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Marijuana Legalization: What Everyone Needs to Know

By Phillip Smith July 13, 2012 Marijuana Legalization: What Everyone Needs to Know
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Marijuana Legalization: What Everyone Needs to Know by Jonathan Caulkins, Angela Hawken, Beau Kilmer, and Mark Kleiman (2012, Oxford University Press, 266 pp., $16.95 PB)

Marijuana legalization in one form or another will be on the ballot in at least two states — Colorado and Washington — this fall, and maybe three, if one or both of the Oregon initiatives currently in the signature validation process actually qualifies. Public opinion polls show a populace that is now evenly split on the subject, but with support for it trending rapidly upward in recent years. We could be on the cusp of the biggest changes in how we deal with marijuana since pot prohibition began to emerge in the states nearly a century ago.

So, Marijuana Legalization: What Everyone Needs to Know couldn’t be more timely. A collaborative effort by four academic drug policy researchers, this tome is thoughtful, thorough, and balanced as it addresses the wide array of issues and disputes associated with changing pot policy. One can only hope that politicians charged with voting on marijuana policy reform would read it, or at least, that their staffs would do so and offer them up a nicely bullet-pointed précis.

Grappling with the topic of marijuana legalization is a surprisingly complicated affair. Marijuana use is so common, the impacts of marijuana prohibition so pervasive, that to talk about marijuana law reform involves disciplines ranging from botany and biochemistry to medicine and public health and diplomacy and international law, and more. One of the qualities that makes Marijuana Legalization so handy is the way it disaggregates the multi-sided issue into easily digestible, bite-sized chunks. The book is divided into two sections, one on marijuana itself and one on legalization, and subdivided into thematic chapters (“Who Uses Marijuana?” “What are the Risks of Using Marijuana?” “What if Marijuana Were Treated Like Alcohol?”), which in turn are further subdivided into one-to-two page questions and answers.

The answers to the questions are carefully based on the latest academic research and meta-analyses and appear, overall, to be fair representations of the state of knowledge in the fields in question. Sometimes, though, it appears the authors are striving so much for fairness that they risk pulling muscles from bending over backwards.

In the section on the gateway theory, for instance, the authors note that there is a correlation between teen pot use and an increased likelihood of moving on to other drug use, but that a causal relationship is more difficult to determine and that other underlying social, psychological, or physiological risk factors could be at play. Still, they feel compelled to note in language approaching the Rumsfeldian that “the fact that causal connections are not needed to explain the observed correlations does not mean there is no causal connection.” Ummm, okay. And the absence of evidence is not evidence of absence. Actually, given the decades of efforts to establish the gateway theory, the paucity of evidence to support it is pretty good evidence.

All of the talk about marijuana dependency may grate on the nerves of advocates, some of whom may well qualify as dependent under the clinical criteria. But clearly, like any psychoactive substance, people can grow habituated to pot and it can have deleterious effects. For all the emphasis on marijuana dependency, though, the authors deserve credit for clearly and forthrightly stating that all dependencies are not created equal. It’s one thing to be a skin-and-bones crack addict; quite another to smoke pot and be a couch potato every night.

The careful, balanced tone of Marijuana Legalization is something that legalization advocates might want to strive for. This holds doubly true for claims about the impacts of marijuana legalization that might not hold up to scrutiny. For instance, Proposition 19 advocates may have overstated the impact that legalization in California would have on Mexican drug cartels, only to have opponents come back and undercut those claims. Likewise, claims that our prisons are filled with pot-smokers are unsupported by the facts. That anyone is in prison for marijuana is bad enough — and the authors say 40,000 people are — but overstating the negatives of even some aspects of prohibition does not aid the cause in the long run.

Similarly, the authors make clear that there are some things we just don’t — and can’t — know. How much would use increase under various legalization schemes? Anyone who tells you they have a definitive answer is blowing smoke, and his credibility should be called into question. We can make educated guesses, but given the lack of laboratory conditions, that’s all they are.

When it comes to legalization itself, the authors delineate several versions, from a free market scheme where marijuana is treated like any other commodity to one that that would see marijuana produced and sold with regulations and restrictions like alcohol or tobacco. There is also a medical model and a state monopoly model (similar to what Uruguay is now proposing). Given the “nightmare scenario” — potential massive decreases in price along with powerful advertising campaigns by vendors leading to massive increase in use and dependency — of the more open legalization approaches and the political opposition such fears can engender, that state liquor store model looks a little more attractive, even though it runs in the face of current ideological trends about the inability of the state to do anything as well as private enterprise can.

I have to give the authors kudos for one chapter in particular, “What is Known about the Non-Medical Benefits of Marijuana?” In our drug policy discourse in general, marijuana included, the emphasis is almost entirely on the negative results of drug use. That begs the question: If these drugs are so horrible, why does anyone use them in the first place, let alone get strung out on them? Drug use clearly does have positive benefits for users — otherwise they wouldn’t be using them — and it’s refreshing to actually hear some forthright talk about that when it comes to pot.

Marijuana Legalization doesn’t advocate for or against legalization. At the very end of the book, each of the authors lays out his or her personal views. But I’m not going to be a spoiler. Read the book and find out for yourself. It’s a most handy primer on the diverse and interrelated topics that constitute the universe of marijuana legalization issues, and its structure helps disentangle what can be an overwhelming array of concerns and issues.

Yes, the authors have undoubtedly reached some conclusions that will not be well-received by the drug reform community, but they have done so in a spirit of scholarship and fairness. If you don’t like the conclusions they reach, rebut them or deal with them in the same manner. It’ll do you and the cause good.