Even though the rationale behind our drug policies is hard to defend, reform is painfully slow. The overwhelming majority — lawmakers, activists, health care providers — want the same thing: a steady and significant drop in overdose fatalities, access to effective treatment for those who seek it, quality health care for all and safe communities, especially for children.
Together, we could save thousands of lives and billions of dollars. But we must overcome autopilot conclusions, take seriously the findings of medical research and conduct a deep analysis of the ways current practices do — and do not — serve the greater good.
For example, consider the federal government taking decisive action, once and for all, to legalize marijuana. Those who reject this concept out of hand — as if it extols pot-smoking as a national pastime — accuse supporters of recklessness, of gambling societal order in the name of permissiveness. These responses do not reflect command of the facts.
Costing $3 billion annually, marijuana prohibition racks up over half a million arrests annually, with more than 90% for simple possession. Beyond adding to the perils of our country’s shameful mass incarceration, the impact on communities of color is dramatically disproportionate: Black people are four times more likely to face criminal charges for possession of marijuana than their white counterparts whose consumption is equal, a tragic reality with lasting consequences for marginalized communities.
No one disagrees that protecting young people from the risks of substance use is highly important. To determine whether this unequivocal priority is justification for prohibition, we turn to the research. To date, dozens of federal and state studies have failed to identify any link between legalization of cannabis for adult use and any rise in the percentage of adolescent use.
Currently, 36 states plus the District of Columbia permit adult use of medical marijuana, and 18 states now allow non-medical adult use. Even though this represents a trend toward legalization — a concept that 68% of U.S. adults support according to a recent Gallup public opinion poll — the patchwork of laws creates confusion and stokes fear of legal consequences from a federal government that considers marijuana a crime.
Nora Volkow, director of the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) acknowledged in a September interview that legalization has not increased the prevalence of teenage use of cannabis. In addition, several studies published by the American Medical Association found that youth consumption of marijuana actually decreased in states where legalization had been in place the longest.
Research is ongoing, but the decrease in teen use makes sense because legalizing marijuana also regulates it, mandating accountability to prescribed standards, which include the requirement to check IDs. Drug dealers in the unregulated market — whose enterprise is sustained by prohibition — encourage higher potency and don’t care about unknown dangers, much less the age or vulnerability of buyers.
Some speculate that teens are less enamored of that which is legal, a phenomenon evidenced by fewer alcohol problems in countries without an age limit. I can’t substantiate the ‘forbidden fruit’ syndrome. But I do know that resisting scare tactics builds trust between teens and adults and is crucial to keeping kids safe.
1) Most people who try marijuana never go on to use any other drug or develop a related problem;
2) After adjusting for various confounding factors, no association between marijuana use and mood and anxiety disorders was found;
3) And new evidence suggests that cannabis can actually help people who are easing off more dangerous and addictive substances like opiates and alcohol.
Knowing alcohol is far more addictive and deadly than marijuana, raises the question of whether science or politics drives current policies. Regardless, the end of alcohol prohibition ushered in a safer supply and toppled organized crime; legalized marijuana would do the same.
As Congress considers the Marijuana Opportunity, Reinvestment and Expungement (MORE) Act, there is hope for ending the harms of prohibition and righting some of the wrongs of criminalization. It’s time to reckon with the fact that punishing people for drug possession has had no positive outcome whatsoever.
Current policies have failed to reduce problematic drug use and have instead fueled a public health crisis, social marginalization and corruption.
Maryland, a state that can’t see its way clear to decriminalize a pipe, has a long way to go. But if the federal government took a stand, it might set us on the right course, helping those in power to fall out of love with the notion of criminalization as a solution.
Jessie Dunleavy (jessiedunleavy.com) is author of “Cover My Dreams in Ink: A Son’s Unbearable Solitude, A Mother’s Unending Quest”; she lives in Annapolis.