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Top 10 Reasons to Revisit Marijuana Policy Now!

Culturally, marijuana’s become hardly more than a punchline. But in reality, 
U.S. marijuana policy is no joke; it causes great harm, both directly and indirectly. 
Here are the 10 most important reasons our marijuana laws deserve serious reconsideration.

By Maia Szalavitz | @maiasz
June 13, 2012  Time.com

Top 10 Reasons To Change The Marijuana Laws & US Policy

 1. Americans Increasingly Favor Legalization of Pot

 2. Supporting Marijuana Reform Is No Longer Political Suicide

 3. Teens Are More Likely to Smoke Pot than Cigarettes

 4. Marijuana Doesn’t Increase Lung Cancer, Mental Illness or Death

 5. Medical Marijuana Dispensaries Aren’t Linked with Crime

 6.Most Drug Arrests Are for Marijuana Possession

 7. Marijuana Enforcement Targets Blacks and Hispanics

 8. New Uses for Medical Marijuana

 9. Real Marijuana Is Probably Safer

 10. A Judge’s Plea




Americans Increasingly Favor Legalization of Pot

By Maia Szalavitz | @maiasz
June 13, 2012  

For the first time ever, a solid majority of Americans supports legalizing marijuana for recreational use: 56%, according to the most recent Rasmussen poll. Support for legalization has been growing steadily since the 1990s; in 1994, just 25% were in favor. http://www.gallup.com/poll/150149/record-high-americans-favor-legalizing-marijuana.aspx

In November 2010, California residents voted on a ballot initiative to legalize the possession and sale of marijuana. (http://www.reuters.com/article/2010/03/25/us-marijuana-california-idUSTRE62O08U20100325) Although the measure failed to pass — 46% to 54% — the fact that the initiative made it onto the ballot and garnered that much support was itself historic. Indeed, it was fear of the initiative’s passage that led California governor Arnold Schwarzenegger to decriminalize possession of up to an ounce of pot shortly before the vote — a move that was intended to bleed voter support from the ballot question. Had it passed, California would have been the first state to legalize the drug outright. In 2012, Colorado and Washington State will also vote on total legalization.

Because support for legalization tracks closely with age, change would seem inevitable in the long run. The most recent Gallup poll found that 62% of people aged 18 to 29 favor full legalization, compared with 31% of senior citizens. As far as medical marijuana goes, Americans are nearly unanimous in their approval: 70% or more support it.



Supporting Marijuana Reform Is No Longer Political Suicide

By Maia Szalavitz | @maiasz | June 13, 2012

Some politicians are slowly discovering that lingering fears about being labeled “soft on crime” for supporting marijuana reform are unwarranted.

In May, two Democrats upset party establishment favorites by running in favor of marijuana law reform. http://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/drug-policy-no-longer-a-political-third-rail/2012/06/02/gJQA6uJr9U_story.html  Beto O’Rourke, who favors total legalization of marijuana, won the primary to run for Congress from Texas’ 16th congressional district, a safe Democratic district that borders Mexico’s drug-violence-ridden Ciudad Juarez. Ellen Rosenblum won the primary for Attorney General in Oregon and has no Republican challenger; she beat her Democratic opponent largely on a platform supporting medical marijuana and opposing federal interference with it.

On Wednesday, Rhode Island became the 15th state to decriminalize marijuana. Governor Lincoln Chafee signed a bill making possession of small amounts of pot no worse than a parking ticket.

New York Governor Andrew Cuomo and New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg have both also recently called for the decriminalization of open possession of marijuana. Possession itself was decriminalized in the state in 1977, but due to a quirk of state law that makes it a crime to show the drug visibly, people are still being arrested after police, following “stop and frisk” policies, order them to empty their pockets.

While national politicians remain mired in late-90s thinking that suggests supporting the drug war is their only viable position, both national polling trends, especially by age, and state-level political movements indicate that serious consideration of marijuana law reform makes sense.


Teens Are More Likely to Smoke Pot than Cigarettes

By Maia Szalavitz | @maiasz | June 13, 2012

All of the major national surveys of youth behavior show that teens are more likely to be current users of marijuana than cigarettes, for the first time ever.

For example, the latest Monitoring the Future survey by the National Institute on Drug Abuse found that in 2011, while 19% of high school seniors reported smoking at least one cigarette in the previous month, 23% said they had smoked marijuana at least once over the same time period. Data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s Youth Risk Behavior Survey were virtually identical.

Cigarettes or marijuana: one of these products contains the most addictive known drug and kills about 50% of its users; the other one is illegal.


Marijuana Doesn’t Increase Lung Cancer, Mental Illness or Death

By Maia Szalavitz | @maiasz | June 13, 2012

A recent report by the British Lung Foundation made the headline-grabbing claim that the risk of developing cancer was 20 times higher per marijuana joint than per cigarette. However, the scientific data simply do not support this contention. (http://www.blf.org.uk/Page/Special-Reports)

Dr. Donald Tashkin, professor of medicine at University of California, Los Angeles, is among the foremost researchers studying the effects of marijuana on the lungs. His 2006 study, one of the largest to look at marijuana use and lung and upper airway cancers, found that the “association of these cancers with marijuana, even long-term or heavy use, is not strong and may be below practically detectable limits.” (http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/17035389)

A larger, longer-term study published in 2012 by a separate group of researchers showed that marijuana had no detrimental effect on lung function. Tashkin, who was not involved in the study, called it “well conducted” and said that the results confirmed his own findings. (http://healthland.time.com/2012/01/10/study-smoking-marijuana-not-linked-with-lung-damage/)

A smaller recent study did find a link between extremely heavy marijuana use (at least a joint daily for 10 years) and lung cancer, but that study suffered several methodological flaws. http://erj.ersjournals.com/content/31/2/280.abstract?ijkey=9d7341998f7c2dc0d628c820552b4f4504089b41&keytype2=tf_ipsecsha  For one, Tashkin explains, it included very few people who actually smoked marijuana heavily, making its results “imprecise.” (Unlike the average cigarette smoker, the average marijuana smoker doesn’t smoke daily — let alone daily for 10 years or longer.) Other researchers, pointing out the study’s various limitations, agreed that its results could have occurred by chance alone. http://erj.ersjournals.com/content/32/3/815.long#target-1 

The tobacco literature, in contrast, is unequivocal: smoking increases the odds of developing lung cancer by a factor of at least 9.

It’s possible that marijuana may increase the risk of death from other causes, but so far, research hasn’t been able to offer any evidence of that. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/20565525  Again, in contrast, the research does show that smoking cigarettes is clearly linked with a doubling to tripling of heart disease and stroke risk.

If mental health is your concern, there is some evidence that marijuana can hasten or worsen schizophrenia in those who are predisposed to it. http://www.time.com/time/health/article/0,8599,2005559,00.html  But over the last five decades, as marijuana use has increased, rates of schizophrenia haven’t risen in tandem. Further, there’s no evidence that current marijuana policy reduces risk to those who may be vulnerable to developing the disorder: the 3,500% increase in the drug-fighting budget since the 1970s hasn’t stopped the majority of boomers and succeeding generations from smoking pot. Moreover, legalizing the drug could actually offer a way to reduce psychosis risk; by regulating the chemical balance in marijuana, its safety can be controlled. That can’t be accomplished if the drug is illegal.


Medical Marijuana Dispensaries Aren’t Linked with Crime

By Maia Szalavitz | @maiasz | June 13, 2012

Most people with personal experience using marijuana recognize the absurdity of the claim that smoking pot can turn ordinary folks into criminals. But the possibility still lingers in some Americans’ minds — as demonstrated recently by the media coverage of 17-year-old Trayvon Martin, whose body was found to contain marijuana after his death. Martin, who was black, was shot to death by George Zimmerman, a neighborhood watch volunteer who put forth Martin’s possible drug use to suggest it made the teen violent, and justified his killing.

A recent study of medical marijuana dispensaries should help put this canard connecting marijuana and crime to rest. Like previous studies, it found no association between the number of dispensaries in a neighborhood and rates of violent crime or property crime.

The number of alcohol-selling outlets in an area, however — even after controlling for demographic factors and poverty — is consistently linked with rates of violent crime, according to the research.


Most Drug Arrests Are for Marijuana Possession

By Maia Szalavitz | @maiasz | June 13, 2012

The No. 1 reason people get arrested in America is for violating drug law. More people are arrested for drug-related crime than for any violent crime, including drunken assaults. Of all drug-related arrests, 82% are for possession and more than half of these are for marijuana. http://www.fbi.gov/about-us/cjis/ucr/crime-in-the-u.s/2010/crime-in-the-u.s.-2010/persons-arrested   Basically, the brunt of the war on drugs winds up being focused on marijuana possession, despite the fact that it is less addictive than other illegal drugs and is not pharmacologically linked with violence or overdose, the way alcohol is.

These arrests not only take up an enormous amount of police time, but they are also extremely expensive: one estimate put the costs at $10.7 billion. And for what? There is no relationship between arrest rates and rates of drug use or addiction.


Marijuana Enforcement Targets Blacks and Hispanics

By Maia Szalavitz | @maiasz | June 13, 2012

Although African Americans use and sell marijuana at the same or lower rates as white people, they are three to six times more likely to be arrested for it, depending on when they get caught and where they live, according to a study of FBI data between 1980 and 2007 by Human Rights Watch. http://www.hrw.org/en/node/81110/  

In 2011, in New York City alone, there were nearly 51,000 marijuana arrests — 87% of them among blacks and Hispanics, a rate that is completely out of proportion with the city’s racial makeup.

Drug convictions are often a gateway to a life of crime: they label young people as criminals; disrupt their education; expose them to more serious types of crime during incarceration; and reduce their odds of employment. Because more minorities get arrested for marijuana, they are disproportionately exposed to this vicious cycle, which often ends in long prison terms and loss of voting rights. Consequently, enforcement of U.S. drug law causes far greater harm to health and well-being — especially among minorities — than marijuana itself.


New Uses for Medical Marijuana

By Maia Szalavitz | @maiasz | June 13, 2012

Recent research confirms the effectiveness of marijuana in treating opioid-resistant cancer pain and the spasticity associated with multiple sclerosis. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/22483680http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/21878454  Drugs similar to THC, a major active ingredient in cannabis, also show promise for preventing and treating post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). http://www.nature.com/npp/journal/v37/n2/full/npp2011204a.html   http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/19228182   Further, a recent clinical trial showed that CBD, another component of cannabis, can treat schizophrenia as effectively as standard prescription drugs, without the same side effects of movement disorders or weight gain, which can increase diabetes risk. http://www.nature.com/tp/journal/v2/n3/full/tp201215a.html  Finally, both THC and CBD seem to have cancer-fighting effects — including, ironically, against lung cancer. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/22198381 

The illegality of marijuana, however — along with the fact that the plant cannot be patented — is a big barrier to pharmaceutical development of these promising drugs.


Real Marijuana Is Probably Safer

By Maia Szalavitz | @maiasz | June 13, 2012

The recent rise of “legal highs,” sold under names like Spice, K2 or the much-vilified “bath salts,” has got legislators desperately trying to ban them. Meanwhile illegal chemists are rapidly developing substitutes that aren’t covered under these bans — a race that’s driven in part by the illegality of marijuana.

Looking at these drugs’ chemical makeup, it’s plausible that because their active ingredients — the THC-like drugs that can trigger psychosis — aren’t balanced with CBD, which induces natural marijuana’s mellowing effect, they may be more likely to cause psychotic reactions. Fake pot also tends to be more potent than the real stuff, which could increase risks to users. But although they’ve been fingered for causing violence, no one knows what the short- or long-term effects of these substances really are because they haven’t been tested on humans.

Meanwhile, humanity has had thousands of years of experience with marijuana itself, which, while not harmless, certainly doesn’t carry the risks of taking a drug fresh from the lab.

A Judge’s Plea

By Maia Szalavitz | @maiasz | June 13, 2012

In a moving op-ed published in May in the New York Times, a Brooklyn State Supreme Court justice, Gustin Reichbach, described how medical marijuana was the only drug that helped ease his nausea and allowed him to eat or sleep during the brutal treatment for his pancreatic cancer.

He concluded  http://www.nytimes.com/2012/05/17/opinion/a-judges-plea-for-medical-marijuana.html  ):

Because criminalizing an effective medical technique affects the fair administration of justice, I feel obliged to speak out as both a judge and a cancer patient suffering with a fatal disease. I implore the governor and the Legislature of New York, always considered a leader among states, to join the forward and humane thinking of 16 other states and pass the medical marijuana bill this year. Medical science has not yet found a cure, but it is barbaric to deny us access to one substance that has proved to ameliorate our suffering.

Reichbach did not discuss recreational use of marijuana, but his plea eloquently demonstrates why the federal law against medical marijuana is senseless.