Blowing Smoke: The Real Facts About Marijuana

As legalization ramps up we continue to hear more and more about marijuana. This is likely going to increase further as advertising and commercialization grows. With over 24,000 peer-reviewed studies and papers on marijuana over the last few decades you might expect public awareness and knowledge to be at a very high level. Unfortunately, what most people know about marijuana continues to be wrong and there is a growing gap between the science-based research on marijuana and what the public knows.

There are dozens of examples of misinformation and lack of accurate public knowledge but let me focus on just five areas.

1.      Marijuana is not dangerous because it is illegal; it is illegal because it is dangerous.

We often hear marijuana is not a dangerous drug. Not True. Marijuana is a psychoactive drug that impacts the brain and also the body. The potency of today’s pot is 10-40 times stronger than in the ‘60s or ‘70s. Today’s marijuana is the “crack cocaine” of pot. Psychosis, schizophrenia, depression, paranoia are each linked to and more prevalent among marijuana users.

Smoking one marijuana cigarette has the impact on the lungs of smoking 5- 20 tobacco cigarettes. It negatively impacts the brain, cognition, the heart, the reproductive system, the unborn, the nursing baby and more. It is not an effective drug for treating PTSD or mental disorders. It causes or exacerbates mental disorders.

Recent research indicates psychiatric patients who smoke cannabis are more than twice as likely to turn to violence as those who do not take the drug. Cannabis users generally are more likely to commit violent crimes. The study found there was a “more constant relationship” between cannabis and violence than between alcohol or cocaine use and violence.

2.      Virtually no one is going to jail for simple possession of marijuana and legalization doesn’t reduce marijuana arrests.

A few years ago we checked every jail and prison in California and could not find one person incarcerated for simple marijuana possession. In 1997, the year for which the most recent data are available, just 1.6 percent of the state inmate population were held for offenses involving only marijuana, and less than one percent of all state prisoners (0.7 percent) were incarcerated with marijuana possession as the only charge, according to the U.S. Department of Justice’s Bureau of Justice Statistics. An even smaller fraction of state prisoners in 1997 who were convicted just for marijuana possession were first time offenders (0.3 percent). And there is actually even more decriminalization since these statistics were recorded. 

The numbers on the federal level tell a similar story. Out of all drug defendants sentenced in federal court for marijuana crimes in 2001, the overwhelming majority were convicted for trafficking, according to the U.S. Sentencing Commission. Only 2.3 percent—186 people-received sentences for simple possession and of the 174 for whom sentencing information is known, just 63 actually served time behind bars.

However, there is another side to the story. In Colorado, arrests related to marijuana are going up. See, not all situations related to marijuana are legal. There continues to be local, state and federal laws related to marijuana that are violated even in states that have “legalized.” This is especially true for driving under the influence, illegal pot businesses, drug dealing and trafficking. And general crime also goes up where marijuana is legalized. Denver DA Mitch Morrisey indicated every crime type in every community increased after legalization. Law enforcement is busier now than ever addressing marijuana related crime.

3.      Marijuana is addictive and is a gateway drug. 

According to researchers such as brain biologist, Bertha Madras of Harvard, marijuana (THC) primes the brain for addiction to other drugs such as opiates. In 2016 the US Surgeon General published “Facing Addiction in America.” Marijuana is mentioned 135 times, heroin 56 times, cocaine 89 times and meth 30 times. 

Research indicates that humans suffer from structural and functional changes in the brain when they are subject to repeat exposure to marijuana. An estimated 30% of users show signs of addiction. Go to any typical addiction treatment center and you find the majority of patients will say they started with marijuana. And the majority of young people in addiction therapy are there for marijuana use.

4.      Legalization doesn’t eliminate or even reduce the black market.

The Denver Police Department said Colorado’s illegal marijuana business is thriving. "The black market in marijuana is booming," Cmdr. James Henning said. Last year, Denver police arrested 242 people for illegally growing, selling or extracting marijuana. Henning's team seized 8,913 pounds of marijuana that year. And, the marijuana doesn’t stay in Colorado. In just three years, law enforcement across the country have seized 4.5 tons of marijuana from Colorado. And, California produces between 6 and 10 times more marijuana than it consumes. This is a lawless industry.

5.      The cost of marijuana use will out strip the tax revenues.

We hear all the time that we need to legalize weed to get the tax revenues that will improve our communities. When this argument is made no one ever talks about the cost to society of institutionalizing more drug dealing and drug use. What is the cost of teenage drop out from high school or college? What is the cost of addiction and addiction therapy? What is the cost of lost work and productivity? What is the cost of the impaired driving and crashes? What is the cost of children not properly cared for by addicted parents? Just like the costs of binge drinking the cost of marijuana use far outweigh the revenue. And when you tax marijuana you encourage the black market. The higher the taxes to cover the harms the more people will choose to purchase on the black market.

So, what can and should we do?

We need a massive federal reeducation program on marijuana and particularly on today’s marijuana. Marijuana continues to be an illegal federal schedule I drug. Schedule I drugs, substances, or chemicals are defined as drugs with no currently accepted medical use and a high potential for abuse. We need to create local ordinances to protect our communities and cities from the industry. We need targeted federal enforcement against large growers and traffickers. And, we need to tell our friends, neighbors and associates the real facts about today’s pot.