'Normalization' of marijuana doesn't necessarily mean wider use

A Hopkins Bloomberg study suggests teens might be getting smarter about drugs.

I thought Republicans supported reason and free enterprise, and yet here's Steve Schuh, the Republican executive of Anne Arundel County, getting his socks in a knot about the prospect of someone growing, processing and dispensing marijuana for medical purposes along the banks of the Severn. He wants to ban in his county what a new state law allows. Schuh worries that people who get therapeutic cannabis might end up becoming dealers.

Under the regulations of the Maryland Medical Cannabis Commission, patients who are certified for medical marijuana are allowed, with a doctor's recommendation, to purchase up to a quarter of a pound over a 30-day period. That sounds like a lot, I suppose, but it's not a given that everyone — that is, men, women and children with various conditions or illnesses — would get that much. Like any other medication, the amounts prescribed for marijuana would be based on clinical decisions.

But here's Schuh, playing the ol' Reefer Madness card: "The quantities that are allowed to be dispensed under the current Maryland law are rather frightening to me. We don't want to have a situation where everyone who is prescribed medical marijuana is in effect a little miniature dealer."

So his solution is to ban outright something that's now permitted under state law, including the development of new businesses for the growing and processing of medical weed.

And here I was, thinking the Republican Schuh would support entrepreneurship, especially among rural constituents who might like to get into cannabis agriculture. I also assumed, apparently incorrectly, that all free-market Republicans carried the libertarian gene and, so, would want to repeal a government-imposed prohibition.

At some point, this stuff just sounds silly and futile.

I'm not a pothead. But I just don't see marijuana as a greater threat to public health and safety than what's legal now. The Distilled Spirits Council of the United States puts booze sales in 2014 at $70 billion. Beer sales run to about $100 billion annually, according to various industry sources.

People still find ways to get their hands on marijuana, despite state and federal laws.

In Maryland, the so-called Free State, all we've done is permit people with doctor-certified needs to buy limited amounts of marijuana under controlled conditions. Entrepreneurs who want to grow, process and dispense the herb have started applying to the state for licenses.

In other words, we are moving past the war on drugs (at least the marijuana part of it), and I suspect that's what prohibitionists fear most. They see medical marijuana as a threshold to recreational marijuana and its legalization — a threshold to a "threshold drug."

I guess I don't worry about the march to full legalization as much as certain politicians do.

I'm not saying marijuana is harmless. I drink gin in summer, bourbon the rest of the year. Neither of those beverages is harmless. I accept the health risks associated with drinking booze. I accept the cost, including the tax, in purchasing those beverages. I accept the laws related to the consumption of alcohol, just as people who enjoy smoking reefer would have to accept laws regulating their vice, should we ever get to full legalization.

And someday we will. It seems inevitable to me. Twenty states have already passed laws decriminalizing small amounts of marijuana. Some day, we'll completely decriminalize the possession and consumption of weed. Every state will regulate it and tax it, as we do with cigarettes and alcohol now, and we'll look back on the long period of prohibition and wonder why we wasted so much time and money on marijuana — arresting people, taking them to court, sending them to jails and prisons.

A study out this week from one of the busiest places on Earth, the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health in Baltimore, suggests that the "threshold" fears might be just that.

The study, published online in the journal Drug and Alcohol Dependence, looks at a key indicator — marijuana use among thousands of U.S. high school students since 1999. According to the report, despite the legalization of marijuana for medical purposes in 34 states and for recreational purposes in four states, marijuana use among high school students has fallen by at least 7 percent over the last 15 years. And it's not like they've moved to other substances; the study found that their marijuana use is significantly greater than their use of other illegal drugs.

"People have been very quick to say that marijuana use is going up and up and up in this country, particularly now that marijuana has become more normalized," Renee Johnson, an assistant professor and the study leader, said in a statement released by Bloomberg. "What we are seeing is that since 1999, three years after medical marijuana was first approved, the rates of marijuana use have actually fallen."

The study also found the smoking of cigarettes and the drinking of booze down significantly over the last 15 years. Maybe something else is happening, even as we twist ourselves in knots over marijuana laws: Our kids are smartening up.

dan.rodricks@baltsun.com

Dan Rodricks' column appears each Tuesday, Thursday and Sunday. He is the host of "Midday" on WYPR-FM.

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