Paul Armentano breaks it down on cannabis fear mongering

Pot’s detractors use fear, not facts

Published By Times Herald

Editor’s note: The author is the co-author of the book “Marijuana Is Safer: So Why Are We Driving People to Drink?”

The latest screed by ex-law enforcement officer Lyndon Lafferty (“Don’t let the marijuana myth live on,” July 25) epitomizes novelist Upton Sinclair’s famous quotation, “It is difficult to get a man to understand something when his job depends on not understanding it.”

Contrary to Mr. Lafferty’s allegations, I neither claimed that marijuana is harmless nor that its consumption is appropriate for young people. Rather, I have asserted repeatedly that cannabis ought to be legalized and regulated. I come to this conclusion precisely because marijuana is a temporarily mind-altering substance and ought to be controlled accordingly.

After all, society doesn’t tax and regulate alcohol — a substance that objectively poses far greater risks to the users and to society than pot — because it’s innocuous. It does so because we recognize that booze temporarily alters mood and behavior and thus should be regulated accordingly — complete with common sense controls regarding who can legally produce it, who can legally distribute it, who can legally consume its, and under what circumstances is its use lawfully permitted. Mr. Lafferty’s fear-mongering aside, there’s no logical reasons why these same principles ought not to apply to cannabis.

The present prohibition of marijuana provides California law enforcement and state regulators¬†with no legitimate market controls. It is this absence of state and local government control that jeopardizes, rather than promotes, public safety. For instance, Mr. Lafferty alleges that marijuana is a “gateway” to the public’s use of other, more dangerous substances. Yet, in truth, studies of the subject have consistently concluded that “environmental circumstances,” not the preceding use of a drug itself, is the primary reason why a minority of people transition from the use of pot to harder drugs. One such study from the Trimbos Institute in the Netherlands explains the phenomenon like this:

“As for a possible switch from cannabis to hard drugs, it is clear that the pharmacological properties of cannabis are irrelevant in this respect. There is no physically determined tendency towards switching from marijuana to harder substances. Social factors, however, do appear to play a role. The more users become integrated in an environment (‘subculture’) where, apart from cannabis, hard drugs can also be obtained, the greater the chance that they may switch to hard drugs. Separation of the drug markets is therefore essential.”

To put it another way: If U.S. policymakers legalized marijuana in a manner similar to alcohol — thereby allowing its sale to be regulated by licensed, state-authorized distributors rather than by criminal entrepreneurs and pushers of various other, hard drugs — the likelihood is that fewer, not more, marijuana consumers would ever go on to try any another illicit substance. In short, it is cannabis prohibition, not the use of cannabis itself, that presently fosters any potential “gateway” to the use of harder drugs.

Bottom line: Those like Lyndon Lafferty who remain wedded to today’s pot prohibition are little different than the “flat Earthers” of yesteryear. Golden State lawmakers criminalized the possession and use of marijuana in 1913. Yet right now in California the federal government reports that approximately 10 percent of people annually consume about 1.2 million total pounds of pot. Further, among young people, some 85 percent report that marijuana is “easy” to obtain, and according to a 2009 Columbia University report, adolescents now have easier access to black market marijuana than they do regulated alcohol.

Self-evidently, cannabis is here to stay. Let’s address this reality and stop conceding control of this market to unregulated, untaxed criminal enterprises, and put it in the hands of licensed businesses. It’s time to end the “reefer rhetoric” and move forward with a sensible policy that acknowledges marijuana’s relative risk while also recognizing the gross failure of prohibition.

Paul Armentano