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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.

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