New York State is gearing up to legalize the recreational use of cannabis.
While this is a sane and rational idea, there are still many out there who are convinced that patchouli-soaked hippies will be descending upon our playgrounds en masse offering “reefers” to 5-year-olds.
The Yorktown Town Board recently held a meeting where they discussed what they would do about this impending apocalypse. Some of them were nearly apoplectic over the idea of legal weed to the point where they probably had to go out afterward for a stiff drink to settle themselves down. The Somers Town Board, drastically uninformed, followed suit, and may heavily restrict cannabis stores.
A recent gathering of local community leaders at Temple Beth Shalom in Mahopac provided an opportunity for elected officials and law enforcement types to lay out their visions for the coming year. In the Q&A session that followed, one gentleman expressed dire concerns about the ominous legal cannabis legislation that is pending. He was convinced that it would result in a bunch of stoned-out zombies driving around and crashing into schools and churches and our pets. We already have an opioid crisis, he noted; legal marijuana is the last thing we need!
Well, actually it’s the first thing we need. So, dear reader, open up your knowledge baskets, cause I’m about to dump some in.
Let’s start with the substance itself. Did you know that marijuana is not addictive? Well, it’s not physically addictive like heroin, cocaine, crystal meth and, yes, alcohol and tobacco—both of which are, of course, legal. (Many things can be psychologically addictive when they rile up the pleasure centers of the brain, such as shopping, gambling, sex, this column.)
Former U.S. Surgeon General Joycelyn Elders explains that THC, the psychoactive substance in marijuana responsible for the characteristic high, is not addictive the way alcohol, tobacco, and even caffeine, are.
“Marijuana is not addictive — not physically addictive anyway,” Elders told The New York Times in an interview. “And nobody says marijuana causes violence. As we know, alcohol can cause much more aggressiveness; you aren’t as likely to hurt someone from using marijuana as you are from using alcohol.”
According to the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA), an estimated 88,000 people die from alcohol-related causes annually. In 2014, alcohol-impaired driving fatalities accounted for 9,967 deaths (31 percent of overall driving fatalities).
So, how many have died from marijuana overdoses? Going back to the beginning of time, the answer is zero. Don’t believe me? Well, let’s ask the DEA. According to a 2017 DEA report, marijuana has killed exactly zero people ever in the history of the world (www.dea.gov/documents/2017/06/15/drugs-abuse).
Next, let’s address my favorite factually challenged argument that prohibitionists like to trot out from time to time: Marijuana is a “gateway drug.” In other words, if you smoke the reefers, it will set you on a sullied and inevitable path to harder drugs and some dank back alley where you’ll be plunging dirty needles into your arm.
Um, hello, the 1950s called; it wants its loopy science back. There have been myriad studies through the years that show the “gateway” argument is simply not true and has been used as a fear tactic by anti-cannabis lobbyists to keep it on the black market. For now, I’ll give you just one example.
A 12-year University of Pittsburgh study shows pot is not a gateway drug that predicts or eventually leads to substance abuse. Moreover, the study’s findings call into question the long-held belief that has shaped bad governmental policy for six decades and caused many a parent to panic upon discovering a bag of pot in their child’s bedroom.
The Pitt researchers tracked 214 boys beginning at ages 10-12, all of whom eventually used either legal or illegal drugs. When the boys reached age 22, they were categorized into three groups: those who used only alcohol or tobacco, those who started with alcohol and tobacco and then used marijuana (gateway sequence) and those who used marijuana prior to alcohol or tobacco (reverse sequence).
Nearly a quarter of the study population who used both legal and illegal drugs at some point—28 boys—exhibited the reverse pattern of using marijuana prior to alcohol or tobacco, and those individuals were no more likely to develop a substance use disorder than those who followed the traditional succession of alcohol and tobacco before illegal drugs, according to the study, which appeared in the American Journal of Psychiatry.
“The gateway progression may be the most common pattern, but it’s certainly not the only order of drug use,” said Ralph E. Tarter, Ph.D., professor of pharmaceutical sciences at the University of Pittsburgh School of Pharmacy and lead author of the study. “In fact, the reverse pattern is just as accurate for predicting who might be at risk for developing a drug dependence disorder.”
Let’s not forget the fear that legal marijuana will exacerbate the opioid problem. Recently, Putnam County Legislator William Gouldman issued a press release that wondered why lawmakers want to hurry with legal pot legislation. “Why the urgency, when the country finds itself in the middle of one of the most severe drug epidemics in our nation’s history?” he wrote.
Well, maybe it’s because every state that has legal cannabis—either recreational or medical—has seen a decline in their opioid problem. Legalizing marijuana provides a safer alternative to addictive prescription painkillers. Let’s take West Virginia as an example. In August 2016, the West Virginia Center on Budget and Policy published a study with findings about the state’s marijuana policy and its struggle with the opioid epidemic:
“Marijuana may potentially have a positive impact on West Virginia’s opioid-based painkiller and heroin epidemic by offering another, less-addictive alternative to individuals who are suffering from debilitating medical conditions,” the report read.
According to Drugabuse.com, in 2011, 55 percent of drug overdose deaths were related to prescription medications; 75 percent of those deaths involved opiate painkillers. However, researchers found that opiate-related deaths decreased by approximately 33 percent in 13 states in the following six years after medical marijuana was legalized.
“The striking implication is that medical marijuana laws, when implemented, may represent a promising approach for stemming runaway rates of nonintentional opioid-analgesic-related deaths,” wrote opiate abuse researchers Dr. Mark S. Brown and Marie J. Hayes in a commentary published alongside the Pitt study.
Researchers looked at medical marijuana laws and death certificate data in all 50 states between the years of 1999 and 2010. During that time, only 13 states had medical marijuana laws in place. Researchers quickly noticed that the rates of fatal opioid overdoses were significantly lower in states that had legalized medical marijuana. In 2010 alone, states with legalized medical marijuana saw approximately 1,700 fewer opiate-related overdose deaths.
“We found there was about a 25 percent lower rate of prescription painkiller overdose deaths on average after implementation of a medical marijuana law,” lead study author Dr. Marcus Bachhuber said.
Look up the origins of marijuana prohibition, which began with the Marijuana Tax Act of 1937, perpetrated by Harry Anslinger, at the behest of William Hearst. Some of it was predicated on economics—hemp was a threat to the timber and paper industries because it was a cheaper and more viable source for those products. But much of it was pure racism—a way to subjugate African Americans and Mexicans by depicting them as pot-smoking maniac rapists. Look it up.
Most cannabis aficionados are not dopey slackers like Jeff Spicoli in “Fast Times at Ridgemont High.” They are architects, lawyers, business owners, homemakers, elected officials, and the occasional journalist. They are otherwise law-abiding citizens who contribute hardily to our society. The only real danger they face from marijuana is the laws surrounding it.
So, stop buying into the 80-year-old “Reefer Madness” propaganda. Do your due diligence, do some reputable research (there are tons out there), and I’ll meet you at the Pink Floyd Laserium light show the next time it comes to the Hayden Planetarium in NYC. Bring your own brownies.