Saturday, January 22, 2011

LA Times columnist’s unfounded fears of marijuana legalization

By "Radical" Russ Belville on January 18, 2011


(Los Angeles Times) It’s difficult to raise the topic of marijuana usage in America today without somehow touching off intense debate over whether this relatively mild, but still harmful drug should be decriminalized, even fully legalized. That’s how much the pro-pot crowd has hijacked the national conversation over the nation’s ongoing struggle with drug use.

That’s how Nicole Brochu opens her column, originally published in the Sun Sentinel, entitled “Bid to legalize marijuana all smoke and mirrors“.  I’m still left wondering how we “hijacked the national conversation” when she’s the one whose column is appearing in 725,000 copies of the Los Angeles Times and another 225,000 copies of the Fort Lauderdale Sun Sentinel.  The reefer mad mainstream media columnist with almost a million readers complaining that we’re dominating the conversation reminds me of the drug czar with a $421 million annual budget complaining about the “well-funded pro-legalization forces“.

“Hijacked” in this sense means “told the public the truth”.  Isn’t it remarkable how the national conversation leans toward legalization when people know cannabis doesn’t lead to heroin, doesn’t cause cancer, doesn’t cause lung disease, doesn’t make you stupid, doesn’t get you addicted, and doesn’t make your girlfriend leave you for an alien.

Exhibit A: an opinion piece posted in this space earlier this week by a drug treatment psychologist bemoaning a national spike in teen pot smoking and attributing it largely to society’s growing tolerance of marijuana use.

Folks, this is not an outrageous assertion. In fact, in figures released Wednesday, the University of Michigan‘s Monitoring the Future — the largest survey on teen drug abuse polling more than 46,000 8th, 10th and 12th graders — found that teens’ exposure to anti-drug messages has nosedived over the past seven years. This at a time when teens also reported finding such messages actually work.

That’s stretching it.  What the report found is that “Between 2003 and today, the proportion of 8th, 10th, 12th graders that agreed ‘the commercials made them, to a great extent, less favorable toward drugs’ remained fairly stable.”  There is less of the ONDCP’s anti-marijuana propaganda on television, because in 2006, the Government Accountability Office found that “Between 1998 and 2004, Congress appropriated over $1.2 billion to the Office of National Drug Control Policy (ONDCP) for the National Youth Anti-Drug Media Campaign” and that ”the campaign was not effective in reducing youth drug use, either during the entire period of the campaign or during the period from 2002 to 2004 when the campaign was redirected and focused on marijuana use.”

So kids today have the same reaction to the ineffective anti-pot commercials that they had in 2003.

Perhaps it’s not all that irrelevant then that, after a decade’s decline in pot-smoking, the same study also saw a spike in marijuana usage among teens last year, with more high school seniors lighting up joints than cigarettes.

The same percentage of high school seniors smoke pot each month in 2010 as they did in 2003.

Yet back in 2003, before “teens’ exposure to anti-drug messages has nosedived”, 21.2% of seniors used cannabis monthly.  This year, it’s 21.4%.  In 2006, three years into the nosedive, 18.3% were using monthly – why no column about how less exposure to ads caused teen use to plummet?= back then?

The numbers, and the trend, are not in dispute. What is up for debate, a heated one at that, is what to do about it.

Well, there is quite a dispute about your “trend” regarding cannabis use.  About one in five high school seniors has been using cannabis monthly, a trend that holds true back to 1995.  It’s never fluctuated more than around three percentage points one way or the other (23.7% in 1997, 18.3% in 2006) from today’s 21.4%.

The trend that is impressive is the decline in teen smoking.  In 1995, one in three high school seniors smoked cigarettes monthly, a figure that got as high as 36.5% in 1997.  Now less than one in five (19.2%) of seniors smoke cigarettes.  Yes, “more high school seniors [are] lighting up joints than cigarettes”, but that’s not because more kids smoke pot; it’s because much fewer kids smoke cigarettes.

But to suggest that legalizing marijuana is somehow an answer to society’s drug problems — that regulating its sale and distribution would actually lead to a reduction in usage, especially among youth — defies sober reasoning. Legalization proponents like to point out that the Netherlands, with its liberal drug policy, has a lower drug rate than America’s, but they neglect to tell you the country’s marijuana usage among 18- to 20-year-olds nearly tripled after legalization — at a time when usage among adolescents in the United States decreased steadily, according to the medical journal Pediatrics.

Wait, you mean the increase in 18- to 20-year-old adults choosing to visit 18-and-over legal coffee shops in the Netherlands is your argument that use among 16- to 17-year-old adolescent children will increase?  Especially when any American legalization scheme is likely to adopt an age limit of 21?

I find it funny that in that Pediatrics article you cite, you neglected to include their findings that “decriminalization of marijuana in a number of states from 1975 to 1980 apparently had no effect on high school students’ beliefs and attitudes about marijuana or on their use of the drug during those years.”

Or: “Several territories in Australia have decriminalized use of marijuana. Studies comparing use in these territories with use in those that did not reduce penalties found no appreciable differences in use.”

Dutch vs. American Youth on Cannabis

Statistic (Dutch EMCDDA vs. US NSDUH) Dutch Age 15-16 (2007) US 10th Graders (2009)
US 12th Graders (2009)
Lifetime Use?
Monthly Use?
Easy” or “Fairly Easy” to get? “


And why not just tell us what the rate of cannabis use is among Dutch adolescents?  The latest figures I can find from the European Monitoring Centre for Drugs and Drug Addiction says 28% of Dutch youth aged 15- to 16-years old have tried cannabis in their lifetime, 15% used it within the last month, and 49% say it is “easy” or “fairly easy” to acquire cannabis.  In America, those numbers are all greater for 10th graders (14- to 15-years-old) and almost double for 12th graders (16- to 17-years-old).

Putting pot up for sale in convenience stores next to cigarettes and beer will only make it more accessible, and more acceptable, not to mention more affordable, creating more consumers, not less. Youth will be the most vulnerable, if Alaska’s experiment with legalization in the ’70s is any example. The state’s youth started smoking at twice the rate of those nationally, convincing Alaska to recriminalize marijuana in 1990, according to the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency.

For the reefer mad prohibitionists, it’s either “lock people up for smoking pot” or it’s “pot up for sale in convenience stores next to cigarettes and beer”.  They can accept that “legal drugs” is a broad concept ranging from over-the-counter aspirin to tightly-controlled prescription morphine but for cannabis it has to be buds next to Bud and jazz cigarettes next to the regular ones at the 7-Eleven.  They criticize the Netherlands’ model of adults-only coffee houses without noticing they aren’t exactly convenience stores (in Dutch coffee houses, there are no menus displaying the buds and the prices – you have to push a button to have the menu display so that cannabis is never “passively” advertised.)  They can’t even make the connection to cannabis being vended at state-run or state-controlled adults-only stores like liquor in 19 states.

As for Alaska’s “legalization” (it wasn’t – the Supreme Court of Alaska decided that their constitution protected your privacy to smoke weed in your home – so call it “very limited decriminalization”) I’ve debunked that at length on the Stash.  As I wrote then, if Alaskan teen marijuana use went up from 1975-1979, I wouldn’t be surprised, since teen use of marijuana “skyrocketed” nationwide from 27.1% to 36.5% of high school seniors using marijuana monthly.  That’s an increase of over a third (34.6%), so Alaskan teen use would have to have increased by more than that for Alaskan decriminalization to even be considered as likely a cause as the overall nationwide increase in use.

Alaskans did vote 53%-47% for recriminalization in 1990, when nationwide support for marijuana legalization was at a nadir of 16%.  However, their courts invalidated that recriminalization in 2003 and they’ve had that “very limited decriminalization” since then.  Alaskan teen rates of use continued to decline after 2003′s “legalization” and they continue to roughly parallel the rise and fall in teen rates nationwide.

We’ve seen that with alcohol — ironically, the example legalization proponents keep going back to in pushing for reform. It’s a bad example. Suggesting that age limits will prove more effective than an all-out ban in keeping pot out of teens’ hands ignores the very real problem that alcohol poses for young people today. According to the Monitoring the Future study, alcohol is generally twice as popular among teens as marijuana. Don’t tell me being legal, and more widely available, isn’t instrumental in those statistics. This isn’t a model experiment in legalization we want to duplicate with another recreational substance.

Then why aren’t you pushing for a criminalization of alcohol for adults?  It’s as if prohibitionists understand the disaster that would unfold by criminalizing alcohol and tobacco and they’ve just accepted that those terribly addictive, dangerous, toxic drugs are here to stay, no matter how much they harm the children, because the alternative is criminal gangs, violence, police corruption, inflated prices, and misery for the adults who use will flout the law and use those substances anyway.

Yet that’s the situation they readily accept for dealing with the third most popular substance which is not terribly addictive, dangerous, or toxic.  30,000 slaughtered Mexicans, 850,000 arrested Americans, $15.5 billion in taxpayer dollars, billions more distributed to criminal gangs in over 300 American cities, and 25 million adults will flout that prohibition annually.

And saying pot isn’t as bad as alcohol isn’t by default the ringing endorsement some want to make it. Anyone who says marijuana isn’t harmful is just being dishonest. Studies have shown that long-term marijuana use may shrink parts of the brain and have lasting impacts on mental health.

Wrong.  This study is one I debunked in 2008 that consisted of 15 men who smoked an ounce a week or more.  This would be like supporting alcohol prohibition by noting that guys who drink a twelve-pack a day are likely to get cirrhosis.  Plus, the vast majority of cannabis consumers have nothing to fear about their mental health.

And despite efforts to pooh-pooh its reputation as a gateway drug, the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration reports that the younger someone is when using marijuana, the more likely he or she is to use other drugs in adulthood. In fact, according to the Center on and Substance Abuse at Columbia, children who use marijuana are 85 times more likely to use cocaine and 17 times more likely to be regular cocaine abusers. The numbers are equally troubling for heroin. (Think that’s why Holland’s heroin addiction rate has tripled since it legalized marijuana?)

No.  Between 1995 and now the monthly rate of heroin use in America has fluctuated between 119,000 and 338,000 users, averaging about 186,000 over that span and equaling about 230,000 now.  Meanwhile, the monthly rate of cannabis use has steadily increased from about 10 million to 15 million Americans.  Children who use alcohol are far more likely to use and abuse cocaine and heroin than those who use cannabis, yet you don’t advocate for alcohol prohibition, which is good because there is no causation in that correlation, either.

Sure, legalizing marijuana may mean a nice boost to the country’s revenue stream through regulation and taxation, but we don’t need to sell out our morals and public health for financial gain. We’ve done enough of that already.

And there we have it – selling out our morals.  It’s a moral issue.  It seems like the author even believes smoking and drinking are immoral.  That argument I can’t debunk because it is her personal belief.  However, I can note that when we criminalized alcohol out of morality, it was an abject failure.  I can note that we used to criminalize the lottery and slot machines – “playing the numbers” – yet many states have made that legal and turned those proceeds into useful public projects.

You can still believe cannabis use is immoral.  I believe locking up people for home gardening and punishing them for consuming something demonstrably safer to self and society than alcohol is immoral.  The question is whether the country and your fellow citizens are better off with your morality or mine.


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