do you think it's right we put people in prison just for using drugs? The consequences of prison time are huge. Try getting a job anywhere after that in this economy. No more prison time...that's decriminalization.

Read Hart's book, read the scientific literature...drug addiction is caused mostly by other factors not related to the drug's pharmacological effects. Sure getting high feels great, but the implication from politicians, the media, and the scientific establishment is that once you try it, you're hooked...obviously that's an exaggeration. What differentiates an addict from a recreational user is a constellation of factors. The most important may actually be childhood neglect and abuse.

Admittedly Portugal has had mixed results, but their incarceration rate/100,000 went from 125 to 109 after decriminalization
...but the US has a much higher prison population and is much more aggressive in prosecuting drug offenses. Decriminalizing would be a huge plus in this regard.

You are right that drug use would go up...but not by much...In Portugal, the percent of people reporting drug use in the last 12 months increased from 3.4-3.7% after the change. Lifetime reported use increased a lot, but given the former data, that's probably just lots of people "experimenting" as opposed to addiction.

"forbidden by law" does not mean prison time. I never implied anything else.

Marty Nemko said...

Rex, first, thank you for your thorough and thoughtful comments. Very valuable, whether you agree with me or not. Great!

Just to clarify, except for The Big Dealers, there would, in my view, be NO jail time, ever, for users. Merely a ticket, like a carpool-lane ticket--almost always paid by mail or online--imposing little administrative cost on enforcement. As with the carpool lane enforcement, merely the presence of the law and possibility of getting an expensive ticket serves a major deterrent effect, with the cost of administration more than covered by the violators' paying the fine.

Rex said...

This was a fun intellectual exercise...I learned a lot in the process...Thanks for the valuable rebuttals...