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A response to reader comments about Proposition 19

On Tuesday, Paul Costello posted an entry discussing our recent interview about Proposition 19, and a number of readers left comments. I wanted to respond to three themes in the comments and then make an observation about process.

Hasn’t marijuana consumption stayed flat in all the countries that have already legalized marijuana, like the Netherlands?

No country has legalized the commercial production of marijuana as Proposition 19 would. Indeed the world’s nations have signed an international treaty pledging not to take such a radical step. In the Netherlands, using cannabis in licensed shops is legal, but commercial production and trafficking are still illegal and Dutch enforcement against marijuana traffickers is quite tough.

In contrast, some countries have taken the less radical step of making cannabis use a civil infraction subject to a fine but no jail time (e.g., like a parking ticket). If you think that is a good policy you should be happy with California’s current law, which does the same thing for individuals possessing an ounce or less of marijuana.

Legalization will take some money away from criminal organizations. Isn’t that good?

Yes, it is very good. But that good has to be weighed against the damage of creating another corporation that makes money by generating addiction, and the increase in cannabis use the new law will generate. Obviously, people disagree about which is the greater cost – and that is what drives much of the debate on this issue.

Alcohol causes more harm than cannabis, but it’s legal, so why shouldn’t cannabis be legal?

The misuse of alcohol does indeed cause more harm, particularly violence, than does cannabis. We also have a serious problem in this country with binge drinking among underage drinkers. Part of the reason for that is that alcohol is legal, and therefore can be marketed aggressively and skillfully to young people, and is protected by a powerful and highly effective lobbying industry that can blunt efforts to tax and regulate alcohol. Cannabis doesn’t have those political advantages, but it would get them if it were legalized and thus be able to do more harm than it does now.

***

Let me close by returning to an observation I made in the podcast with Paul, about the nature of drug policy debate in the U.S. If you read the companion piece to my opposition to legalization in the Los Angeles Times, you will see reader comments calling me a Nazi, drug warrior, right-wing nut, and so on. If you read the op-ed I published in San Francisco Chronicle on Monday praising the recent reduction in crack cocaine sentences, you will see reader comments labeling me a loony liberal who wants the streets run with crack cocaine.

This level of hostility in rhetoric, along with the unwillingness of many people to admit that drug policy is not an issue with just two simple points of view or “teams”, has been a major stumbling block to the development of nuanced, careful effective drug policy. I am therefore grateful to those of you who posted on Scope or e-mailed me with thoughtful, considered critiques of what I said in the podcast.

Keith Humphreys, PhD, is a professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences and addiction expert. He recently returned to Stanford after a one-year stint as a senior advisor in the Office of National Drug Control Policy in Washington.

10 Responses to “ A response to reader comments about Proposition 19 ”

  1. drevilephd Says:

    To suggest the only reason so many people drink a lot of alcohol is b/c it is legal is a tad misleading. That’s like saying the only reason so many people are fat is b/c grocery stores carry junk food. Alcohol is quite chemically addictive, whereas marijuana less so. Additionally, marijuana does not need to be smoked–it could be vaporized, eaten or even drunk in tea. To suggest marijuana should not be made legal based on harmful effects of smoking it is also misleading. Lastly, THC has been scientifically proven to treat PTSD and kill harmful brain cells…the later being a benefit to anyone.

  2. Kevin Says:

    I am always amazed to hear all the predictions of the big changes that would come should Prop. 19 pass. They suggest that there are millions of people who WOULD use cannabis that do not do so now simply because it is illegal.

    To get an idea of what life would look like with legal cannabis, simply look around. What you see now is what you would get with 19 being the law.

    Everybody who wants to use cannabis already does so. Usage will not rise. All we are debating is about what we will do with the cannabis THAT WE HAVE NOW.

    There are MANY people who should not use alcohol, and cannabis gives them a substitute. If 19 passes, cannabis use won’t rise, but I do believe that alcohol use will drop!

  3. Correction Says:

    (1) Hasn’t marijuana consumption stayed flat in all the countries that have already legalized marijuana, like the Netherlands?

    You never actually answered this question. Having been to the Netherlands, I can tell you that marijuana is (for all intensive purposes) legal. And the vast majority of people there with marijuana problems are drug tourists, not local citizens. Furthermore, there are other jurisdictions where marijuana use is not an infraction at all. Portugal, for example, has fully legalized the possession of ALL drugs in small quantities. The sky has yet to fall.

    (2) “Part of the reason for that is that alcohol is legal, and therefore can be marketed aggressively and skillfully to young people, and is protected by a powerful and highly effective lobbying industry that can blunt efforts to tax and regulate alcohol.”

    There is only a grain of truth in this statement. The alcohol lobby is well funded and certainly more powerful than the marijuana lobby.

    HOWEVER, binge drinking is not cause by the fact that alcohol is legal. In reference to the Prohibition era, alcohol was illegal. Rather than clear the bars, it merely sent them underground where they could not be regulated. Drinking actually increased.

    In fact, the Prohibition as analogy argument is one of the strongest argument in favor of legalization.

  4. luvourmother Says:

    Under current prohibition laws it is easier for teens to obtain marijuana than alcohol or tobacco. This is because alcohol and tobacco sales are regulated with strict id programs. If you want to prevent children from smoking marijuana there has to be id programs in place, which means marijuana needs to be legalized with associate age limits.

  5. Andrew Says:

    I have read studies that say 70% of drug cartel business is through marijuana. I have also read that over 25,000 people have died in the last three years from the related drug wars, of which many of these people have been innocent civilians. The current rate of violence is increasing and meanwhile marijuana is easier for our children to get than alcohol. Legalization will make it harder for adolescents to use marijuana, and considering testicular cancer risk may be increased by adolescent marijuana use, this seems particularly relevant. The year alcohol prohibition ended, alcohol sales accounted for 9% of our GDP, while total consumption actually decreased despite legalization and large price drops. How much money are we giving the cartels that could go to creating jobs, to taxation, or to health programs in the United States? If marijuana use goes up as you say it will, this will most likely accompany a reduction in alcohol use which could lead to less high blood pressure levels, less heart disease, less diabetes and many other current health problems often exacerbated by alcohol abuse.

    Your logic in answering the first question states that improved and cheaper access to marijuana will increase marijuana use but only if marijuana use is much much cheaper and access is much much easier. You should be able to provide some statistical evidence showing how increased access to marijuana adversely affected a populations health or at least increased usage considerably.

    Marijuana prohibition is not worth 25,000 lives every three years and its not worth hundreds of millions of dollars of lost taxation, job creation, and increased policing. If we were winning or even keeping up with the “war” on marijuana your arguments would make more sense, but at this point it is time to change tactics.

  6. Keith Humphreys Says:

    For those who may be interested in whether it is true that in the Netherlands, the production and manufacture are illegal, here is a link to a recent news story about Dutch citizens being arrested for growing marijuana. I have spent significant time with the Dutch police, and they inform me that they seize hundreds of metric tons of cannabis a year. Dutch policy is therefore quite different than the full legalization of production and manufacture proposed in Prop 19.

    http://www.expatica.com/nl/news/dutch-news/police-arrest-cannabis-growers-in-dutch-greenhouse_85077.html

  7. Cann Reform Says:

    It seems to me that simply pointing out that commenteers view your various opinion pieces as opposingly extreme doesn’t mean that your stance is actually balanced. I see it as inconsistent, given the audio and print examples you provided.

    Regarding the facets that you have selected to follow up on:

    1) Hasn’t marijuana consumption stayed flat in all the countries that have already legalized marijuana, like the Netherlands?

    Correction- Until a couple of months ago, cannabis possesion was a misdemeanor in Cali… which is a crime. In fact, the legislature passed SB 1449 only in JUNE (!), voting to move marijuana possesion to an infraction and removing its misdemeanor criminal status.

    Also, You spend your entire response correcting a verbiage issue (legalization vs decriminalization), and never actually address the question itself. Yes, in fact, if we use decriminalization as a best-available proxy for the precedent of legalization then usage patterns will stay the same or increase slightly.

    2) Legalization will take some money away from criminal organizations. Isn’t that good?

    You reply: “Obviously, people disagree about which is the greater cost – and that is what drives much of the debate on this issue.”

    How utterly horrific. I don’t comprehend how “people” can think that organizing the production, delivery and sales of non-deadly, non-physically addictive cannabis under a corporate organizational structure can in any way rival the violent horrors that plague Mexico. Sewing a flayed face onto a soccer ball as a warning?

    http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/2010/feb/07/mexico-drug-war

    Seriously? You think it’s debatable whether corporate involvement in cannabis distribution is going to rival decapitations of our neighbors and incarceration of our youth?

    Your point about an ivory tower debate is indefensible from my perspective.

    3) Alcohol causes more harm than cannabis, but it’s legal, so why shouldn’t cannabis be legal?

    I can’t believe you ignore the ample evidence demonstrating that youth (from junior high to entering colege level) can more easily obtain marijuana than they can obtain alcohol. This has been demonstrated repeatedly.

    ex. http://www.keloland.com/News/NewsDetail6371.cfm?Id=93169#

    So, in fact, the evidence indicates that legalization, regulation and taxation would REDUCE accessibility to marijuana for our youth. Its astonishing to me how you could ignore this elephant in the corner while constructing your logic… it would seem to me that either you are subject to unconscious bias or have an agenda. I know of no factual support for your proposal that an evil corporate behemoth will star marketing marijuana to children.

    As opposed to the ample evidence showing that prohibition increases access for children through illegal channels, I know of no factual support for your proposal that an evil corporate behemoth will star marketing marijuana to children. If in fact you are really concerned about this fanciful idea, why not start to address the government controls on advertising to children that have been obliterated since the 1970′s.

    Finally, It would seem to me that your arguments made here are not sufficiently grounded in fact, and don’t intellectually cut muster to clarify your previous interview that was linked to, above. I would welcome a chance to see you actually address above, with the hope that you can provide a “thoughtful, considered” logical arguement that can help us reach a “nuanced, careful effective drug policy”.

  8. YES on Prop 19 Says:

    Prop 19 does not legalize production and sale of cannabis. It leaves that up to each local government (county or municipal). Local governments must take action to authorize and regulate production and sale of cannabis.

    The main fear you expressed is that tobacco companies (and other large corporations) might get into the cannabis business and market the product to teenagers. Local governments will be able to prevent this. They will be the ones licensing production and distribution. They can decide to prohibit certain kinds of advertising or all advertising. They can prohibit products that combine tobacco with cannabis. They can even prevent companies with an out-of-state presence from entering the market. They have complete control over the adverse scenarios you envisage.

    By the way, no one is justified in attacking you ad hominem. You are expressing your views in good faith. Ad hominem attacks only serve to block productive discussion.

  9. Jamie Says:

    Judge Vaughn Walker’s recent decision regarding the illegality of gay marriage is instructive, for it boils down to “what interest does the state have in making it against the law?”

    I would venture that the same applies here. Does the state really have an interest in making cannabis illegal? When it could make things much simpler by regulating it like it’s distant cousin alcohol?

  10. Talon Ferguson Says:

    Netherlands has half the usage rate we have here under Prohibition… they’ve managed to make it boring, where we make it appealing and available to any kid with 20 dollars.

    Marijuana is not addicting. I smoke marijuana once a month, if that… I drink twice a week, I have 3 cups of coffee a day, and I’ve very thankfully quit smoking, which was incredibly hard. I have never felt a ‘strong urge’ to get high… and scientists agree, it’s non-addictive.

    Comparing the drug MURDERS to the ‘potential addiction’ of additional americans is laughable. First, because as I said, it isn’t addictive… and secondly, if it ever is established to cause any physical harm ( no ones been able to show this, for all the effort ) Comparing self-inflicted health problems to someone kicking down your door and murdering you and your family is quite frankly, an insult… I’ve had run-ins with drug gangs, I’ve had guns pointed at me. I doubt you have, I doubt you’ve ever been in harms way of this drug war and seen the violence it creates, and I doubt you’ve ever smoked marijuana or experienced the benign and friendly company of a user.

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