SAM in the National Review

Slowing the Growth of Weed




Why voters in Arkansas and the Dakotas said no to recreational pot

For a time, it looked as if the debate about marijuana might just be over. Colorado legalized recreational marijuana in 2012. Over the next decade, 20 more states followed suit. The public has adapted quickly to the new normal, with a 2021 Pew survey showing roughly 60 percent of Americans approving the legal sale of marijuana, for both medical and recreational purposes. Fewer than 10 percent still favor an outright ban. When one-time drug warrior John Boehner redefined himself as a pro-pot investor and lobbyist, it felt like a moment of formal surrender. The War on Drugs is over. Get used to the pungent, sickly sweet smell of weed, because it’s going to be with us for a while. 

The War on Drugs is over, as this publication has already acknowledged. Debate about drug policy continues, however. This became obvious in the recent midterms when ballot initiatives failed in three of five states where voters were given the opportunity to green-light recreational pot. Maryland and Missouri voted to follow Colorado’s lead, but the legalization movement stumbled in both North and South Dakota, and in Arkansas. The South Dakota referendum was especially interesting given that the state had already approved recreational pot at the ballot box in 2020. The South Dakota supreme court repealed that measure, owing to irregularities in the drafting of the referendum, so proponents tried again in 2022. This time, democracy turned against them. Boehner may be ready to cash in on recreational marijuana, but he does not speak for everyone. 

Today’s marijuana debates look rather different from what we saw in the “Just Say No” era. There are still some familiar faces: Pro-legalization libertarians continue to square off against social conservatives, arguing about the legitimacy of curtailing individual freedoms for the sake of healthy family life. There are also some newer faces, such as Smart Approaches to Marijuana (SAM), which calls for a “third-way approach to marijuana policy” based on “reputable science and sound principles of public health and safety.” Groups such as SAM are trying to thread a needle, looking for ways to stymie commercial markets and the social normalization of marijuana without imposing harsh penalties on users. They know that the excessively punitive policies of the Reagan era did real harm, filling prisons and derailing the lives of casual users who might have become productive citizens. It does not follow, however, that marijuana is benign, or that widespread commercial availability is something voters should support.

Our political parties are still in the process of working out their positions in this new drug landscape. President Joe Biden has his own long history as a drug warrior and has shown no enthusiasm for removing marijuana from the Drug Enforcement Administration’s list of controlled substances. He has issued blanket pardons for cannabis offenders and seems likely to sign the newly passed Medical Marijuana and Cannabidiol Research Expansion Act, which would facilitate medical research on marijuana. However, he also angered legalization proponents by suspending staffers who admit to using marijuana. On the Republican side, some, such as Representative Matt Gaetz of Florida, have consistently advocated more-permissive marijuana laws. But many are still actively opposed, including Mike Pence, Tom Cotton, and Arkansas governor Asa Hutchinson. Hutchinson was instrumental in defeating his state’s midterm referendum, urging citizens to vote “No” on the grounds that recreational marijuana was a “gateway drug” that would spur higher rates of addiction.

Today’s marijuana debate is not focused on mandatory minimums or three-strike policies. All serious people understand as well that marijuana cannot simply sit on convenience-store shelves between the breath mints and the Kit Kat bars. If it is commercially available, there must be restrictions on where it is sold, to whom, and in what forms, strengths, and quantities. The disagreement today revolves around two related questions. First, should the growth of commercial marijuana markets be accepted or even welcomed, as a potential source of new jobs, GDP growth, and tax revenue? Second, should we shift our legal and social attitudes toward acceptance of recreational marijuana, treating it more like alcohol and less like heroin, cocaine, or methamphetamine?

Groups such as SAM answer both questions in the negative, encouraging states to explore legal pathways that can undercut commercial markets without putting users behind bars. Meanwhile, pro-legalization campaigns typically tout the benefits of new jobs and expound on popular uses for the new tax revenues that expanding marijuana markets might supply. Underlying these debates are troubling social questions that Americans must confront, even though they cannot be settled definitively at the ballot box. Very few Americans, presumably, would make peace with expanding commercial markets if they believed that such growth was driven primarily by addicts and youthful users. Understanding this, proponents eagerly assure voters that the addiction risks are minimal, and that stringent efforts will be made to minimize the impact on teenagers. New users, we are meant to believe, will primarily be responsible adults, who may smoke pot at parties or use it to enhance their enjoyment of music at concerts. It’s certainly appealing to imagine that states could enjoy the benefits of new revenue without significant costs. 

Of course, alcohol is always in the background of these discussions. Many people take an obvious pleasure in sagely decreeing that alcohol is in fact much more dangerous than pot. The most optimistic even dare to hope that marijuana might function, not as a gateway drug, but more as a “replacement drug,” offering would-be users a relatively benign high that might be chosen in preference to alcohol or other recreational drugs. 

Cannabis apologists have one thing right, at least. Alcohol is indeed dangerous. It does a great deal of social harm and is clearly riskier than marijuana in two important ways: It can cause fatal overdose, and withdrawal symptoms can be medically dangerous for those who are seriously addicted. It impairs driving far more significantly than pot does, although it’s unclear which substance threatens more road deaths: It is still extremely imprudent to drive while stoned, but there is no marijuana-based equivalent to the Breathalyzer, and users may simply be more blasé about the risks. The CDC estimates that more than 140,000 Americans die each year from maladies related to excessive alcohol use, and of course the death toll doesn’t tell the whole story. Alcoholism destroys human relationships, undercuts productivity, and blights many lives. Nevertheless, no state in the union is considering a ban on alcohol, for a simple reason: It’s been tried. Contrary to popular belief, Prohibition was moderately successful in reducing alcohol abuse, but it also fueled black markets and organized crime while undermining the public’s respect for the law. America learned some important lessons from that ill-fated social experiment. A free society cannot hope to rid itself of a substance with such deep roots in history, culture, and religion without a level of government intrusion that Americans rightly resent. Countless Americans are descended from brewers, distillers, and winemakers, and it is hard for Christians to accept that they cannot drink wine at their weddings when both Jesus Christ and His sainted mother apparently approved of the practice. 

Marijuana, by contrast, does not have deep roots in American history, culture, and religion. Its impact on American life was negligible until the 20th century, and even today, only about half of American adults report having tried it. Pot consumption has grown rapidly over the past decade, but regular users still represent less than 20 percent of the population. Cannabis is not a normal or expected part of American weddings, funerals, or banquet dinners. It factors in Rastafarianism, and in the ceremonies of some indigenous American tribes, but we do not need to transform our mainstream culture in order to live without marijuana. That means that the lessons of Prohibition may not apply to this case. Cannabis realistically can be restricted in American life, in ways that alcohol cannot. 

Insofar as marijuana is like alcohol, it’s worth considering how voters would react to a referendum promising to create jobs and boost tax revenues by deliberately increasing alcohol sales. Even people who enjoy alcohol, and use it responsibly, understand that the costs of more drinking would almost certainly outweigh any economic benefits. But there are three further reasons why voters should worry more about the five-fingered leaf. 

First, there is an enormous uncertainty factor. Alcohol, for all its harms, is at least relatively well understood. We know what it is and what it does to the human body. Marijuana is far more complex, bringing together more than 500 chemical compounds even beyond the famously psychoactive THC. In the debate about medical marijuana, the sheer complexity of this drug was offered as a positive argument for its use. Though it is perfectly possible to extract minimally psychoactive compounds such as CBD, we simply did not understand the substance well enough to capture all potentially beneficial effects without getting patients high. That lack of understanding takes on new significance now that the conversation has turned to recreational marijuana. We cannot really say with confidence how pot affects the human brain. Though the high generally ends within a few hours, users routinely describe a “brain haze” that can last a further few days. Marijuana is often detectable in urine tests for weeks after use, unlike alcohol, which is generally undetectable after two days. What is the drug doing in the human body over that time? These uncertainties are even more troubling when we understand that commercial pot today is far more potent than anything smoked at Woodstock. Through selective breeding, and by leaving female flowers unfertilized, commercial growers have developed strains of marijuana that are at least five or six times more powerful than the typical 1980s fare. It’s already clear that these more potent strains come with a dramatically increased risk of psychosis. There are probably longer-term consequences also, but at this point we’re still largely guessing.

Second, there are very good reasons to be concerned about the threat that marijuana poses to kids. Even enthused proponents of recreational marijuana tend to acknowledge that adolescents should not partake. Teenagers who smoke pot are statistically far more likely to drop out of school, commit crimes, and struggle with addiction as adults, while brain scans show significant differences between users and nonusers. Teen users are also more likely to develop schizophrenia, a debilitating mental-health condition that, to date, cannot be cured. There is evidence as well that heavy marijuana use lowers IQ, perhaps permanently, in adolescents who use it. Scientists can go on asking whether these connections are correlative or causal, but most parents would rather not roll the dice. Sale restrictions and education campaigns may help protect adolescents, but the problem here is that marijuana has overwhelmingly been a youth drug for as long as it’s been a part of American life. We understand pot-smoking as an adolescent experience; hardly anyone starts experimenting with weed at 40. If the goal now is to build a new and healthier sort of pot culture, we will have to begin by eradicating much of what already exists. 

That leads to the final point. Even if marijuana is less dangerous than alcohol on a chemical level, building cultural safeguards against abuse may prove surprisingly difficult. Precisely because alcohol has been part of Western society for so long, we have developed fairly nuanced cultural guidelines to help people regulate their drinking. Of course, not everyone succeeds in adhering to these, but we understand what responsible drinking looks like. It’s embarrassing to realize that one drank too much at a party, and in professional settings, intoxication is understood to be a fireable offense. Those norms are not in place for marijuana, which is probably why studies suggest that regular users are more prone to use disorders than regular drinkers are. It’s possible that legalization will be a catalyst for generating norms for more-responsible use, but we can only guess at how long that will take, or at how many lives will be destroyed along the way.

Pot is different from alcohol, too, in that users are overwhelmingly seeking a psychoactive experience. They smoke to get high. Alcohol is often consumed for culinary or cultural reasons, by people who have no interest in becoming intoxicated. This fact makes the “gateway drug” thesis at least somewhat more plausible. Casual drinkers may still enjoy the relaxing effects of alcohol, but if marijuana is blessed with widespread social approval, that will send a more unambiguous message: It is fine for responsible, healthy adults to use drugs in a purely recreational way to alter their mental states. What cultural consequences will follow from that? 

Drug policy is difficult. The 20th century taught us that we cannot have a drug-free world; it is safe to assume that addiction will remain a problem in American life, and drug epidemics a real threat. Prudent responses will have to be worked out on state or local levels, combining education, rehabilitation, and targeted forms of regulation. Scientists may make some useful discoveries. Social norms may shift to help people make better choices.

In the meantime, voters are not obliged to jump on the legalization bandwagon. The dangers of marijuana may have been oversold 40 years ago, but the real risks have increased markedly, even as Americans have become more complacent about them. The citizens of Arkansas and the Dakotas may be grateful, over the long run, that they allowed Colorado to volunteer for the social experiment of recreational weed. Perhaps Coloradans will end up learning a few things from them.