Those opposed to liberalizing marijuana laws frequently predict that any loosening of cannabis criminalization will inevitably cause the sky to fall. Yet, as more states move forward with regulatory alternatives to marijuana prohibition, it becomes more and more evident that opponents’ dire prognostications are no more than baseless fear mongering.
Here’s a look at pot prohibitionists’ most vociferous, yet unfounded claims about the legalization of cannabis:
1. Think of the children: legalization will encourage them to use marijuana!
Allowing adults to have legal access to cannabis will inevitably lead to increased marijuana use by children — or so prohibitionists’ allege. But America’s emerging post-legalization reality has so far failed to substantiate these fears.
Specifically, survey data published by the University of Michigan in December acknowledged that marijuana use among teens, including self-reported incidences of daily pot use, declined in 2014. (Teens’ use of alcohol and tobacco has been declining for decades, according to the same survey, and now stand at historic lows.) Separate data published earlier this year by the Colorado Department of Public Health & Environment similarly reported that fewer high-school students are consuming cannabis, despite voters’ decision in 2012 to legalize the possession, production, and sale of the plant to adults. According to the survey, the percentage of Colorado high schoolers reporting having consumed marijuana within the past 30 days fell from 22 percent in 2011 to 20 percent in 2013. High school students’ lifetime use of cannabis declined from 39 percent to 37 percent during the same two years.
Multi-year analyses evaluating the passage of statewide medical marijuana laws and use rates among young people report a similar trend. For example, authors of a July 2014 paper published by the nonpartisan National Bureau of Economic Research assessed federal data on youth marijuana use and treatment episodes for the years 1993 to 2011 — a time period when 16 states authorized medical cannabis use. They determined, “Our results are not consistent with the hypothesis that the legalization of medical marijuana caused an increase in the use of marijuana among high school students. In fact, estimates from our preferred specification are small, consistently negative and are never statistically distinguishable from zero.”
A separate study, performed by researchers at Rhode Island Hospital and Brown University and published in the Journal of Adolescent Health this past April, similarly concluded, “This study did not find increases in adolescent marijuana use related to legalization of medical marijuana…This suggests that concerns about ‘sending the wrong message’ may have been overblown.”
2. Mexican drug cartels will invade the U.S. legal market.
“[I]t’s real easy for them [Mexican drug traffickers] to come in and look at these retail [state-licensed marijuana] stores that are making hundreds of thousands of dollars and say, ‘We want a piece of the action.’” That was the concern publicly voiced by one of Colorado’s top drug cops, Tom Gorman, in February. Yet, to date, there is no tangible evidence indicating that states’ allowances of the production of cannabis for either medicinal or recreational purposes have provided enhanced opportunities for south-of-the-border drug traffickers. In fact, just the opposite appears to be true. According to a recent NPR report, the advent of legal pot in the U.S. is significantly reducing market demand for Mexican-grown weed — an economic development that is causing some Mexican cartels to steer clear of the pot market.
“Two or three years ago, a kilogram [2.2 pounds] of marijuana was worth $60 to $90,” a 24-year-old pot grower in the northwestern Mexican state of Sinaloa told NPR. “But now they’re paying us $30 to $40 a kilo. It’s a big difference. If the U.S. continues to legalize pot, they’ll run us into the ground…The day we get $20 a kilo, it will get to the point that we just won’t plant marijuana anymore.” “
3. Legalized weed will lead to carnage on the roadways.
Or not. In reality, traffic fatalities have fallen consistently over the past decades. An analysis by The Washington Post of traffic fatalities in the state of Colorado post-legalization also documented a decline.
The passage of medical marijuana laws also appears to have had little effect on traffic fatalities. Writing in the Journal of Safety Research in September, Investigators from the California Department of Motor Vehicles assessed cannabinoid prevalence among fatal-crash-involved drivers in 12 US states following the implementation of medical marijuana laws. Researchers evaluated data for the years 1992 to 2009. Authors reported that most states did not experience any increase in cannabinoid prevalence among drivers in fatal accidents. They determined, “Increased prevalence of cannabinoids among drivers involved in fatal crashes was only detected in a minority of the states that implemented medical marijuana laws. The observed increases were one-time changes in the prevalence levels, rather than upward trends, suggesting that these laws result in stable increases in driver marijuana prevalence.”
Moreover, a January 2014 study published in the Journal of Studies on Drugs and Alcohol concluded that the relative risk of fatal crash involvement associated with the drivers who test positive for the presence of pot alone is comparably low compared to those who test positive for alcohol (at legal limits) and/or other substances. Investigators concluded:
“Although drugs other than alcohol do contribute to crash risk, we found that such a contribution depends on the type of drug under consideration. Somewhat unexpected was the finding that although marijuana’s crude OR (odds ratios) indicated a significant contribution to fatal crash risk, once it was adjusted by the presence of alcohol and drivers’ demographics, marijuana’s OR was no longer significant.”
4. But won’t legalizing pot increase crime?
Not so, according to findings published in April in the scientific journal PLoS ONE. Researchers at the University of Texas at Dallas tracked crime rates across all 50 states between the years between 1990 and 2006, a time period during which 11 states legalized marijuana for medical use. Authors reviewed FBI data to determine whether there existed any association between the passage of medicinal cannabis laws and varying rates of statewide criminal activity, specifically reported crimes of homicide, rape, robbery, assault, burglary, larceny, and auto theft. They reported that the passage of medical marijuana laws was not associated with an increase in any of the seven crime types assessed. Further, they concluded that liberalized pot laws were associated with decreases in certain types of violent crime.
“The central finding gleaned from the present study was that MML (medical marijuana legalization) is not predictive of higher crime rates and may be related to reductions in rates of homicide and assault,” authors reported. “Interestingly, robbery and burglary rates were unaffected by medicinal marijuana legislation, which runs counter to the claim that dispensaries and grow houses lead to an increase in victimization due to the opportunity structures linked to the amount of drugs and cash that are present. Although, this is in line with prior research suggesting that medical marijuana dispensaries may actually reduce crime in the immediate vicinity.”
They concluded: “Medical marijuana laws were not found to have a crime exacerbating effect on any of the seven crime types. On the contrary, our findings indicated that MML precedes a reduction in homicide and assault…In sum, these findings run counter to arguments suggesting the legalization of marijuana for medical purposes poses a danger to public health in terms of exposure to violent crime and property crimes.
5. The feds will never let these state laws stand.
Although various police organizations and anti-drug groups insist that marijuana remains illegal under federal law and therefore the federal government has an obligation to step in and shut down statewide legalization efforts, to date, the Obama administration has largely ignored their demands. A 2013 Justice Department memorandum to U.S. attorneys in all 50 states directs prosecutors not to interfere with state legalization efforts and those licensed to engage in the plant’s production and sale, provided that such persons do not engage in marijuana sales to minors or divert the product to states that have not legalized its use, among other guidelines. (So far, U.S. attorneys have largely abided by it.)
Most recently, the President signed spending legislation into law that includes provisions restricting the Justice Department’s ability to take criminal action against state-licensed individuals or operations that are acting in full compliance with the medical marijuana and/or hemp laws of their states. Specifically, an amendment sponsored by California Reps. Dana Rohrbacher and Sam Farr to the $1.1 trillion spending bill states:
“None of the funds made available in this act to the Department of Justice may be used…to prevent…states…from implementing their own state laws that authorize the use, distribution, possession, or cultivation of medical marijuana.”
Similar language prohibiting the Justice Department from undermining state-sanctioned hemp cultivation programs is also included in the bill — meaning that, for the immediate future at least, the feds intend to maintain a ‘hands-off’ approach when it comes to the legalization of pot.
Paul Armentano is the deputy director of NORML (National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws) and the NORML Foundation.