Friday, November 7, 2014

My Article: Legalize Pot? You Must Be High

Tobacco and alcohol wreak such pain on society. Legalizing marijuana will only add to the misery. Yet the nation is hurtling toward legalization. 

In my article today, Legalize Pot? You Must Be High, I make the case that all three should be made illegal. 

Here is an enhanced version of that article. The major improvements from the piece are that it proposes a cost-effective, jail-free approach to enforcement, and presents the results of a U.S. government literature review of jurisdictions that have tried legalizing drugs.

Legalize Pot?  You must be high.

The case for a New Prohibition: making marijuana, alcohol, and tobacco illegal.

America just marched three steps closer to nationally legal marijuana: Oregon, Alaska, and D.C. Should we be lighting up a celebratory doobie? I don’t think so.

The nation is wringing its hands about its student achievement. In the latest international comparison, the U.S. finished below average among the 34 OECD nations, despite being No. 1 in the world in per-student spending. Yet we’re legalizing pot, which may cause far greater damage than once thought:

  • A 2014 Harvard/Northwestern study found, “Young adults who used marijuana only recreationally showed significant abnormalities in two key brain regions that are important in emotion and motivation.”
  • A 2013 study from the University of Maryland School of Medicine published in the Nature journal Neuropsychopharmacology found that “Regular marijuana use during adolescence but not adulthood may permanently impair cognition and increase the risk for psychiatric diseases, such as schizophrenia.” The follow-up 2014 study found that using marijuana as a teen reduces gray matter in the parts of the brain associated with motivational, emotional and affective processing. And in November, a study reported in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences confirms that.
  • A 2014 National Institute on Drug Abuse report summarized a large, long-term Duke University study: “People who began smoking marijuana heavily in their teens lost an average of 8 points in IQ between age 13 and age 38. Importantly, the lost cognitive abilities were not fully restored in those who quit smoking marijuana as adults.” 
And the risks are as great to physical health:

  • A 2014 study published in the Journal of the American Heart Association found that marijuana causes heart attacks and diseases in the arteries, even among the young.
  • A 2014 study found that marijuana use during pregnancy can impede development of the baby’s brain.
  • A 2013 review of scientific literature by Canada’s public health agency reported that “a number of in vitro studies have provided strong evidence that smoke from burning cannabis is carcinogenic.”
  • All that is on top of a mountain of scary data reported not by some conservative group but by the Obama Administration.
Pot advocates try to dismiss all that by pointing out that legalization applies only to adults. But as with alcohol, wider availability filters down to kids. And with pot legal for adults, the black market will likely redirect its efforts to teens, where, as cited, the damage of marijuana use is greater and more irreversible.

There’s already evidence of that. 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.”

Pot advocates argue that legalization wouldn’t increase use. On the contrary, a federal government review of other countries’ experience with legalization (See p. 46-47)  concluded that “Legalization of drugs will lead to increased use and increased levels of addiction.”

At Work
Then there’s our workforce. Despite the moderate unemployment rate, people are having an ever harder time finding a decent job, as The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics reports that the labor participation rate, the percentage of adults 16 to 64 that are employed or actively looking for work, is 62.4%, the lowest since early 1978. And those who are working are, on average, making less. An analysis of government data on income and poverty released in September found that “After adjusting for inflation, U.S. median household income is still 8 percent lower than it was before the recession, 9 percent lower than at its peak in 1999.” 

Legalize pot and you have a workforce that is worth not more, but less—more likely to suffer from the poor memory, reduced motivation and emotional problems cited above. Kevin Sabet, former Obama White House drug policy adviser, wrote on about a long list of problems that have occurred since legalization in Colorado, including “Employers…reporting more workplace incidents involving marijuana use.” Pot advocates claim that legalization will create jobs. It will cost jobs.

Those are statistics. Their impact is made more real with human stories. For example, I was at a party at which one attendee had worked on the assembly line in the Ford plant in Dearborn, Michigan. He said that workers would routinely be high on marijuana and pull such pranks as deliberately dropping a bolt into a car’s axle so that, when driven, the car would rattle. Why would they do that? Because the high workers thought it would be amusing to see if they could frustrate the quality assurance team, which would hear a rattle in the car and take them hours to figure out what caused it. Pot did.

The human costs
Apart from the toll on businesses and consumers, pot imposes enormous human costs beyond measurable disease. 

As a career counselor in the San Francisco Bay Area—epicenter of “medical” marijuana use–I’ve had many clients who need to find a job but are unmotivated and have poor memory. When I ask if they smoke or have smoked a lot of pot, many say yes.

Not only are such people likely to be un- or underemployed, their families must live with the consequences of poor motivation, memory and psychological functioning, which also often translates to being more difficult to live with: unreasonable, unwilling to keep their home clean, poor parenting, inveterate procrastinating, etc.

Legal pot doesn’t yield tax dollars. It costs tax dollars.
When unable to counter the above arguments against legalization, pot activists often shift to arguing that legalization will increase tax revenues. But the aforementioned Obama Administration report states that the additional revenue would be far outweighed by the increased health care costs. For example, that report summarizes a Centers for Disease Control-funded study: “The cost to society of alcohol alone is estimated to be more than 15 times the revenue gained by their taxation.”

What sorts of costs? Apart from the increase in the cost of treating physical and mental illness cited above, there’s the increase in vehicle accidents. 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 study found almost twice as many drivers in fatal car accidents tested positive versus a control group. And since legalization in Washington, data adapted from the Washington State Patrol and Washington State Toxicologist summarized by Project SAM, “a nonpartisan alliance of lawmakers, scientists and other concerned citizens,” found that in 2013, the percentage of vehicle accidents in which the driver tested positive for marijuana rose 40%. Contrast that with the two years before legalization: From 2011-2012, there was only a 0.7% increase, and from 2010-2011 also a 0.7% increase.

But what about medicinal use?
To the extent that marijuana is a medicinal drug of choice, it can be treated like any other prescription medicine. If a physician wants to prescribe it, the prescription can be filled at a pharmacy. No need to make it available at a pot dispensary or over-the-counter for recreational use. After all, just because morphine has medical uses doesn’t mean it should be bought like any other retail item.

Make pot, alcohol and tobacco illegal
Freedom is not an absolute good. It is a good that should, on a case-by-case basis, be weighed against the liabilities. For example, nearly everyone accepts the following restrictions of freedom because of the benefits: We force people to pay more for cars by requiring that vehicles have anti-pollution devices, seat belts and airbags. We force the public to pay more for meat by requiring safety standards. We require that people not take a newly developed medication until it has undergone extensive testing for safety and efficacy.

When weighing the benefits and liabilities of marijuana, alcohol and tobacco, it seems clear that an out-and-out ban on all three, while politically infeasible, is what government would enact if it truly cared about its residents. I tried pot a few times in college and enjoy a glass of wine. But I would gladly give them up for the societal benefit: less disease and fewer car accidents, more fully functioning people, a more employable work force and, in turn, better products and services, plus the richer lives people would lead. 


Taken together, the data cited in this article suggests tens of thousands of unnecessary deaths and hundreds of thousands of people suffering unnecessary morbidity every year as the result of marijuana use. And think of the toll all that takes on family and friends. 

Compare that with murder. 16,000 people were murdered in 2010, the most recent year for which official statistics are available. Only 65 percent of murders are solved. Yet few would argue that police should not enforce laws against murder.

The question is how to enforce marijuana laws cost-effectively and without filling our jails with recreational pot users. If marijuana were legalized, Big Tobacco and other large corporations would dramatically increase supply but not if it remained illegal. So those corporations would not require expensive law enforcement. 

Other pot farmers that defied the law perhaps would not be jailed but pay a stiff restitution fine—compensating for the physical and mental health problems their marijuana caused. The fines would largely or completely cover the cost of identifying and prosecuting the marijuana farms. 

Enforcement against recreational users would occur only when law enforcement discovered it while investigating another possible crime or if a complaint were made to police. In such a case, if the person is found with a personal-use quantity of pot, as in the new New York City policy, s/he’d receive a ticket, like a traffic ticket, a source of revenue that, like traffic tickets, would cover at least the cost of enforcement. 

That approach should indeed provide cost-effective enforcement, without filling jails with anyone, let alone with recreational pot users. 

But what about the black market?
Even with legalization, the black market will remain because legal pot will be heavily taxed and so can be bought much less expensively on the black market. This isn't theory. PBS did a report in Colorado, where pot is legal, that verifies that the black market is alive and well. Worse, with pot legal only for people 21 and older, as mentioned earlier, the black market will redirect efforts to teenagers, those most vulnerable to pot's permanent effects.

The New Prohibition

The benefits of a New Prohibition would be enormous. When alcohol was made illegal during Prohibition, alcohol use dropped by 30 to 40 percent. (Here is the original study.) Decreasing marijuana, alcohol, and tobacco use 30 to 40 percent would yield greater benefit than almost any policy we could enact.

Yet we’re hurtling in the opposite direction. It’s clear that, especially with the media generally trying to promote legalization, you’ll soon be able to get high legally anywhere in the U.S. Excuse me, I need a drink.


Anonymous said...

Dear Mr Nemko,

I would like inquire whether it is your opinion that Alcohol, Tobacco, and Cannabis cannot be used responsibly in any form or at any age if used recreationally?

Is it also your position that users are best dealt with through the criminal justice system, and/or forced treatment measures?

Marty Nemko said...

Yes they can be, but the net impact of them on society is so devastating as to warrant their being made illegal.

Re how enforcement should occur, I submitted an addition to the article addressing that but was told it was too late to add it. Here is what it said:


If marijuana were legalized, Big Tobacco and other large corporations would dramatically increase supply, but not if it remained illegal. So that wouldn’t require much enforcement effort. Producers that defied the law would not be jailed but pay a stiff restitution fine—As proven above, marijuana is no benign drug. Enforcement against recreational users would occur only when a complaint is made to police. In such a case, if the person is found with a personal-use quantity of marijuana, s/he’d receive a ticket, like a traffic ticket. That would seem to yield cost-effective enforcement, without filling jails.

Marty Nemko said...

Now, I've copied the article and enhanced it by including a section on enforcement, data on increased use when legalized, and a few other things.

Anonymous said...

We could reduce the speed limit to 40 MPH and lower traffic fatalities, so would you be in favor of that?
Surely a diet of quinoa, soybeans and broccoli would be healthier than what most Americans eat. Why don't we mandate those over red meat? Wouldn't that be better for Society?
Fresh air, sunshine and physical activity would be better for Society than most video games. Why don't we ban those?

Marty Nemko said...

There is a massive difference between prohibiting a drug as dangerous as tobacco, alcohol,or marijuana than to mandate eating of broccoli. And the cost of such a reduced speed limit to humankind would be enormous: millions of hours of wasted time in cars. The pleasures of tobacco, alcohol, and pot could easily be replaced by pleasures that are more rewarding.

Anonymous said...

The next step after you presume to decide for everyone alcohol, tobacco and pot are bad for them is to decide that red meat is bad should be illegal also. Then soft drinks. Presumably any caffeinated beverages also should be banned ... After all isn't that an addiction also?
After you use the power of the state to make decisions like what we sip or smoke in the privacy of our own lives, it's a logical step to make more things you don't agree with illegal. And the next logical step is to tell us what to eat. After all, you are smarter than the rest of us and are able to make decisions for millions of people.

Marty Nemko said...

There is a massive difference in the dangers of pot/alcohol/tobacco and soft drinks.

Anonymous said...

Mr Nemko, you state the following in your article:

"Taken together, the data above suggests tens of thousands of unnecessary deaths and hundreds of thousands of people suffering unnecessary morbidity every year as the result of marijuana use. "

Where does the "data above" show this?

Marty Nemko said...

The studies and reports cited are all there in the article. And they do suggest the outcomes I wrote.