This week California Attorney Rob Bonta announced a multi-agency crackdown on illegal marijuana grows and marketing in the state. Last week President Biden told reporters that he will pardon all people convicted under federal law of possession of marijuana. While these announcements are unrelated, they may draw much needed attention to lies told to the public about marijuana. The first lie is that marijuana is relatively safe. In an August 4, piece in Deseret News Daryl Austin discusses research from major universities and journals that detail the harmful effects of regular use.
“Negative outcomes include research that suggests a connection between smoking marijuana and respiratory symptoms like chronic bronchitis. The drug also tends to impact school performance. `Since marijuana use impairs critical cognitive functions … many students could be functioning at a cognitive level that is below their natural capability for considerable periods of time,’ one review from the New England Journal of Medicine notes.”
“The number of casual users has also increased. In 2019, 48 million Americans reported using the drug at least once that year — accounting for nearly 18% of the country or 1 in 5 Americans. That year the U.S. surgeon general sounded a national alarm on the drug’s harmful effects, including on the developing brain and its link to psychotic disorders.
On that front, a study in The Lancet found that `the odds of psychotic disorder among daily cannabis users were 3.2 times higher than for never users.’ And of course, marijuana can also be addictive. “Marijuana addiction is much more common than most people realize,” said Dr. Samuel Wilkinson, the associate director of the Yale Depression Research Program at Yale School of Medicine. ‘Large and reliable epidemiological studies suggest that about 1 in 3 marijuana users have some form of addiction.’ ”
With regard to “medical marijuana” Dr. Wilkinson also asked “how many other medicines do you know of that are smoked?” Smoking marijuana can cause respiratory issues which is why the American Lung Association warns “We caution the public against smoking marijuana because of the risk it poses to the lungs.” Marijuana intoxication has also been tied to increases in fatal traffic accidents. ABC Washington reported that “a handful of local and national agencies, including the Governors Highway Safety Association and the National Alliance to Stop Impaired Driving, have teamed up to produce a new report showing that 33% of drivers involved in fatal crashes had THC in their system – up from 21% before the pandemic. Overall, crashes leading to injury rose by 6% after legalization but fell slightly once marijuana sales began in shops. Fatal crash rates rose by around 2% after cannabis became legal and by the same amount again when shops started selling the drug.”
The second lie is that legalizing marijuana would drive out illegal traffickers and fill government coffers with tax revenue. Matt Delaney of the Washington Times reports that after legalization in California, illegal trafficking has actually increased, generating roughly $8 billion in sales this year, which is twice the sales from the legal market. Cartels financing illegal growers in the state traffic aliens across the southern border to work the fields in remote areas. They have become so brazen that they operate Illegal pot shops in plain sight. State and federal agencies also report significant environmental damage related to illegal grows while tax revenue from the legal market must be spent on mitigation, regulation and law enforcement. While it is certainly true that since legalization more people are buying and using marijuana, most, and particularly young buyers, are paying far less for it from illegal sellers.
The third lie has been advanced to support the progressive narrative that American law enforcement is racist. It includes the fiction that thousands of people, mostly of color are languishing in jail or prison for possessing or smoking pot. President Biden told the country last week that he was pardoning all individuals federally convicted of marijuana possession to “right” the racial “wrongs” of the criminal justice system. “While white, and Black and brown people use marijuana at similar rates, Black and brown people are arrested, prosecuted and convicted at disproportionately higher rates,” said the President.
Manhattan Institute scholar Heather MacDonald debunks this in her recent piece in the American Mind.
“This claim—equal marijuana use, unequal criminal justice treatment—has been a cornerstone of the Left’s war on cops for decades. It is routinely trotted out as Exhibit A in the Left’s narrative about racist policing; it got an added boost from Michele Alexander’s disastrously influential book, The New Jim Crow.
Predictably, the New York Times regurgitated the equal-use claim in its coverage of the Biden marijuana pardons: `While studies show white and Black people use marijuana at similar rates, a Black person is more than three times as likely to be arrested for possession than a white person, according to a report from the ACLU that analyzed marijuana arrest data from 2010 to 2018.’
The significance of the equal use claim extends beyond the war on cops, however. It is part of a larger narrative that denies both the existence of significant racial differences in culture and behavior and the role played by those differences in explaining socioeconomic disparities. It is worth assessing the equal use claim against the data, therefore, since a worldview hangs upon it.
Historically, marijuana use and culture has been more embedded in black communities than in white, as twentieth-century chronicles of urban black life by Claude Brown, Richard Wright, W.E.B. Du Bois, and others make clear. That disparity continues today, despite the flower power revolution that created generations of Grateful Dead potheads. Blacks comprise one-third of all treatment admissions nationally for marijuana abuse, though they represent only about 13 percent of the nation’s population. Among cannabis users, blacks have a nearly 70 percent higher rate of cannabis dependence than whites (16.82 percent v. 10.01 percent).
Cannabis is the illicit drug for which black drug abusers are most frequently treated (29 percent of all drug treatments), according to a 2013 U.S. Treatment Episode Data Set compiled by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration. By contrast, 12 percent of whites in drug treatment were there for cannabis abuse.
A 2016 study by Washington, D.C.’s Department of Health found that there were 38 times more blacks than whites in treatment for marijuana disorder. The rate of marijuana use in D.C. was 62 percent higher for blacks than for whites.
The journal Drug and Alcohol Dependence has called for research into the cultural norms that lead to such higher rates of cannabis abuse disorders among blacks. As for drug use more generally, from 2017 to 2019, the rate of treatment admissions for substance abuse disorder was nearly 58 percent higher for blacks than for whites (85.5 per 10,000 population, compared to 54.2 per 100,000).”
As MacDonald notes, in 2013 over 91% of all federal marijuana possession convictions were the result of arrests at the border, where the average quantity offenders were carrying was over 48 pounds. Probably not for personal use.
Years ago, most states abandoned convicting anyone for personal use and a quick drive in downtown Los Angeles, San Francisco, Seattle, Chicago or New York is evidence that people possessing far more potent drugs than pot are not in jail. They are lying on sidewalks and in parks.
“In 2017, only 92 people were sentenced on federal marijuana possession charges, out of nearly 20,000 drug convictions, reports the New York Times.”
Under federalism, the states are free to legalize any drug. The legalization of marijuana provides lessons on the social cost of making that decision, even for a relatively mild drug.