This column by Project SAM director Kevin Sabet appeared in The Huffington Post Jan. 24.
It seems like everyone — informed by the science or not — has an opinion on marijuana research these days. And while I may disagree with their conclusions, many editors’ pro-legalization opinion columns are smartly formulated and backed by some credible research. But this past week’s opinion article by a member of the Chicago Tribune’s editorial board, Steven Chapman, was neither. Mr. Chapman makes eight particularly incorrect and misleading assertions that deserve a correction:
1. “Existing laws aren’t keeping kids away from pot.”
Fact: It’s true that many kids smoke marijuana. About half of high school seniors have done so at least once. But many more kids drink alcohol — a legal, addictive, commercialized drug. And while tobacco has been decreasing among kids and is now used slightly less than pot among high schoolers, we can thank a societal shift on attitudes and also 80 years of learning the hard way for that. Overall, still, alcohol and cigarettes are used far greater than marijuana.
We also have had a relatively recent societal shift in attitudes about marijuana. As our country increasingly shuns tobacco, it also has made marijuana more accessible and socially acceptable — and youth are reporting easier access to weed at the same time.
But are they really getting marijuana more easily than beer? The 2009 survey Mr. Chapman referenced has been debunked. A recent by the University of Maryland showed that kids alcohol and cigarettes were the most readily accessible substances, with 50 percent and 44 percent, respectively, of youth reporting that they could obtain them within a day. Youth were least likely to report that they could get marijuana within a day (31 percent); 45 percent report that they would be unable to get marijuana at all.
2. “The sale and use of a substance does not necessarily mean more people will use it.”
Fact: Of course it does. Tobacco and alcohol are legal and readily accessible — and our nation’s use of those substances reflect this. According to the National Survey on Drug Use and Health, past-month use of tobacco stands at about 27 percent, and past-month use of alcohol is about 52 percent. Meanwhile, past-month use of marijuana stands at about 8 percent of Americans.
When RAND researchers analyzed California’s 2010 effort to legalize marijuana, they concluded that the price of the drug could plummet and therefore marijuana consumption could increase. When something is legal, it is very likely that more people use it.
3. “No one, after all, is talking about putting pot in vending machines.”
Fact: Yes, as a matter of fact, they are. And it’s not just vending machines. It’s the “Starbucks of marijuana,” too. American society loves commercialization and Big Business has proven time and time again that they just can’t control themselves. A volunteer ban on liquor ads is completely ignored, as are bans on gambling advertising.
And remember what we have learned about Big Tobacco? Here’s evidence presented during the 1990s tobacco settlements to jog your memory:
The Liggett Group: “If you are really and truly not going to sell [cigarettes] to children, you are going to be out of business in 30 years.”
R. J. Reynolds: “Realistically, if our company is to survive and prosper over the long-term, we must get our share of the youth market.”
Lorillard: “The base of our business is the high school student.”
Phillip Morris: “Today’s teenager is tomorrow’s potential regular customer… Because of our high share of the market among the youngest smokers, Philip Morris will suffer more than the other companies from the decline in the number of teenage smokers.”
Philip Morris (now Altria) just bought the domain names “altriacannabis.com” and “altriamarijuana.com.”
We are incredibly naive to think a commercial marijuana industry wouldn’t employ all of the same strategies to convince people — especially young people — to use marijuana.
4. “The tolerance-fuels-use theory is thunderously lacking in real-world support. In the Netherlands, where ‘coffee shops’ are allowed to sell pot, teenagers are far less likely to use it than their American peers.”
Fact: The Netherlands experience is far more complicated than Mr. Chapman would care to discuss. Yes, the Netherlands has always had drug use rates below or at around the same rate as the U.S. Frankly, American drug use rates have far exceeded most of the world’s for a few hundred years now. But when the Netherlands started advertising pot – something we in America would be extremely susceptible to — they witnessed a tripling in youth use marijuana use rates, according to independent researchers. Their citizens now have a higher likelihood of needing treatment for marijuana than most of Europe. And they are closing many of their “coffee shops” after years of tolerance because of very potent pot that is saturating the market.
5. “‘In the states that have passed medical-marijuana laws, youth marijuana use has decreased,’ Amanda Reiman, policy manager for the Drug Policy Alliance, told me. In California, “the number of seventh, ninth and 11th graders reporting marijuana use in the last six months and in their lifetimes all declined” after 1996, when the state passed its medical marijuana law.”
Fact: Rule number one in journalism: Check your facts. Informal rule #2: Make sure the facts you do use come from scientists, not advocates. There are two major problems with this statement:
(a) First, it does not come from a respected source, peer-reviewed journal, or anything of the like. The truth is that we are only beginning to learn about what happens to youth marijuana use when marijuana is “medicalized.” The only two peer-reviewed studies that I’ve seen on this shows that marijuana use is higher in medical marijuana states than non-medical marijuana states. And we have seen rapid increases in marijuana use since medical marijuana has been more widely accepted, since about 2007 or so. But we’re still learning. At the very least, the jury is out. But ask kids what they think about marijuana and you’ll probably get the answer that “if it’s medicine, it must be okay.” We know, for example, that the diversion of medical marijuana is common among adolescents in substance treatment.
(b) Second, even if we were to look at the overall use statistics and make a wide generalization about the link between medical marijuana and youth use, we would not look at 1996 as a starting point. Medical marijuana outlets were not implemented en masse until about 2006 or so. So while the law passed in 1996, it’s fair to say it was not fully implemented until 10 years later. And what has happened since 2006 in California and nationwide? Use rates have rapidly increased. But as I said before, we still need more research on the topic.
6. “The alleged harms of cannabis on the teen mind and body are exaggerated.”
Fact: By whom? The producers of the 1936 film Reefer Madness? Maybe so. But today’s science has moved beyond scare tactics and there are some general beliefs scientists about marijuana and its effect on teens:
Addiction: 1 in 6 kids who ever smoke marijuana will become addicted, according to independent research.
Mental Health: Marijuana use is significantly linked with mental illness, especially schizophrenia and psychosis, but also depression and anxiety.
Learning: Heavy, persistent marijuana use in adolescence is linked to a strong decline in IQ. A new analysis of this study has raised doubts among some, but the original study authors redid their analysis and are sticking to their findings. Also researchers unconnected to both studies have concluded that the new analysis does not overturn the original study.
The Director of the National Institute on Drug Abuse summed it up nicely:
…observational studies in humans cannot account for all potentially confounding variables. In contrast, animal studies — though limited in their application to the complex human brain — can more definitively assess the relationship between drug exposure and various outcomes. They have shown that exposure to cannabinoids during adolescent development can cause long-lasting changes in the brain’s reward system as well as the hippocampus, a brain area critical for learning and memory. The message inherent in these and in multiple supporting studies is clear. Regular marijuana use in adolescence is known to be part of a cluster of behaviors that can produce enduring detrimental effects and alter the trajectory of a young person’s life — thwarting his or her potential. Beyond potentially lowering IQ, teen marijuana use is linked to school dropout, other drug use, mental health problems, etc. Given the current number of regular marijuana users (about 1 in 15 high school seniors) and the possibility of this number increasing with marijuana legalization, we cannot afford to divert our focus from the central point: regular marijuana use stands to jeopardize a young person’s chances of success–in school and in life.
7. “A kid who gets his hands on beer doesn’t have to worry about getting toxic chemicals or nasty fillers. Buying pot in illicit markets may also expose users of all ages to violence, robbery or extortion. But you don’t see innocent bystanders getting killed in shootouts among liquor store owners.”
Fact: Marijuana legalization would do little to curb the black market, especially because that market could easily undercut the new, taxed price of legal marijuana . And let’s be clear: Most kids get their pot from a friend or family member indoors, not from some shady character on a street corner. Don’t believe everything you see in the movies.
8. “The alternative to legalization is sticking with a policy that has produced millions of arrests, squandered hundreds of billions of dollars and turned many harmless people into criminals in the eyes of the law — all while failing to stem the popularity of pot. For kids or adults, there is nothing healthy in that.”
Fact: This is probably my biggest beef with this piece. And it is not because the facts about marijuana use trends over the past 30 years are dead wrong (in fact, marijuana use is much lower than it was in the late 1970s).
To say that the only alternative to current policy is legalization is like saying the only alternative to current gun policy is the repeal of the Second Amendment. Actually, there are myriad of things short of legalization we can do to lessen the harms of current policy while improving upon it. That is why I launched Project: SAM (Smart Approaches to Marijuana) with Patrick Kennedy last week. And many public health professionals have joined us already, including Harvard’s Sharon Levy; University of Kansas’ famed tobacco treatment pioneer, Kim Richter; Denver’s Paula Riggs, a leader in drug treatment in the U.S., and many others.
So if neither legalization nor prohibition, then what? Science-based drug education for parents and kids needs to become a top national priority. Community coalitions that engage in multiple community sectors, and drug courts that leverage the criminal justice system with treatment must be brought to scale. Strategies that implement job and stable housing programs should also be more widespread. We do not need to stigmatize people whose only crime is smoking marijuana, of course. But while “lock ’em up” or “legalize” may both fit neatly on a bumper sticker, they are not thoughtful ways to implement drug policy. There exists an approach that neither legalizes, nor demonizes, marijuana. We reject dichotomies — such as “incarceration versus legalization” — that offer only simplistic solutions to the highly complex problems stemming from marijuana use and the policies surrounding it. We champion smart policies that decrease marijuana use — and do not harm marijuana users and low-level dealers with arrest records that stigmatize them for life and in ways that make it even harder for them to break free from cycles of addiction.
People can disagree about whether or not legalization would result in a net benefit or net harm to society. But making up facts or revealing only half-truths gets us nowhere near the reasoned debate on this issue that we all crave.