Over the weekend, Washington Post blogger Christopher Ingraham wrote, “What makes marijuana users different from everyone else?” He says: poor and uneducated. Intended or not, I believe that Mr. Ingraham is resurrecting the script from “Reefer Madness”.
A picture is worth a 1,000 words (even when it’s inaccurate)
Let’s start with the very misleading photo atop the article (see right), taken in 2015 on the first day of legal recreational marijuana sales in Oregon. Problem is, the “massive study” — the subject of this coverage — looks at illicit “drug use conducted between 2002 and 2013”.
The truth about the “remarkable liberalization of marijuana policies” (hint: not so much)
Here are the first two sentence of the abstract describing the paper published in the Journal of Drug Issues:
The past decade has seen a remarkable liberalization of marijuana policies in many parts of the United States. We analyze data from the National Survey on Drug Use and Health (NSDUH) for coinciding changes in the marijuana market from 2002 to 2013 …
Between 2002 and 2013, only Massachusetts and California decriminalized possession and reduced fines. Five (5) states struck down similar laws; the Supreme Court ruled that Congress may criminalize the production and use of homegrown cannabis even if states approve its use for medicinal purposes; and H.R. 2306 (“Ending Federal Marijuana Prohibition Act of 2011”) never even got a hearing. [You can jump to the end of this blog post to read a comprehensive list of federal and state legislative “wins and losses”.]
A false premise twice repeated does not get it right
How can these actions taken as a whole be interpreted as the “remarkable liberalization of marijuana policies”? And how can the reporter (especially one who regularly covers drug policy) propagate this false premise by writing, “One interesting finding is that over the past 10 years as many states have liberalized their marijuana policies …”? That is not an interesting “finding”; it would be a fact, unless it wasn’t. The study about which Mr. Ingraham is reporting is not looking at the most recent “last decade” (as one would assume 2005/6 – 2015/16); the study’s scope begins in 2002 and ends in 2013.
You have to ask yourself “why” and “why now”? Ten paragraphs into the article — that up until this point has correlated marijuana smoking to alcohol use, smoking, crime, ignorance, and poverty (read: election hot buttons) — Mr. Ingraham gives the paper’s authors their caveat:
“Our results can in no way be interpreted as evidence toward the successes or failures of marijuana legalization or even medical marijuana laws,” [Davenport and Caulkins] write. However, they say their research presents a number of things to consider as states like California, Arizona and Maine vote on marijuana legalization this fall.
“There is a sharp contrast between what policy is best for the typical user versus what is best for the people who consume most of the marijuana,” Caulkins said.
Professor Caulkins writes a lot about cannabis, but not favorably (see the Winter issue of National Affairs: “The Real Dangers of Marijuana“). This is not to say that his voice is unfairly critical or unwarranted — it is welcome in a complicated debate; however, disclosing his point of view would have given WaPo readers much needed context for his perspective.
Trying to tie (and then deny) data to scare — or, at best, confuse — readers inside the beltway of Washington, D.C.’s powerful policy elites, hints of a suspect PR campaign. As does the photo of “[could be my] kids” buying cannabis (albeit legally).
It’s okay to disagree just as it’s okay to oppose policy, but both sides need to be transparent and (if you don’t mind the plug) take the High Road.
Marijuana Legislation from 2002 – 2013
- In 2005, Gonzales v. Raich, ruled in a 6-3 decision that the Commerce Clause of the United States Constitution allowed the federal government to ban the use of cannabis, including medical use, federal law strike state law.
- On November 5, 2002, voters in Nevada rejected Question 9 by 61-39 percent. Question 9 would have legalized possession of cannabis under 3 ounces by adults age 21 and older and would allow cannabis to be regulated, cultivated, sold and taxed. Question 9 would have also made low cost cannabis available for medical cannabis patients and would have created laws against “driving dangerously” under the influence of cannabis.
- On November 2, 2004, voters in Alaska rejected Measure 2 by 56–44 percent. Measure 2 would have prompted the state legislature to tax and regulate cannabis, and would have removed criminal penalties for cannabis use by adults aged 21 and older.
- On November 7, 2006, voters in Nevada (again) rejected propositions that would have legalized possession of up to one ounce of cannabis.
- On May 1, 2008, the New Hampshire Senate voted down a bill that would have reduced the penalty for the possession up to a quarter-ounce of cannabis. This bill had previously passed the N.H. State House of Representatives and had the support of the majority of polled voters.
- On November 4, 2008, 65% of Massachusetts voters voted ‘yes’ on ballot question 2 known as the Massachusetts Sensible Marijuana Policy Initiative, which became law on January 2, 2009; it reduced the penalty for possession of an ounce or less of cannabis.
- On September 30, 2010, California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger signed into law S.B. 1449, a bill that decriminalizes the possession of up to one ounce of marijuana.
- In January 2011, Republican Arizona legislator John Fillmore introduced House Bill 2228. This bill would decriminalize cannabis possession of 2 ounces or less to a petty offense with a penalty of no more than a $100 fine. HB 2228 failed to even receive a legislative hearing from his fellow lawmakers.
- In June 2011 — Rep. Barney Frank, Rep. Ron Paul, and a handful of other courageous Members of Congress introduced the first bill to end federal marijuana prohibition (H.R. 2306); it would treat marijuana in a manner similar to alcohol under federal law and would allow states to determine their own marijuana policies. It never went up for a vote.
Colorado and Washington did pass legislation on November 6, 2012 that would benefit the cannabis industry, but those did laws wouldn’t go into effect until 2014 — in other words, those “remarkable liberalizations” wouldn’t impact the data collected through 2013.