[Alexandria, VA, May 19, 2017] – Today, SAM President Kevin Sabet was featured in an extensive Q&A for Asbury Park Press “@ Issue” in New Jersey. Click on this link or see below for more.
The ongoing effort by New Jersey Senate Democrats to legalize recreational marijuana took another step forward last week with the introduction of a bill by Senate Judiciary Chairman Nicholas Scutari, D-Union, that would legalize the possession and personal use of up to an ounce of marijuana in New Jersey for anyone 21 and older. Gov. Christie has promised to veto any bill that would legalize recreational pot, but all four major Democratic gubernatorial candidates favor legalization. The two major Republican candidates oppose it. Polls in New Jersey and nationally show growing support for legalization. Eight states already have legalized it in some form.The arguments for and against legalization are debated below by advocate Paul Armentano, deputy director of NORML, the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws, and by opponent Kevin A. Sabet, president and CEO of Smart Approaches to Marijuana.
Sabet: Absolutely. A growing body of research demonstrates that marijuana legalization leads to decreased perceived risk and increased youth use. Colorado and Washington, two of the early states to legalize marijuana, now lead the nation in youth marijuana use. Since those two states commercialized marijuana, regular use of marijuana in Colorado and Washington among 12- to 17-year-olds has been both above and rising faster than the national average. There have also been other unintended consequences. A recent study now shows that pot-related emergency room visits by kids in Colorado (mostly related to mental illness) has more than quadrupled since the state legalized marijuana.
There is also a mounting body of evidence showing the connection between marijuana and opioid abuse. These are issues that are connected, and we should address both issues comprehensively. Legalization would make both issues worse.
Armentano: Those of us who advocate for the legalization and regulation of the adult use marijuana market do not argue that the plant is altogether harmless or that it cannot be misused. In fact, it is precisely because marijuana use may pose potential risks to both the individual consumer and to public safety that lawmakers ought to regulate it accordingly.
Such regulations already exist governing the use, production and retail distribution of alcohol and tobacco — two substances that are far more dangerous and costlier to society than is the responsible adult use of cannabis. The enforcement of these regulations, coupled with the promotion of public awareness campaigns designed to better educate consumers as to these products’ health effects, have proven highly effective at reducing the public’s use of these two substances, particularly among teens. Case in point: cigarette smoking by young people is at an all-time low.
A pragmatic regulatory framework that allows for the legal, licensed commercial production and retail sale of marijuana to adults but restricts its use among young people — coupled with a legal environment that fosters open, honest dialogue between parents and children about cannabis’ potential harms — best reduces the risks associated with the plant’s use or abuse. By contrast, advocating for marijuana’s continued criminalization only compounds them.
With regard to opioid abuse, the science clearly demonstrates that legal cannabis access offers a pathway away from opioid dependence. In jurisdictions where marijuana use is legally regulated, there are year-over-year declines in opioid-related abuse, hospitalizations and mortality, as reported by the Journal of the American Medical Association and by other peer-reviewed journals.
In the battle to win the war on public opinion about legalization of marijuana, which side has the most resources, organization and political clout?
Armentano:Those of us who advocate for common sense marijuana policy reform are significantly outstaffed and outfunded by our opponents. That said, we have one resource our opponents lack and that is credibility with the public. Proponents of prohibition, and federal officials like the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration in particular, have little to no credibility anymore when it comes to the subject of cannabis policy. Modern-day marijuana prohibitionists are asking the public to deny their own first-hand experiences and to reject the reality that they are witnessing daily. States like Colorado, Oregon and Washington regulate the adult use of cannabis and these jurisdictions are among the most economically productive, prosperous and sought-out places to live in the U.S. The genie is out of the bottle and it isn’t returning.
Sabet:Special interest groups promoting drug legalization (not just of marijuana, but also of cocaine, methamphetamines and heroin) have spent hundreds of millions of dollars over the past several decades. The primary organizations involved — the Drug Policy Alliance and the Marijuana Policy Project — continue to receive millions of dollars in support from two billionaires: George Soros and Peter Lewis.
Some of these groups are also now colluding with tobacco lobbies to fund legalization campaigns, which is especially troubling.
Recently, groups like Smart Approaches to Marijuana (SAM) have formed to counter their influence and give a voice to public health and safety experts who have been shut out of the debate over marijuana policy. SAM’s funding comes primarily from individual supporters and small family foundations that have been touched by addiction. In races where SAM has been able to match funding against organizations supporting marijuana commercialization, we’ve won.
Opponents of legalization say it would result in greater acceptance of drug use, which would lead to more widespread use. True or false?
Sabet: This is true, and supported by evidence. The National Survey on Drug Use and Health, which is the only nationally representative survey on national drug use, shows that the top states for youth marijuana use are those with marijuana laws that encourage use. Colorado, Rhode Island, Vermont, Washington, Oregon, Maine, Massachusetts and Washington, D.C., all rank in the top eight, and all eight have legalized marijuana, which in turn, encourages increased use.
Proponents of legal marijuana argue that there is a double standard since alcohol is legal and marijuana is not. But alcohol is not legal because it is safe; it is legal because it is ingrained in our culture and has had widespread use throughout Western civilization. By contrast, marijuana has always been used by a small minority of the population. The bottom line is that we know drug laws keep rates of use down, thereby reducing negative consequences for communities.
Armentano: Just as alcohol prohibition took the production and sale of booze out of the hands of licensed businesses and placed it into the hands of organized crime, marijuana prohibition monopolizes control of the cannabis market by criminal entrepreneurs who operate without any regulatory oversight. By contrast, legalizing and regulating the adult use of cannabis provides necessary controls and transparency to the existing market — allowing regulators to better govern who can legally produce and distribute the product as well as who may legally consume it. States’ experiences with marijuana regulation to date show these controls to be working as intended. Contrary to the claims of some, in jurisdictions where such regulatory oversight now exists, youth use of marijuana has not increased post-legalization.
The report “Marijuana use, attitudes, and health effects in Oregon” concluded that “Recent trends in youth use (from 2012 to 2015) have been stable.”
An abstract presented at the 2016 Pediatric Academic Societies meeting, “Adolescents’ ease of access to marijuana before and after legalization of marijuana in Washington state,” found that “Despite concerns that legalization of marijuana for recreational use by adults in 2012 may also increase teens’ ability to access to marijuana, preliminary analyses of state-wide HYS (Healthy Youth Survey) data suggest otherwise.”
Another report, “Lessons learned after three years of legalized, recreational marijuana: The Colorado experience,” concluded that “Marijuana use, both among adults and among youth, does not appear to be increasing to date. No change was observed in past 30-day marijuana use among adults between 2014 (13.6 percent) and 2015 (13.4 percent). Similarly, there was no statistically significant change in 30-day or lifetime marijuana use among high school students between 2013 (lifetime: 36.9 percent, 30-day: 19.7 percent) and 2015 (lifetime: 38.0 percent, 30-day: 21.2 percent).”
Gov. Christie, who has consistently opposed legalization of marijuana, contends pot is a so-called gateway drug, that people who use pot will eventually graduate to harder, more dangerous substances. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says it hasn’t found a definitive answer on that question yet. What is your position and what are the most definitive studies you can cite to bolster it?
Armentano: It is time for politicians to put to rest the myth that cannabis is a gateway to the use of other controlled substances — a theory that is neither supported by modern science or empirical data.
More than 60 percent of American adults acknowledge having tried cannabis, but the overwhelming majority of these individuals never go on to try another illicit substance. And by the time these individuals reach age 30, most of them have significantly decreased their cannabis use or no longer indulge in the substance at all. Further, nothing in marijuana’s chemical composition alters the brain in a manner that makes users more susceptible to experimenting with other drugs. That’s why both the esteemed Institute of Medicine and the RAND Corporation’s Drug Policy Research Center conclude “Marijuana has no causal influence over hard drug initiation.”
By contrast, a growing body of evidence now exists to support the counter notion that, for many people, cannabis serves as a path away from the use of more dangerous substances — including opioids, alcohol, prescription drugs, cocaine and tobacco.
Sabet: It’s important to keep in mind that marijuana on its own is harmful. The average potency of marijuana has skyrocketed since the 1970s and research demonstrates it is associated with substance use disorders, drugged driving crashes, lower IQ and other negative consequences. In fact, today, more young people are voluntarily seeking treatment for marijuana addiction than for all other drugs combined, including alcohol.
That said, a wide array of research has confirmed links between marijuana use and other drugs. While it is true most marijuana users won’t go on to use other drugs, research demonstrates that 99 percent of those addicted to other drugs started with alcohol and marijuana. Marijuana users are also three times more likely than non-users to become addicted to heroin, and a 2017 National Academy of Sciences report found a statistical association between marijuana use and the development of substance dependence for other drugs like opioids and heroin.
Some studies have indicated that there is at least a correlation between marijuana use and eventual use of more dangerous drugs, even if there is no clear causal relationship. Do you agree?
Sabet: Yes. The peer-reviewed 2017 National Academy of Sciences report found a statistical association between marijuana use and the development of substance dependence for other drugs such as opioids and heroin.
Another large, nationally representative study of U.S. adults published in the 2015 International Journal of Drug Policy called “Probability and Predictors of the Cannabis Gateway Effect” found that more than four in 10 people who ever use marijuana will go on to use other illicit drugs.
Armentano:The available science does not support this contention, as I have indicated in a previous question.
One of the major arguments driving support for legalization of drugs is the tax revenue it can generate. Have the revenue estimates in Colorado, the first state to implement legalization, been overblown, exceeded or in the ballpark of what was initially projected?
Armentano: Marijuana tax-related revenue has exceeded projections in the jurisdictions that have regulated the commercial cannabis market. In Colorado, revenue totaled $129 million over the 12-month period ending May 31, 2016 — well exceeding initial estimates of $70 million per year. In Washington, tax revenue totaled $220 million for the 12-month period ending June 30, 2016. Regulators had initially projected that retail sales would bring in only $162 million in new annual tax revenue. In Oregon, marijuana-related tax revenues are yielding about $4 million per month — about twice what regulators initially predicted.
Sabet:Voters in Colorado and other states who were promised a windfall of tax revenue that would shore up budget deficits and lead to a world-class school system were sold a lie. Colorado’s budget deficit is growing, not shrinking, and today the state is about $700 million in debt. Additionally, voters were told that the first $40 million annually of tax revenue would go to schools, but that promise has failed to materialize.
Evidence clearly demonstrates that the costs of legal marijuana outweigh any potential revenue it can bring in. A new working paper modeling projected economic and social costs of marijuana legalization in Rhode Island found that by 2020, costs from legalization (including increased drugged driving fatalities, homelessness, ER visits, enforcement costs, etc.) would exceed projected revenues by more than 25 percent should the state legalize.
President Trump has indicated he believes the matter of legalization should be left to the states, but his attorney general, Jeffrey Sessions, has been a sharp opponent of it. How do you think federal policy on legalization will ultimately play out?
Sabet:There are probably a variety of options being considered by the new administration, but one thing I know for sure is if I held stocks in the marijuana industry, I’d be selling. Nobody wants to see state employees arrested for implementing state laws, or people locked up for smoking pot, but we should support federal marijuana laws because they discourage the expansion of the next big tobacco industry of our time.
We also remain hopeful that the Trump administration will continue to support public health approaches to drug policy, including the expansion of programs that divert non-violent drug offenders into treatment. But the bottom line is that marijuana legalization has been a failed experiment. States with legal marijuana continue to see a thriving black market, increases in youth drug use, a rise in fatal drugged driving crashes, and more. We’re hopeful the Trump administration will take smart action on this issue.
Armentano: President Trump has consistently provided mixed signals with regard to the administration’s forthcoming policies toward marijuana, particularly regarding how the federal government will interact in the majority of states that now regulate its use either for medical or recreational purposes. Yet, rather than picking an unnecessary fight with the majority of American voters who endorse legalizing and regulating marijuana — including a significant portion of Trump’s own base — the administration should consider embracing common sense marijuana law reforms.
Despite more than 70 years of federal marijuana prohibition, Americans’ consumption of and demand for cannabis is here to stay. It is time for politicians to acknowledge this reality and amend federal marijuana laws in a manner that comports with majority public opinion and the plant’s rapidly changing legal and cultural status. The Trump administration has the opportunity to take the lead on this issue. It would be an enormous political misstep for it to do otherwise.
Uruguay is the only country in the world that has fully legalized marijuana possession and use. What should that be telling policymakers in the U.S., if anything?
Armentano:America does not need to look abroad to see marijuana regulation in practice. They can see proof of the success of legalization right here at home. Thirty states, including New Jersey, now regulate the plant’s therapeutic use and eight states authorize its use and sale to all adults. These policy changes are not associated with increased marijuana use or access by adolescents or with adverse effects on traffic safety or in the workplace. As acknowledged in a previous answer, marijuana regulations are also associated with less opioid abuse and mortality, and in jurisdictions where this retail market is taxed, revenue from marijuana sales has greatly exceeded initial expectations.
Sabet:Uruguay’s experiment has faltered. The black market for marijuana has tripled since legalization, based on police seizure statistics, and the country remains years behind in their effort to begin retail sales.
Developing nations should think twice before deciding to open the flood gates to a new addictive industry. A new marijuana industry will be a prime target for corruption in Uruguay (as it would be in the U.S., but weaker legal institutions in many developing nations in the Americas will greatly exacerbate problems there.
Additionally, don’t forget that organized crime in many parts of the Americas dominates perfectly legal industries, as well — for example, according to the United Nations, drug cartels now make almost twice as much money through illegal gold mining in Colombia than they do through drug trafficking. In other words, making an industry legal doesn’t necessarily eliminate drug cartels.
Given what we’ve seen so far, I’m confident Uruguay’s experiment will continue to fail to meet expectations.
Many countries have decriminalized marijuana use rather than legalizing it. Is that an option states should be exploring?
Sabet: We support laws that remove criminal sanctions for low-level marijuana use, but the overall objective of drug policy should be to discourage drug use. Any proposed laws removing criminal penalties must be paired with requisite investments in prevention, treatment and drugged driving enforcement. Decriminalization is also a confusing term, often inadvertently or purposefully used to advance legalization.
Armentano: Marijuana decriminalization is not a novel concept. It was first recommended as a national policy by the National Commission on Marijuana and Drug Abuse, appointed by President Richard Nixon, in 1972. The commission concluded, “Neither the marijuana user nor the drug itself can be said to constitute a danger to public safety. Therefore, the Commission recommends … [the] possession of marijuana for personal use no longer be an offense, [and that the] casual distribution of small amounts of marijuana for no remuneration, or insignificant remuneration no longer be an offense.”
Several states, including Connecticut, Delaware, Mississippi and Nebraska, have adopted decriminalization policies, which amend criminal penalties so that those caught in possession of the substance face a civil fine in lieu of an arrest, jail time and a lifelong criminal record. Yet, these policies are largely a stopgap measures, as cannabis remains contraband and the criminal marijuana market remains in place. Ultimately, legalization is necessary in order to bring control, oversight and transparency to this multibillion dollar market. To be clear: legalizing marijuana does not create a new market. It simply reflects the reality that such a market exists, and brings this thriving underground market above-ground so that it can be regulated accordingly.
According to the CDC, marijuana can have harmful health effects. Short term, the CDC says, “heavy users of marijuana can have short-term problems with attention, memory and learning, which can affect relationships and mood.” Long term, it “affects brain development. When marijuana users begin using as teenagers, the drug may reduce attention, memory and learning functions … Marijuana’s effects on these abilities may last a long time or even be permanent.” Do you question the CDC’s assessment? If so, why?
Armentano:It has long been acknowledged that cannabis is a mood-altering substance with some risk potential, particularly among young people. That said, cannabis’ potential risks to health relative to other substances, including legal substances like alcohol, tobacco and prescription medications, are not so great to warrant its continued criminalization for adults or schedule I prohibited status under federal law. Further, by regulating cannabis, society will have greater and more effective tools to better keep cannabis out of the hands of young people. By any rational assessment, the continued criminalization of cannabis is a disproportionate public policy response to behavior that is, at worst, a public health concern. But it should not be a criminal justice matter.
Sabet:Science should drive our national debate about marijuana, not politics. And the CDC is spot on here. This issue is especially important when it comes to kids, whose brains are still developing. Adolescents who use marijuana regularly have been shown to be almost six times more likely than non-users to drop out of school, and on average lose six to eight more IQ points. This is sadly unsurprising given that the potency of marijuana products has grown 10- to 20-fold within the last few decades, with some pot derivatives now containing up to 99 percent THC.
The CDC also says marijuana can be addictive. It cites research that shows about one in 10 marijuana users will become addicted. For people who begin using it before age 18, that number rises to one in six. What studies do you cite in making your case that it is, or isn’t, addictive?
Sabet: The National Institutes of Health, which supports the majority of the world’s drug abuse research, notes that about 4 million people in the U.S. suffered from marijuana dependence and 138,000 voluntarily sought treatment for their marijuana use.
Armentano:According to a comprehensive assessment by the National Academies of Sciences Institute of Medicine, the dependence liability of cannabis is on par with that of caffeine, and well below the levels of dependence associated with a number of legal substances, including alcohol, tobacco and opioids.
According to a New York Times article, “What science says about marijuana,” “The Institute of Medicine, the health arm of the National Academy of Sciences, said in a 1999 study that 32 percent of tobacco users become dependent, as do 23 percent of heroin users, 17 percent of cocaine users and 15 percent of alcohol drinkers. But only 9 percent of marijuana users develop a dependence.”
Democratic lawmakers in Trenton are pushing for legislation that would legalize marijuana. If they are successful, that would make New Jersey the first state to legalize it legislatively. In other states where it has been legalized it has been accomplished through ballot initiatives. Which is the better route for having the legalization question decided?
Armentano: The voter initiative process exists for situations like this — where a political issue possesses majority public support yet elected officials nonetheless refuse to legislate in a manner that appropriately represents the views of their constituents. Presently, no state has yet to regulate the adult use of cannabis legislatively, though this reality may change later this year in Vermont. As more and more elected officials recognize that cannabis law reform represents a political opportunity, not a political liability, we will see more states move forward to amend these criminal laws legislatively. In the interim, however, it will likely continue to be the voters who lead on this issue, not the other way around.
Sabet:We believe that science and evidence — not public opinion or ideology — should drive public health and policy in America. To the extent that state legislators or voters consider changes to state laws, we hope that public health and safety experts — not the interest of small groups of profiteers — will take precedent.
Over the coming weeks, SAM will be unveiling a broad coalition of individuals committed to opposing this effort, and to discourage New Jersey from repeating the mistakes other states have already made.
Looking down the road 10 years from now, do you think the number of states approving legalization of marijuana will increase significantly?
Sabet: We believe public support for marijuana is on shaky ground. The surprise results of the most recent presidential election demonstrate that anything can happen, and when it comes to controversial issues, public opinion can swing back and forth. Moreover, in many places that voted for marijuana, we are now seeing evidence of “buyer’s remorse” after the proliferation of marijuana shops and advertising in communities. In Colorado, California and Oregon, the majority of towns, when given a choice, have rejected pot shops at the polls.
Armentano: As is the case when fighting for any sort of political or cultural change, our primary hurdles remain willful ignorance and political inertia — two of the more difficult obstacles to overcome.
Marijuana legalization is not inevitable. These sort of societal and legal changes only occur when advocates are passionate and vigilant. Those who opine in favor of the status quo remain powerful enemies. In this past election cycle, special interests representing the prison industry, the alcohol and beverage industry, the pharmaceutical industry and legalized gambling donated millions of dollars in efforts to defeat statewide cannabis legalization measures. Yet, by and large these efforts were unsuccessful. That is because the overwhelming majority of U.S. voters recognize that the ongoing enforcement of marijuana prohibition financially burdens taxpayers, encroaches upon civil liberties, engenders disrespect for the law and disproportionately impactsyoung people and communities of color. They realize that it makes no sense from a public health perspective, a fiscal perspective, or a moral perspective to perpetuate the prosecution and stigmatization of those adults who choose to responsibly consume a substance that is safer than either alcohol or tobacco. In the coming years, public support and demand for marijuana law reform will continue to grow and ultimately politicians will have little choice but to legislate accordingly if they wish to remain in office.
Are there any important aspects of the legalization issue that these questions have failed to address?
Sabet: Marijuana legalization is often advanced under the guise of addressing racial disparities in our criminal justice system. But what we’ve seen in reality is the exact opposite. In Colorado, for example, marijuana arrest rates have risen sharply, and the racial disparity in these arrests has increased. In the two years after Colorado legalized marijuana, the number of Hispanic and black youth arrested for marijuana-related offenses rose 29 and 58 percent, respectively. In the same period, the number of white youth being arrested for the same crimes dropped 8 percent.
Making matters worse, in Denver marijuana businesses are primarily now concentrated in low-income neighborhoods, primarily of Hispanic and African American residents. In one low-income neighborhood, there is one marijuana business for every 47 residents. This is more evidence that the marijuana industry is looking to copy Big Tobacco’s playbook by advertising to and targeting minorities, as well as kids. That should concern everyone.
Paul Armentano is deputy director of NORML, the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws. He is the co-author of the book “Marijuana is Safer: So Why Are We Driving People to Drink?” (2009, Chelsea Green) and “The Citizen’s Guide to State-By-State Marijuana Laws” (2015, Whitman Publishing). He is the 2013 Alfred R. Lindesmith award recipient in the achievement in the field of scholarship. His writing has appeared in over 750 publications as well as in more than a dozen textbooks and anthologies.
Kevin A. Sabet is a former adviser to three U.S. administrations, and president and CEO of Smart Approaches to Marijuana, which he co-founded with former Congressman Patrick Kennedy and senior editor of The Atlantic David Frum in 2013. He has studied, researched, written about, and implemented drug policy for almost 20 years. He worked in the Clinton (2000) and Bush (2002-2003) administrations, and in 2011 he stepped down after serving more than two years as the senior adviser to President Obama’s drug control director, having been the only drug policy staffer to have ever served as a political appointee in a Democrat and Republican administration.