Legalizing Pot Is a Catastrophic Mistake | Opinion

Our nation is currently standing at a crossroads to find ways to reform and mitigate decades of harm that have been experienced by communities of color. One argument put forth is to legalize and commercialize marijuana as a way to address the disproportionate impacts.

But the data gleaned so far from states that have legalized the drug tell us this policy approach will greatly exacerbate existing social justice issues, bring about further health and safety harms, and enrich overwhelmingly white investors and corporate funders. Thankfully, legalization is not our only choice.

Removing criminal penalties for low-level marijuana use—essentially treating marijuana more like a traffic ticket—means putting an immediate end to arresting folks for simply using or possessing the drug. This policy, paired with expungements of previous records for low-level offenses, is a sound position we at Smart Approaches to Marijuana (SAM) support.

It may not make today's Ganjapreneuers rich, but it begins the process of addressing problematic policy impacts.

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Marijuana legalization, however, means the corporatization and commercialization of an industry aimed at increasing profits. Already flush with investment from Big Tobacco (such as Altria, the owner of Marlboro), Big Alcohol and other addiction giants with a history of predatory marketing aimed at disadvantaged communities, Big Marijuana profits off the sale of today's highly potent and much more addictive marijuana.

This new, chemically altered and highly potent substance is nothing like the drug some may have experimented with in the past.

Marijuana contains hundreds of different compounds, but the chief psychoactive component that makes a user feel "high" is tetrahydrocannabinol, or THC. In the 1960s, 1970s and even up until the mid-1990s, THC levels in marijuana never rose above three to five percent, on average. Now, with a commercial industry invested in producing stronger products, THC levels in basic marijuana "buds" are 20 to 30 percent. When it comes to the ever-more popular products, such as concentrates, waxes and vaping oils, we are seeing products featuring upward of 99 percent THC.

While it's true that the impact of drug laws—indeed, most of our laws, period—has disproportionally fallen on people of color, it is also critically important to understand the impact of marijuana commercialization on these same communities. This is where an old adage works well: Two wrongs won't make a right.

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At a time when serious discussions are being held about how best to build up disadvantaged communities, does anyone really believe communities of color and low-income neighborhoods will actually benefit from the increased sale and promotion of substance abuse? Fewer than one percent of the marijuana storefronts in the country are owned by African-Americans. On top of that, less than 19 percent of marijuana businesses in the country have investors who are minorities. Even worse, social equity applicants for marijuana licenses are more often than not left to whither on the vine while multi-state, corporate-backed operators snatch up the premium licenses and corner the markets.

We have seen this play out most recently in Illinois—a state where lawmakers promised to "set the standard" when it came to social equity in the marijuana industry. When "legal" sales were slated to begin in January of this year, not a single person of color held a marijuana license in Chicago, causing the City Council's Black Caucus to threaten to delay the entire program.

Now, in the latest installment of approvals, five new licenses have been handed out to peddle today's highly potent marijuana in the Windy City. Three of them went to multi-state/multi-national operators, while the remaining two join the rest in featuring leadership comprised of mostly white men.

And while these stores are overwhelmingly not owned, invested in or operated by people of color, they are overwhelmingly located in communities of color and low-income neighborhoods. That's the playbook for these types of industries.

Historically, these disadvantaged communities lack many of the resources to combat predatory marketing practices and also often lack adequate access to proper drug treatment facilities, thereby exposing community members to an increased likelihood of substance abuse with limited resources to combat the consequences.

Even the American Civil Liberties Union, a group that has endorsed marijuana legalization and commercialization, recently released a study finding that marijuana legalization has failed to deliver on its supporters' grand promises of social justice.

The study states that while marijuana legalization may reduce the overall number of people arrested for possession of the drug (not surprising—if you legalized shoplifting, we'd have fewer arrests for it), people of color are still far more likely to be arrested than are whites. Furthermore, the study found that arrest disparities increased in Alaska, California, Colorado, Maine, Massachusetts and Oregon following legalization. And other independent research has found driving-related arrests have skyrocketed, as have public use arrests.

And expanded use of marijuana through legalization and commercialization has scientifically proven costs that we cannot ignore.

In such states, getting behind the wheel after consuming marijuana is becoming normalized—and more deadly. A 2017 analysis by The Denver Post found that the rate of marijuana-impaired drivers involved in fatal car crashes in Colorado more than doubled since the implementation of commercialization. A new study finds a 260 percent increase in youth stoned-driving in Colorado. A recent AAA study found similar stoned driving case increases in Washington State. Furthermore, a study released last month found that if marijuana were to be legalized at the federal level, some additional 6,800 people would die each year due to marijuana-impaired driving.

These aren't the only harms, either.

Marijuana dispensary in Denver in 2014
Marijuana dispensary in Denver in 2014 Theo Stroomer/Getty Images

Recent peer-reviewed studies have found concerning links between marijuana use and severe mental illness. One such study found that daily users of average-potency marijuana were three times more likely to be diagnosed with psychosis. Heavy users of high-potency products, such as the 99 percent THC concentrates, edibles and vaping oils, were five times more likely. And despite industry rhetoric, established science has concluded that marijuana is indeed addictive. A recent study found one in three past-year users had what clinicians call a Cannabis Use Disorder, or addiction.

Thousands of similar studies have pointed out significant links to additional serious mental health conditions—including schizophrenia, anxiety, depression and suicide. Prolonged use has also been shown to lower IQ and motor function, and can cause particular damage to the developing brains of young people. If the risks of low-medium potency pot are this serious, what is 99 percent THC doing to the human brain?

The harms to mental health are particularly acute for children and adolescents, those with mental illness, those with predisposition to addictions and pregnant women. Colorado made the news about this because more than 70 percent of the pot shops there recommended marijuana to pregnant women, startling the scientific community.

Legalization also increases youth marijuana use. A survey released this month from Colorado found that use in young teens (15 and younger) has increased 15.5 percent from 2017 (the last time data was collected), and nearly 21 percent of young people in the state are reporting past-month use.

Furthermore, past-month marijuana use among those 15 or younger has increased 15 percent, while the rate for 16- or 17-year-olds has increased 3 percent. Overall, marijuana use among all age groups has risen 6.2 percent. There has also been a change in the way youth are using marijuana—as demonstrated by a quintupling of youth "dabbing" high-potency concentrates, and a doubling of youth vaping, since 2015.

Before discussing the smarter approach, which seeks to heal the harms of prohibition while avoiding enriching Wall Street and the addiction profiteers, it would be remiss to not point out that this push for legalization does not end with marijuana. In states such as Oregon, California, Colorado and even the District of Columbia, where marijuana is now "legal," there are currently efforts underway to legalize psychedelic mushrooms.

Taking it one step further, groups such as Law Enforcement Action Partnership (LEAP), the Drug Policy Alliance and others who forcefully push marijuana commercialization also tend to support the legalization and commercialization of all drugs, including heroin. That is why it shouldn't surprise anyone that LEAP takes money from Big Tobacco (and Big Marijuana), as documented in its annual report. Given that our nation is currently in the midst of a historic epidemic of addiction, this is an untenable position with potentially devastating consequences for public health and safety.

Substance abuse and addiction should be a public health issue, not solely a criminal justice issue. Removing criminal penalties for marijuana possession as part of a comprehensive marijuana policy is a must—as are expungement, police reform and other principles within a movement for higher standards of social justice.

This is why we at SAM, a group I founded with former Congressman Patrick Kennedy (D-RI), has so vocally supported to remove criminal penalties and expungements, and to expand treatment and prevention across the country. We have helped craft legislation to accomplish this in New Jersey, New York and other states.

Don't be fooled by the false promises of Big Tobacco and Wall Street investors. Legalization is all about money—and money for those who are already making plenty of it, not the underserved. Do we really think the likes of Philip Morris, Anheuser Busch and other addiction giants have social justice policy outcomes in mind with their investments? The goal of the marijuana industry is converting young, casual users into life-long, heavy users. Legalization and commercialization are nothing more than history repeating itself.

It's time we learn our lesson before it's too late.

Dr. Kevin Sabet is a former White House senior drug policy advisor, serving the Obama, Bush and Clinton administrations. He currently serves as president of Smart Approaches to Marijuana.

The views expressed in this article are the writer's own.

Legalizing Pot Is a Catastrophic Mistake | Opinion | Opinion