Neither legalization nor incarceration

Tomorrow, voters in three states will decide whether marijuana should be legal. For some people, even those in recovery, marijuana use presents a net benefit in society. They believe others can enjoy a joint once in a while without suffering significant consequences. For others, marijuana represents a serious health and social problem. I was senior advisor at the Office of National Drug Control Policy, and this was the conflict we in the Obama Administration faced when we put together the President’s first drug strategy: What do we do about the “marijuana problem?”

The first thing my boss—the drug control policy director Gil Kerlikowske, a.k.a., the Drug Czar—did was tell the Wall Street Journal in 2010 that the “drug war is over,” and that we would be pivoting drug policy toward a more balanced, health-oriented approach. Some took that to mean that the administration was in favor of marijuana legalization. But it actually meant that we would use the best evidence available to address the many, complex aspects of drug policymaking. At the end of the day, that evidence pointed away from, not toward, legalization.

Marijuana is now the number one reason kids enter treatment—more than alcohol, cocaine, heroin, meth, ecstasy, and other drugs combined. How did this come to be? The most likely culprit is the increased potency of marijuana.

We in the Obama Administration concluded that for broad swaths of society, marijuana use is a large and growing public health issue with significant costs. Of course, every public policy has costs and benefits. But neither of the two most common options—legalization and throwing users in jail—seemed to make much sense. Indeed, there exists a third way between legalization and incarceration that will bring sanity to the nation’s treatment of marijuana and its millions of users.

So this Tuesday, I am joining both major presidential candidates, not to mention groups like the American Medical Association, Colorado Education Association, and other organizations in opposing the marijuana legalization ballot initiatives. Here’s why:

This is not your father’s “Woodstock Weed.”

In a landmark 2010 report, the nonpartisan RAND think-tank, an organization often critical of US drug policy, concluded that if California legalized marijuana, the price of marijuana would fall dramatically, and therefore we would see a significant increase in use. This corroborated everything that economic theory has taught us about how price correlates with use (and why Big Tobacco and the Liquor Lobby fight price hikes tooth and nail—more on that later).

So why is this a problem? After all, legalization advocates claim that marijuana is essentially harmless, right?

One of the first tasks we undertook in the Obama administration was to review the scientific literature on marijuana published in the past thirty years. We found the scientific evidence to be highly nuanced, to say the least. For example, we still don’t know definitively whether marijuana, like tobacco, causes lung cancer. But one clear finding is that today’s marijuana strains are a totally different drug from the “Woodstock Weed” that baby boomers smoked. To intensify the high, growers have manipulated THC levels. In fact, levels are now 3 to 4 times higher than just twenty years ago. With profit maximization the goal, it is unsurprising that growers have made their product as strong as possible. A policy question follows directly from this: “What policy helps keep high-potency marijuana use, and its consequences, more manageable: some form of legalization or some form of prohibition?” This is the major question we tried to answer.

Most people who smoke weed will not become addicted or have major problems—indeed, many stop after using it once or twice. But a minority of users will experience significant negative health ramifications. In fact, the recent science on this issue is nothing short of stunning: Significant negative effects on the adolescent brain; significant loss in IQ and poor learning outcomes; lung damage; mental illness; a doubling of the risk of a car crash. Correlation, of course, is not causation, but it is also important to note that treatment providers are already reporting that although use levels are similar to what they were 15 years ago, more kids are seeking treatment. Marijuana is now the number one reason kids enter treatment—more than alcohol, cocaine, heroin, meth, ecstasy, and other drugs combined. How did this come to be? The most likely culprit is the increased potency of marijuana.

If Big Tobacco is in favor of legalization (they are), we should be wary.

According to internal documents released during its historic court settlement, Big Tobacco considers marijuana legalization a golden opportunity. “The use of marijuana…has important implications for the tobacco industry in terms of an alternative product line. [We] have the land to grow it, the machines to roll it and package it, the distribution to market it. In fact, some firms have registered trademarks, which are taken directly from marijuana street jargon. These trade names are used currently on little-known legal products, but could be switched if and when marijuana is legalized. Estimates indicate that the market in legalized marijuana might be as high as $10 billion annually.”

No wonder that Altria, the parent company of Phillip Morris, recently bought the domain names “” and “” If this sounds frightening, it is: Big Tobacco tried for decades to conceal the harms of it product and millions of lives were lost as a result. We are naïve to think they wouldn’t try the same thing with marijuana.

The Liquor Lobby also has skin in the game. Adjusted for inflation, alcohol is taxed at one-fifth of what is was during the Korean War. Naturally, they oppose any increase, and they also rely on the heaviest drinkers to goose their profits. They have major incentives to encourage, not discourage, drinking among kids and adults alike (and they do—aggressively). The point is, these two industries—Tobacco and Alcohol—are the only examples of government-regulated purveyors of legal, addictive substances, and they are a cautionary tale of the impact of legalization, American-style.

We will still have underground markets. And the cartels won’t bat an eye.

According to a recent study, most of the cigarettes bought in the Bronx were from the illegal market. In fact, black and grey markets for tobacco abound. If marijuana is legalized, should we expect it to be any different? The drug trade today is so profitable that even undercutting the taxed price—that’s what’s happening in the Bronx—would leave cartels with a handsome profit. In a legal market, where marijuana is taxed, the well-established illegal drug trade has every incentive to remain. The truth is, marijuana legalization would do nothing to diminish the power of the cartels, primarily because marijuana accounts for a tiny share of revenues gained by drug trafficking groups. For them, the big money is found in sexier illegal trade, such human trafficking, kidnapping, extortion, piracy and other illicit drugs. Producing marijuana en masse at home is also much easier to do than with tobacco or alcohol. We can expect a thriving grey market, too.

Reaping the benefits of taxing marijuana is a red herring. Wasn’t the Lottery supposed to save public education?

A cure for cancer! No more drug violence in Mexico! And tax money to pour into our schools! Of all of the wild claims made about marijuana, the latter is perhaps the most ludicrous. But it sure polls well: Colorado and Washington legalization advocates point out ad nauseum how much money marijuana will bring state coffers. Putting aside the fact that the federal government may well seize what are, in their eyes, illegal funds, the notion of marijuana as a boon to the economy is about as half-baked as they come.

To begin with, the total social costs associated with our legal drugs—alcohol and tobacco—are roughly $200 billion per substance, numbers that far outweigh any tax revenue we receive from their use. In fact, these costs—from health care expenditures due to alcohol and tobacco use to the loss of productivity or accidents that come from use—is10 times greater than any tax revenue the U.S. and its states receive from these two legalized drugs.

Under legalization, more people, not fewer, will be ensnared in the criminal justice system.

A fact most people do not know is that alcohol, not cocaine, heroin, or marijuana, is responsible for 2.6 million arrests every year. That is one million more arrests than for all illegal drugs combined. The reason? Alcohol is used so much more commonly than illegal drugs. People are being arrested for violating liquor laws, driving while intoxicated, and public drunkenness (the 2.6 million number doesn’t even include violent crimes that result from alcohol use). If marijuana were legal, and more people used it, we’d have more people driving high, growing marijuana in their own home, using underage, and violating all sorts of new regulations.

We don’t live in a black and white world. The choice shouldn’t be between prohibition and legalization.

We should not legalize pot with all of its attendant social costs, nor should we damage the future prospects of pot smokers by prosecuting and jailing them. Rather, we should shift our emphasis to education about the newly revealed health dangers of pot use. We should also invest seriously in interventions and treatments targeted to those users who find they are unable to quit on their own. We do not need to penalize people for smoking small amounts of marijuana, saddling them, for example, with criminal records that hinder employment or access to social assistance. A misdemeanor marijuana arrest shouldn’t be a life sentence to anyone trying to vote, get a job, or access a college loan. Before we go ahead and legalize marijuana, we ought to first try these kinds of evidence-based reforms.

In the Obama Administration, we determined that a policy of marijuana legalization would pose too many risks to public health and public safety. We asked ourselves, “Do the potential benefits of legalization outweigh the potential risks?” After reviewing the evidence, the answer we came to was an emphatic no. Indeed, we can reform the worst part of our current laws without increasing rates of addiction and harms.

Kevin A. Sabet was the senior adviser to President Obama’s drug czar from 2009-2011. He holds a doctorate in public policy from Oxford University, and currently serves as director of the Drug Policy Institute at the University of Florida and an assistant professor in the College of Medicine.