If we wish for our laws to prevent harm, they need to be based on evidence.
Our nation is having the most intense debate about our marijuana laws in more a generation — one that Minnesotans recently saw play out in full force as legislators and Gov. Tim Pawlenty debated medical marijuana. As one who has pushed for just such a debate, I’m delighted, but as I and other Marijuana Policy Project staffers have engaged with journalists and policymakers lately, it’s become clear that this debate
is being hobbled by a series of myths.
If we want marijuana laws that make sense — that actually prevent harm rather than cause it — we have to get these myths out of the way.
Myth No. 1: Marijuana is illegal because it’s dangerous. In fact, the first national marijuana ban was passed in 1937 based on a wave of hysterical propaganda and newspaper stories that had nothing to do with marijuana’s actual effects. Goaded by Federal Bureau of Narcotics chief Harry Anslinger, newspapers printed wild stories such as the San Francisco Examiner’s claim that “Marihuana makes fiends of boys in thirty days — Hashish goads users to bloodlust.”
Many of these had a distinctly racist undercurrent, featuring marijuana-crazed Mexicans and African-Americans attacking innocent white girls.
We now know that, while no drug is harmless, the health risks of marijuana are relatively modest. Compared with alcohol, marijuana is less addictive, much less toxic, and overwhelmingly less likely to provoke violence. In the words of Dr. Leslie Iversen, Oxford University pharmacology professor and member of the British government’s Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs, “Overall, by comparison with other drugs used mainly for ‘recreational’ purposes, cannabis could be rated to be a relatively safe drug.”
Myth No. 2: Legal marijuana would mean an explosion in marijuana use, bringing all the same social and health problems we now see with liquor and tobacco. In fact, research suggests that laws banning marijuana have little effect on use rates.
A World Health Organization survey published last year found that in the Netherlands — where adults are allowed to possess small amounts of marijuana and purchase it from regulated businesses — the rate of marijuana use is only half of ours. When Britain ended most marijuana possession arrests in 2004, the rate of marijuana use went down, not up. After reviewing data from U.S. states that have decriminalized marijuana, the National Research Council concluded, “there is little apparent relationship between severity of sanctions prescribed for drug use and prevalence or frequency of use.”
But even if there were a modest increase in marijuana use, marijuana simply doesn’t cause the severe health and social problems that these two legal drugs cause. Unlike tobacco, for example, marijuana has never been shown to cause lung cancer or emphysema.
And the main social harm from booze is violence, with alcohol well-established as a major contributor to domestic violence. Marijuana, as the journal Addictive Behaviors noted recently, decreases aggression and violence during intoxication. Consider how often we hear of violence committed “in a drunken rage.” Have you ever heard of a marijuana user committing mayhem “in a stoned rage”?
Myth No. 3: We must keep marijuana illegal for adults in order to keep it away from kids. This seems obvious to most people, but efforts to cut teen cigarette smoking tell a different story.
Cigarettes are legal for adults, produced and sold by licensed, regulated businesses, and that’s actually helped keep them away from kids. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, in 1991, 27.5 percent of U.S. high school students were current cigarette smokers. By 2007, that had dropped by over a quarter, to 20 percent, while current marijuana use jumped from 14.7 percent to 19.7 percent, a statistical tie with cigarette use.
Why the difference? In 1995, Congress passed the Synar amendment, mandating a crackdown on underage tobacco sales, and from 1997 to 2007 illegal tobacco sales to minors dropped 75 percent. Because tobacco sellers — unlike drug dealers — are licensed and regulated, we can set rules and make sure they’re followed. We have no such control over marijuana dealers.
The present national debate on marijuana policy is long overdue. But if we’re going to get it right this time, we can’t let the discussion be weighed down by myths and mistaken beliefs not supported by the evidence.
Rob Kampia is executive director of the Marijuana Policy Project.
By ROB KAMPIA