The views on marijuana legalization expressed in The Daily Caller last week by The Heritage Foundation’s Charles Stimson (“Why we shouldn’t legalize marijuana,” July 19, 2012) are woefully out of step with contemporary science and public opinion.
Never in modern history has there existed greater public support for ending the nation’s nearly century-long experiment with marijuana prohibition and replacing it with a system of legalization and regulation. A nationwide poll by Rasmussen Reports in May reported that 56 percent of Americans support “legalizing marijuana and regulating it like alcohol or cigarettes” versus only 34 percent who oppose the idea. Every age group polled, including those age 65 and older, favored the plant’s legalization over its continued criminalization. Separate nationwide polls by Gallup and Angus Reid report similar voter sentiment.
Americans have grown weary of the federal government’s war on cannabis. Their exasperation is justified. Since 1970, over 21 million U.S. citizens have been cited or arrested for violating marijuana laws. Yet despite this vigorous and fiscally taxing criminal enforcement, over 100 million Americans, including the president, acknowledge having consumed cannabis. One in ten admit that they use it regularly. Marijuana prohibition hasn’t dissuaded the general public from consuming cannabis or reduced its availability, especially among young people. But it has damaged the lives and careers of millions of people who were arrested and sanctioned for choosing to ingest a substance that is safer than alcohol or tobacco.
How much safer? A 2009 review published in the British Columbia Mental Health and Addictions Journal estimated that health-related costs per user are eight times higher for drinkers of alcoholic beverages than they are for those who use cannabis. For users of tobacco products, these costs are more than 40 times higher. Concluded the review, “In terms of [health-related] costs per user: tobacco-related health costs are over $800 per user, alcohol-related health costs are much lower at $165 per user and cannabis-related health costs are the lowest at $20 per user.” More recently, a February 2011 World Health Organization report concluded that alcohol consumption is responsible for a staggering four percent of all deaths worldwide, more than AIDS, tuberculosis or violence. No comparable statistics exist for cannabis, whose active compounds are relatively nontoxic to healthy cells and organs and are incapable of causing death by overdose.
This is not to say that marijuana is innocuous or without risk. It isn’t. But such concerns are hardly an argument in favor of the plant’s continued illegality. After all, there are numerous adverse health consequences associated with alcohol, tobacco and prescription pharmaceuticals — all of which are far more dangerous and costlier to society than cannabis — and it’s precisely because of these consequences that these products are legally regulated and their use is restricted to particular consumers and specific settings. A pragmatic regulatory framework that allows for the limited legal use of marijuana by adults would best reduce any risks associated with its use or abuse.
Likewise, regulation would positively address those risk factors largely associated with the substance’s criminal prohibition. For example, the marijuana sold on the street today is often of unknown purity and quality. Further, the product’s marketers are typically criminal entrepreneurs who may also introduce consumers to other, more potent illicit substances. Finally, the black market-inflated price of cannabis exposes its producers and consumers to potential crime and theft from other criminal entities looking to exploit the drug’s prohibition-inflated economic value. Each of these potential risks would be mitigated, if not eliminated, under a system of legalization and regulation.
Finally, a regulated system of cannabis legalization, complete with rules regarding who can legally provide and consume marijuana and at what age these activities are allowed, will make it easier, not harder, for parents, educators and members of the law enforcement community to rationally and persuasively discuss this subject with young people. Parents who may have tried cannabis during their youth (or who continue to use it occasionally) will no longer perceive societal pressures to lie to their children about their own behaviors. Rather, just as many parents and educators presently speak to young people objectively about the use of alcohol — instructing them that booze may be appropriate for adults in moderation, but that it remains inappropriate for young people — legalization will unburden adults and allow them to similarly speak rationally to adolescents about cannabis.
Need further proof that regulation works? Just look at our contemporary experience with tobacco — a legally marketed but deadly recreational drug. Teen use of cigarettes has recently fallen to its lowest levels in decades. Conversely, young people’s self-reported use of cannabis is rising and has now surpassed the number of teens consuming tobacco. Why the disparate trends? Simple. In short, it’s legalization, regulation and public education — coupled with the enforcement of age restrictions — that most effectively keeps mind-altering substances out of the hands of children.
Despite more than 70 years of federal prohibition and regardless of the fear-mongering of pundits like Charles Stimson, marijuana is here to stay. Let’s acknowledge this reality, cease ceding control of the marijuana market to untaxed criminal enterprises and put forward common-sense regulations governing cannabis’ use and production.
Paul Armentano is the deputy director for NORML, the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws, and is the co-author of the book, “Marijuana Is Safer: So Why Are We Driving People to Drink?” (Chelsea Green, 2009).