Monday, April 07, 2014

If it clearly cost thousands of innocent lives through heroin abuse, would most everyone oppose modern marijuana reforms?

I engendered an intriguing debate over research data, criminal drug reform and public safety concerns in my post here last week titled "If it clearly saved thousands of innocent lives on roadways, would most everyone support medical marijuana reforms?".  I am hoping to engender a similar debate with the question in the title of this new post, which is my sincere inquiry, directed particularly to those most supportive of modern marijuana reform movements, as a follow-up to this notable new Washington Post article headlined "Tracing the U.S. heroin surge back south of the border as Mexican cannabis output falls."  Here are excerpts:

The surge of cheap heroin spreading in $4 hits across rural America can be traced back to the remote valleys of the northern Sierra Madre. With the wholesale price of marijuana falling — driven in part by decriminalization in sections of the United States — Mexican drug farmers are turning away from cannabis and filling their fields with opium poppies.

Mexican heroin is flooding north as U.S. authorities trying to contain an epidemic of prescription painkiller abuse have tightened controls on synthetic opiates such as hydrocodone and OxyContin. As the pills become more costly and difficult to obtain, Mexican trafficking organizations have found new markets for heroin in places such as Winchester, Va., and Brattleboro, Vt., where, until recently, needle use for narcotics was rare or unknown.

Farmers in the storied “Golden Triangle” region of Mexico’s Sinaloa state, which has produced the country’s most notorious gangsters and biggest marijuana harvests, say they are no longer planting the crop. Its wholesale price has collapsed in the past five years, from $100 per kilogram to less than $25. “It’s not worth it anymore,” said Rodrigo Silla, 50, a lifelong cannabis farmer who said he couldn’t remember the last time his family and others in their tiny hamlet gave up growing mota. “I wish the Americans would stop with this legalization.”

Growers from this area and as far afield as Central America are sowing their plots with opium poppies, and large-scale operations are turning up in places where authorities have never seen them....

The needle habit in the United States has made a strong comeback as heroin rushes into the country. Use of the drug in the United States increased 79 percent between 2007 and 2012, according to federal data, triggering a wave of overdose deaths and an “urgent and growing public health crisis,” Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. warned last month.

Although prescription painkillers remain more widely abused and account for far more fatal overdoses, heroin has been “moving all over the country and popping up in areas you didn’t see before,” said Carl Pike, a senior official in the Special Operations Division of the Drug Enforcement Administration.

With its low price and easy portability, heroin has reached beyond New York, Chicago and other places where it has long been available. Rural areas of New England, Appalachia and the Midwest are being hit especially hard, with cities such as Portland, Maine; St. Louis; and Oklahoma City struggling to cope with a new generation of addicts. Pike and other DEA officials say the spread is the result of a shrewd marketing strategy developed by Mexican traffickers. They have targeted areas with the worst prescription pill abuse, sending heroin pushers to “set up right outside the methadone clinics,” one DEA agent said.

Some new heroin users begin by snorting the drug. But like addicts of synthetic painkillers who go from swallowing the pills to crushing and snorting them, they eventually turn to intravenous injection of heroin for a more powerful high. By then, experts say, they have crossed a psychological threshold — overcoming the stigma of needle use. At the same time, they face diminishing satisfaction from prescription pills that can cost $80 each on the street and whose effects wear off after four to six hours. Those addicts are especially susceptible to high-grade heroin offered for as little as $4 a dose but with a narcotic payload that can top anything from a pharmacy.

Unlike marijuana, which cartel peons usually carry across the border in backpacks, heroin (like cocaine) is typically smuggled inside fake vehicle panels or concealed in shipments of legitimate commercial goods and is more difficult to detect. By the time it reaches northern U.S. cities, a kilo may be worth $60,000 to $80,000, prior to being diluted or “cut” with fillers such as lactose and powdered milk. The increased demand for heroin in the United States appears to be keeping wholesale prices high, even with abundant supply.

The Mexican mountain folk in hamlets such as this one do not think of themselves as drug producers. They also plant corn, beans and other subsistence crops but say they could never earn a living from their small food plots. And, increasingly, they’re unable to compete with U.S. marijuana growers. With cannabis legalized or allowed for medical use in 20 U.S. states and the District of Columbia, more and more of the American market is supplied with highly potent marijuana grown in American garages and converted warehouses — some licensed, others not.  Mexican trafficking groups have also set up vast outdoor plantations on public land, especially in California, contributing to the fall in marijuana prices.

“When you have a product losing value, you diversify, and that’s true of any farmer,” said David Shirk, a Mexico researcher at the University of California at San Diego. “The wave of opium poppies we’re seeing is at least partially driven by changes we’re making in marijuana drug policy.”

I find this article fascinating in part because it highlight one (or surely many dozen) serious unintended consequences of modern marijuana reforms in the United States. I also find it fascinating because, just as my prior post explored some possible public safety benefits of consumers switching from alcohol use to marijuana use, this article spotlights some possible public safety harms of producers switching from marijuana farming to opium farming.

Some recent related posts:

Cross-posted at Marijuana Law, Policy and Reform

April 7, 2014 in Drug Offense Sentencing, Marijuana Legalization in the States, Offense Characteristics, Pot Prohibition Issues | Permalink | Comments (11) | TrackBack

Sunday, April 06, 2014

Noting the very cautious politics still surrounding pot legalization

Today's New York Times has this interesting lengthy article discussing pot politics under the headline "Despite Support in Party, Democratic Governors Resist Legalizing Marijuana." Here are excerpts:

At a time of rapidly evolving attitudes toward marijuana legalization — a slight majority of Americans now support legalizing the drug — Democratic governors across the country ... find themselves uncomfortably at odds with their own base.

Even with Democrats and younger voters leading the wave of the pro-legalization shift, these governors are standing back, supporting much more limited medical-marijuana proposals or invoking the kind of law-and-order and public-health arguments more commonly heard from Republicans. While 17 more states — most of them leaning Democratic — have seen bills introduced this year to follow Colorado and Washington in approving recreational marijuana, no sitting governor or member of the Senate has offered a full-out endorsement of legalization. Only Gov. Peter Shumlin, a Democrat in Vermont, which is struggling with a heroin problem, said he was open to the idea....

The hesitance expressed by these governors reflects not only governing concerns but also, several analysts said, a historically rooted political wariness of being portrayed as soft on crime by Republicans. In particular, Mr. Brown, who is 75, lived through the culture wars of the 1960s, when Democrats suffered from being seen as permissive on issues like this.

“Either they don’t care about it as passionately or they feel embarrassed or vulnerable. They fear the judgment,” said Ethan Nadelmann, the founder of the Drug Policy Alliance, an organization that favors decriminalization of marijuana. “The fear of being soft on drugs, soft on marijuana, soft on crime is woven into the DNA of American politicians, especially Democrats.” He described that sentiment as, “Do not let yourself be outflanked by Republicans when it comes to being tough on crime and tough on drugs. You will lose.”

In Washington and Colorado, the Democratic governors had opposed legalization from the start, though each made clear that he would follow voters’ wishes in setting up the first legal recreational-marijuana marketplaces in the nation. “If it was up to me, being in the middle of it, and having read all this research and having some concern, I’d tell people just to exercise caution,” Gov. John W. Hickenlooper of Colorado said in a recent interview....

Washington has yet to let its first marijuana stores open — that is expected to happen later this spring — but Gov. Jay Inslee has made his position clear. “As a grandfather, I have the same concerns every grandfather has about misuse of any drug, including alcohol and marijuana,” he said in a telephone interview, adding, “All of us want to see our kids make smart decisions and not allow any drug to become injurious in our life. “I recognized the really rational decision that people made that criminalization efforts were not a successful public policy,” Mr. Inslee continued. “But frankly, I really don’t want to send a message to our kids that this is a route that is without risk.”...

The resistance comes as public opinion on the issue is moving more rapidly than anyone might have anticipated. Nationally, 51 percent of adults support legalizing the drug, according to a New York Times/CBS News poll conducted in February, including 60 percent of Democrats, 54 percent of independents and 72 percent of young adults. Even 44 percent of Tea Party members said they wanted the drug legalized....

There is no obvious political upside to supporting legalization, analysts said, and politicians, as a rule, tend to be risk averse. “You don’t hold these positions without having a sense of your own place in history,” said former Representative Patrick J. Kennedy, who joined Mr. Sabet in founding Project SAM, which strives to reduce marijuana use by emphasizing health risks. “They can honestly see that this is not a good move, that it’s going to have huge consequences, not all of which can be foretold.”...

At this point, the prospects for other elected officials jumping on the legalization bandwagon is likely to depend on what happens as the experiments in Washington and Colorado proceed. Among the questions are whether legalization will lead to more drug abuse by teenagers and how much it will fatten state tax coffers.

“I don’t tell other governors what to do,” Mr. Hickenlooper said, “but when they asked me, I said, ‘If I was in your shoes, I would wait a couple of years and see whether

there are unintended consequences, from what is admittedly a well-intentioned law.’”

April 6, 2014 in Elections and sentencing issues in political debates, Marijuana Legalization in the States, Pot Prohibition Issues, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (2) | TrackBack

Friday, April 04, 2014

If it clearly saved thousands of innocent lives on roadways, would most everyone support medical marijuana reforms?

The question in the title of this post is my sincere inquiry, directed particularly to those most concerned about modern marijuana reform movements, as a follow-up to this extended (data-focused) commentary by Jacob Sollum at Forbes headlined "More Pot, Safer Roads: Marijuana Legalization Could Bring Unexpected Benefits." Here are excerpts (with key research links retained):

The anti-pot group Project SAM claims drug test data show that marijuana legalization in Washington, approved by voters in that state at the end of 2012, already has made the roads more dangerous. The group notes with alarm that the percentage of people arrested for driving under the influence of a drug (DUID) who tested positive for marijuana rose by a third between 2012 and 2013. “Even before the first marijuana store opens in Washington, normalization and acceptance [have] set in,” says Project SAM Chairman Patrick J. Kennedy. “This is a wakeup call for officials and the public about the dangerousness of this drug, especially when driving.”

In truth, these numbers do not tell us anything about the dangerousness of marijuana. They do not even necessarily mean that more people are driving while high. Furthermore, other evidence suggests that legalizing marijuana could make the roads safer, reducing traffic fatalities by encouraging the substitution of marijuana for alcohol....

According to State Toxicologist Fiona Couper, the share of DUID arrestees in Washington whose blood tested positive for THC, marijuana’s main psychoactive ingredient, rose from 18.6 percent in 2012 to 24.9 percent in 2013.  That’s an increase of more than 33 percent, as Project SAM emphasizes with a scary-looking bar graph. At the same time, the total number of DUID arrests in Washington rose by just 3 percent, about the same as the increases seen in the previous three years, while DUID arrests by state troopers (see table below) fell 16 percent.

These numbers do not suggest that Washington’s highways are awash with dangerously stoned drivers. So why the substantial increase in positive marijuana tests?  Lt. Rob Sharpe, commander of the Washington State Patrol’s Impaired Driving Section, notes that additional officers were trained to recognize drugged drivers in anticipation of marijuana legalization. So even if the number of stoned drivers remained the same, police may have pulled over more of them as a result of that training....

As Columbia University researchers Guohua Li and Joanne E. Brady pointed out a few months ago in the American Journal of Epidemiology, [a recent] increase in marijuana consumption has been accompanied by an increase in the percentage of drivers killed in car crashes who test positive for cannabinol, a marijuana metabolite.

But as with the increase in DUID arrestees who test positive for THC, this trend does not necessarily mean marijuana is causing more crashes.  A test for cannabinol, which is not psychoactive and can be detected in blood for up to a week after use, does not show the driver was under the influence of marijuana at the time of the crash, let alone that he was responsible for it. “Thus,” Li and Brady write, “the prevalence of nonalcohol drugs reported in this study should be interpreted as an indicator of drug use, not necessarily a measurement of drug impairment.”

Another reason to doubt the premise that more pot smoking means more deadly crashes: Total traffic fatalities have fallen as marijuana consumption has risen; there were about 20 percent fewer in 2012 than in 2002.  Perhaps fatalities would have fallen faster if it weren’t for all those new pot smokers.  But there is reason to believe the opposite may be true, that there would have been more fatalities if marijuana consumption had remained level or declined.

While marijuana can impair driving ability, it has a less dramatic impact than alcohol does. A 1993 report from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, for example, concluded: “The impairment [from marijuana] manifests itself mainly in the ability to maintain a lateral position on the road, but its magnitude is not exceptional in comparison with changes produced by many medicinal drugs and alcohol.  Drivers under the influence of marijuana retain insight in their performance and will compensate when they can, for example, by slowing down or increasing effort.  As a consequence, THC’s adverse effects on driving performance appear relatively small.”  Similarly, a 2000 report commissioned by the British government found that “the severe effects of alcohol on the higher cognitive processes of driving are likely to make this more of a hazard, particularly at higher blood alcohol levels.”

Given these differences, it stands to reason that if more pot smoking is accompanied by less drinking, the upshot could be fewer traffic fatalities. Consistent with that hypothesis, a study published last year in the Journal of Law and Economics found that legalization of medical marijuana is associated with an 8-to-11-percent drop in traffic fatalities, beyond what would be expected based on national trends.  Montana State University economist D. Mark Anderson and his colleagues found that the reduction in alcohol-related accidents was especially clear, as you would expect if loosening restrictions on marijuana led to less drinking. They also cite evidence that alcohol consumption declined in states with medical marijuana laws.

Anderson et al. caution that the drop in deadly crashes might be due to differences in the settings where marijuana and alcohol are consumed. If people are more likely to consume marijuana at home, that could mean less driving under the influence.  Hence “the negative relationship between legalization and alcohol-related fatalities does not necessarily imply that driving under the influence of marijuana is safer than driving under the influence of alcohol,” although that is what experiments with both drugs indicate.

Arrest data from Washington are consistent with the idea that marijuana legalization could result in less drunk driving. Last year drunk driving arrests by state troopers fell 11 percent. By comparison, the number of drunk driving arrests fell by 2 percent between 2009 and 2010, stayed about the same between 2010 and 2011, and fell by 6 percent between 2011 and 2012. The drop in drunk driving arrests after marijuana legalization looks unusually large, although it should be interpreted with caution, since the number of arrests is partly a function of enforcement levels, which depend on funding and staffing.

Two authors of the Journal of Law and Economics study, Anderson and University of Colorado at Denver economist Daniel Rees, broadened their analysis in a 2013 article published by the Journal of Policy Analysis and Management. Anderson and Rees argue that marijuana legalization is apt, on balance, to produce “public health benefits,” mainly because of a reduction in alcohol consumption. Their projection hinges on the premise that marijuana and alcohol are substitutes. If marijuana and alcohol are instead complements, meaning that more pot smoking is accompanied by more drinking, the benefits they predict would not materialize.  Anderson and Rees say “studies based on clearly defined natural experiments generally support the hypothesis that marijuana and alcohol are substitutes.”  But in the same issue of the Journal of Policy Analysis and Management, Rosalie Liccardo Pacula, co-director of the RAND Corporation’s Drug Policy Research Center, and University of South Carolina criminologist Eric Sevigny conclude that the evidence on this point “remains mixed.”

study published last month by the online journal PLOS One suggests that the substitution of marijuana for alcohol, assuming it happens, could affect crime rates as well as car crashes. Robert G. Morris and three other University of Texas at Dallas criminologists looked at trends in homicide, rape, robbery, assault, burglary, larceny, and auto theft in the 11 states that legalized marijuana for medical use between 1990 and 2006. While crime fell nationwide during this period, it fell more sharply in the medical marijuana states, even after the researchers adjusted for various other differences between states. Morris and his colleagues conclude that legalization of medical marijuana “may be related to reductions in rates of homicide and assault,” possibly because of a decline in drinking, although they caution that the extra drop in crime could be due to a variable they did not consider.

One needs to be very cautious, of course, drawing any firm conclusions based on any early research about impaired driving, car crashes, and marijuana reform. But let's imagine it does turn out generally true that legalizing medical marijuana helps produce a 10% drop in a jurisdiction's traffic fatalities. If extended nationwide throughout the US, where we have well over 30,000 traffic fatalities each and every year, this would mean we could potentially save more than 3000 innocent lives each year from nationwide medical marijuana reform. (One might contrast this number with debated research and claims made about the number of lives possibly saved by the death penalty: I do not believe I have seen any research from even ardent death penalty supporters to support the assertion that even much more robust use of the death penalty in the US would be likely to save even 1000 innocent lives each year.)

Obviously, many people can and many people surely would question and contest a claim that we could or would potentially save more than 3000 innocent lives each year from nationwide medical marijuana reform. But, for purposes of debate and discussion (and to know just how important additional research in this arena might be to on-going pot reform debates), I sincerely wonder if anyone would still actively oppose medical marijuana reform if (and when?) we continue to see compelling data that such reform might save over 50 innocent lives each and every week throughout the United States.

Cross-posted at Marijuana Law, Policy and Reform

April 4, 2014 in Marijuana Legalization in the States, National and State Crime Data, Offense Characteristics, Pot Prohibition Issues | Permalink | Comments (33) | TrackBack

Thursday, April 03, 2014

Months into state experiment, first death officially linked to marijuana legalization in Colorado

As reported in this Denver Post article, headlined "Denver coroner: Man fell to death after eating marijuana cookies," it appears that at least one fatality can now be directly linked to "legalized" marijuana use and abuse in Colorado.  Here are the basics:

A college student visiting Denver jumped to his death from a hotel balcony after eating marijuana-infused cookies, according to a coroner's report that marks the first time authorities have publicly linked a death to marijuana since legal sales of recreational cannabis began in Colorado.

Levy Thamba, a 19-year-old student at Northwest College in Powell, Wyo., died last month at a Holiday Inn in northeast Denver. On Wednesday, the Denver coroner released a report concluding that Thamba's death was caused by "multiple injuries due to a fall from height." The coroner also listed "marijuana intoxication" from cannabis-infused cookies as a significant condition contributing to the death. The report classifies the death as an accident.

A brief summary of the investigation that was included in the autopsy report says Thamba, also known as Levi Thamba Pongi, traveled to Denver with three friends on spring break. On March 11, the report says, Thamba consumed "marijuana cookies" and "soon thereafter exhibited hostile behavior (pulling items off the walls) and spoke erratically."

"The decedent's friends attempted to calm him down and were temporarily successful," the report states. "However, the decedent eventually reportedly jumped out of bed, went outside the hotel room, and jumped over the balcony railing." Thamba and his friends were staying on the hotel's fourth floor, according to the report.

Michelle Weiss-Samaras, a spokeswoman for the coroner's office, said the office often lists alcohol intoxication as a significant contributing factor in a death — for instance, in an alcohol-related car accident. She said the office also has seen cases involving apparent marijuana-impaired driving, but she said she believes this is the first time it has listed marijuana intoxication from an edible product in such a way.

Weiss-Samaras said Thamba had no known physical or mental-health issues, and toxicology tests for other drugs or alcohol came back negative. "We have no history of any other issues until he eats a marijuana cookie and becomes erratic and this happens," she said. "It's the one thing we have that's significant."

According to the autopsy report, Thamba's marijuana concentration in his blood was 7.2 nanograms of active THC per milliliter of blood. In impaired driving cases, state law sets a standard of 5 nanograms per milliliter at which juries can presume impairment.

In January, Colorado became the first state in the country to allow people 21 and over to legally buy marijuana for any purpose from regulated stores.  Weiss-Samaras said investigators believe a friend of Thamba's purchased the cookies in a recreational marijuana store. "We were told they came here to try it," she said....  It remains unclear how much of the marijuana-infused product Thamba consumed or how long after consuming it that he died.  

Marijuana edibles — which account for 20 to 40 percent of overall sales, industry experts estimate — have been controversial in Colorado, and the legislature will likely take up the issue again this session.  Rep. Frank McNulty, R-Highlands Ranch, said he and Rep. Jonathan Singer, D-Longmont, plan to introduce a bill as early as this week that would further cap the potency of edibles and prohibit them from being made in forms that might appeal to children.

This story is already getting coverage in national newspapers, and it will now be interesting to see whether and how opponents of marijuana reform might actively use this sad development in support of their arguments against reform efforts.  Notably, at age 19, Levy Thamba was technically underage and thus his recreation marijuana use was not legal.  But that fact itself reinforces the arguments of opponents of marijuana reform that legalization makes it easier and more likely that underage persons will have access and be eager to try marijuana products.

Cross-posted at Marijuana Law, Policy and Reform

April 3, 2014 in Marijuana Legalization in the States, Pot Prohibition Issues | Permalink | Comments (30) | TrackBack

Thursday, March 27, 2014

New study suggests legalizing medical marijuana may reduce violent crime

This new Washington Post piece, headlined "No, legalizing medical marijuana doesn’t lead to crime, according to actual crime stats," a notable new study provides reason to think (or at least hope) that medical marijuana reforms may actually be a crime reduction strategy. Here are excerpts from the Post posting, with links to the study being discussed:

Actual historic crime data, however, suggest there's no evidence that legalizing the drug for medicinal purposes leads to an increase in crime. In fact, states that have legalized it appear to have seen some reductions in the rates of homicide and assault.

These findings come from a nationwide study published Wednesday in the journal PLOS One (which is notable for the fact that no one seems to have done this crucial analysis before).  Researchers at the University of Texas at Dallas looked at the FBI's Uniform Crime Report data across the country between 1990 and 2006, a span during which 11 states legalized medical marijuana. Throughout this time period, crime was broadly falling throughout the United States.  But a closer look at the differences between these states —  and within the states that legalized the drug before and after the law's passage — further shows no noticeable local uptick among a whole suite of crimes: homicide, rape, robbery, assault, burglary, larceny, and auto theft.

The robbery and burglary findings are particularly interesting, as those are the crimes we'd most likely expect to see outside of medical dispensaries.  But what about the apparent declines in homicide and assault?

The researchers, Robert G. Morris, Michael TenEyck, J.C. Barnes and Tomislav V. Kovandzic, caution that this may be a mere statistical artifact of their analysis. But there's also a plausible explanation:

While it is important to remain cautious when interpreting these findings as evidence that MML reduces crime, these results do fall in line with recent evidence and they conform to the longstanding notion that marijuana legalization may lead to a reduction in alcohol use due to individuals substituting marijuana for alcohol. Given the relationship between alcohol and violent crime, it may turn out that substituting marijuana for alcohol leads to minor reductions in violent crimes that can be detected at the state level.

Their analysis controlled for other potentially confounding factors: employment and poverty rates in each state, income and education levels, age and urban demographics, per-capita rates of prison inmates and police officers, as well as per-capita rates of beer consumption (per the Beer Institute).

The results don't definitely prove that medical marijuana has no effect on crime (or that it might even reduce it). Maybe the researchers failed to account for some other crucial variable here, some common factor that further depressed crime in precisely these 11 states, precisely after the moment that each passed a medical marijuana law, masking the actual crime increase caused by the policy. Or, there's this interpretation, from the authors:

Perhaps the more likely explanation of the current findings is that [medical marijuana] laws reflect behaviors and attitudes that have been established in those societies. If these attitudes and behaviors reflect a more tolerant populace that is less likely to infringe on one another’s personal rights, we are unlikely to expect an increase in crime and might even anticipate a slight reduction in personal crimes.

March 27, 2014 in Marijuana Legalization in the States, National and State Crime Data, Pot Prohibition Issues | Permalink | Comments (29) | TrackBack

Wednesday, March 26, 2014

"Cooperative Federalism and Marijuana Regulation"

The title of this post is the title of this notable new paper co-authored by Erwin Chemerinsky, Jolene Forman, Allen Hopper and Sam Kamin and now available via SSRN.  Here is the abstract:

The struggle over marijuana regulation is one of the most important federalism conflicts in a generation. Since 1996 twenty states have legalized marijuana for medical purposes and, in November 2013, Colorado and Washington legalized marijuana for adult recreational use. In the fall of 2013, the federal Department of Justice (“DOJ”) announced it will not prioritize enforcement of federal marijuana laws in states with their own robust marijuana regulations, specifying eight federal enforcement priorities to help guide state lawmaking. This announcement has been widely interpreted to signal that the federal government will not enforce its stricter marijuana laws against those complying with the new Washington and Colorado laws so long as the new state regulatory regimes effectively prevent the harms the DOJ has identified as federal priorities.  Yet even if the federal government voluntarily refrains from enforcing its drug laws against those complying with robust state regulatory regimes, the ancillary consequences flowing from the continuing federal prohibition remain profound.  Banks, attorneys, insurance companies, and potential investors concerned about breaking federal law are reluctant to provide investment capital, legal advice, or numerous other basic professional services necessary for businesses to function and navigate complex state and local regulations. And consumers face the risk of severe legal consequences.

The Article explains why, even if it wished to do so, the DOJ could not simply shut down all state marijuana legalization efforts using the federal government’s preemption power under the Supremacy Clause.  We suggest an incremental and effective solution that would allow willing states to experiment with novel regulatory approaches while leaving the federal prohibition intact for the remaining states.  The federal government should adopt a cooperative federalism approach that allows states meeting specified federal criteria — criteria along the lines that the DOJ has already set forth — to opt out of the federal Controlled Substances Act (“CSA”) provisions relating to marijuana. In opt-out states certified by the Attorney General, state law would exclusively govern marijuana-related activities and the CSA marijuana provisions would cease to apply.  Federal agencies could continue to cooperate with opt-out states and their local governments to jointly enforce marijuana laws, but state law rather than the CSA would control within those states’ borders. Equally important, nothing would change in those states content with the status quo under the CSA.  This proposed approach embodies the best characteristics of federalism by allowing some states to experiment while maintaining a significant federal role to minimize the impact of those experiments on other states.

March 26, 2014 in Marijuana Legalization in the States, Pot Prohibition Issues, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack

Sunday, March 23, 2014

"Marijuana industry finds unlikely new allies in conservatives"

The title of this post is the headline of this interesting new article in the Los Angeles Times.  Here are excerpts:

Political contributors are not the only ones taking notice of the new realities of the marijuana business, said San Francisco-based ArcView Chief Executive Troy Dayton, who estimated his group would pump about $500,000 into pot this year.  Officeholders and candidates now jostle for the stage at investor meetings, he said. "A little more than a year ago, it would have been worthy of a headline if a sitting politician came to talk to a cannabis group," he said.  "Now they are calling us, asking to speak at our events."

No clearer example of the change exists than the industry's newest full-time lobbyist, Michael Correia.  An advocate for the 300-member National Cannabis Industry Assn., he is a former GOP staffer who worked two years as a lobbyist for the American Legislative Exchange Council — the powerful conservative advocacy group that has worked with state lawmakers to block the Affordable Care Act, clean energy incentives and gun restrictions.

"People hear the word 'marijuana' and they think Woodstock, they think tie-dye, they think dreadlocks," the San Diego native said. "It is not. These are legitimate businesses producing revenue, creating jobs. I want to be the face of it. I want to be what Congress sees."

Correia doesn't like to smoke pot. It makes him sleepy, he said.  And he isn't among those who have been in the trenches for years fighting for legalization.  For him, the work is largely about the federal government unnecessarily stifling an industry's growth. Any conservative, he said, should be troubled when companies can't claim tax deductions or keep cash in banks or provide plants for federal medical research....

Correia's association ... recently formed an alliance with Grover Norquist, the anti-tax activist who runs Americans for Tax Reform. In the fall, Norquist stood at a news conference with a longtime nemesis, Rep. Earl Blumenauer (D-Ore.), one of the most liberal members of Congress, to promote a measure that would allow marijuana enterprises to deduct business expenses from their taxes.  "Grover's view is government should not pick winners and losers," Correia said. "It is a fairness issue. This resonates with him."

The Marijuana Policy Project recently purchased a building in Washington's vibrant Adams Morgan neighborhood, complete with a rooftop deck. On a recent warm evening, it hosted its first fundraiser there for a Republican, Rep. Dana Rohrabacher of Costa Mesa. The next day, Rohrabacher noted the "evil weed" some loiterers had been inhaling outside the building: "They were smoking tobacco," he said.

Rohrabacher is a coauthor of a bill that would require the federal government to defer to state laws that allow marijuana sales. "If it was a secret ballot," he said, "the majority of my Republican friends would vote for it."

March 23, 2014 in Elections and sentencing issues in political debates, Marijuana Legalization in the States, Pot Prohibition Issues, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (4) | TrackBack

Saturday, March 22, 2014

March madness insights from the Marijuana Law, Policy & Reform blog

Continuing my habit of doing regular round ups of posts from Marijuana Law, Policy and Reform, here is just a sampling of all the exciting mid-March action in recent posts:

March 22, 2014 in Marijuana Legalization in the States, Pot Prohibition Issues, Preparing for pot professing | Permalink | Comments (1) | TrackBack

Thursday, March 20, 2014

ACLU of Washington State reports huge drop in low-level marijuana offense court filings after legalization initiative

As detailed in this press release, the ACLU of Washington State has some new data on one criminal justice reality plainly impacted by marijuana reform.  Here are the details:

Passed by Washington voters on November 6, 2012, Initiative 502 legalized marijuana possession for adults age 21 and over when it went into effect 30 days later.  New data show the law is having a dramatic effect on prosecutions for misdemeanor marijuana possession offenses in Washington courts.  The ACLU of Washington’s analysis of court data, provided by the Administrative Office of the Courts, reveals that filings for low-level marijuana offenses have precipitously decreased from 2009 to 2013:

• 2009 – 7964
• 2010 – 6743
• 2011 – 6879
• 2012 – 5531
• 2013 – 120

“The data strongly suggest that I-502 has achieved one of its primary goals – to free up limited police and prosecutorial resources. These resources can now be used for other important public safety concerns,” says Mark Cooke, Criminal Justice Policy Counsel for the ACLU of Washington....

Although the overall number of low-level marijuana offenses for people age 21 and over has decreased significantly, it appears that racial bias still exists in the system.  An African American adult is still about three times more likely to have a low-level marijuana offense filed against him or her than a white adult.

Initiative 502 legalized possession of up to one ounce of marijuana for adults 21 and over.  However, possession of more than an ounce, but no more than 40 grams, remains a misdemeanor.  Exceeding the one-ounce threshold is a likely explanation for the presence of 120 misdemeanor filings against adults in 2013.

A number of folks on this blog who seem opposed to marijuana reform are often quick to (rightly) note that very few people are serving prison sentence for low-level marijuana offenses. But this data provides a notable reminder that, even in a liberal state with medical marijuana legalized, many thousands of persons can still get arrested and prosecuted for misdemeanor marijuana possession offenses unless and until a state fully legalizes marijuana possession.

If it is reasonable to estimate that it costs around $2000 to process each of these misdemeanor possession cases (which may be a conservative estimate based on some numbers crunched here), the elimination of over 5,000 pot arrests could be alone saving Washington State more than $10 million each year.  That amount is perhaps not all that much money in a state with a nearly $40 billion annual budget, but it would be enough to double the monies the state spends on a state seed program called "Building for the Arts."   Though my biases are showing here, I generally think citizens are likely to get a better civic return on their tax dollars when state money is spent helping to build for the arts rather than busting a few thousand potheads.

Cross posted at Marijuana Law, Policy & Reform

March 20, 2014 in Data on sentencing, Marijuana Legalization in the States, Pot Prohibition Issues, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing | Permalink | Comments (3) | TrackBack

"Drug Dealers Aren't to Blame for the Heroin Boom. Doctors Are."

The title of this post is the provocative headline of this interesting new article from The New Republic. Here is a portion of how the piece gets started:

Heroin epidemics don’t come and go randomly, like the McRib. They have clearly identifiable causes — and in this case, by far the largest cause is doctor -prescribed pills. Every year since 2007, doctors have written more than 200 million prescriptions for opioid painkillers. (Consider that there are 240 million adults in the country.)  And about four in five new heroin addicts report that they got addicted to prescription pills before they ever took heroin....

Most people who try opiates don’t get addicted.  But enough do. Since 2002, the total number of monthly heroin abusers has doubled to 335,000 nationwide.  Some of the addicts get the pills through a well-meaning doctor or dentist, and many others swipe leftover pills from their friends or family members.  The result for an addict is the same: Once the pills or money run out, heroin is still available — and cheap.  At about $10 per hit, it can be half the street cost of pills.

“We seeded the population with opiates,” says Robert DuPont, an addiction doctor who served as drug czar under Presidents Nixon and Ford and who is now a harsh critic of opiate over-prescription.  The supply shock from easy access to prescription drugs has pushed heroin use out of cities and into rural and suburban and middle-class areas. Massachusetts reported a staggering 185 heroin deaths outside its major cities since November, and Peter Shumlin, the governor of Vermont, spent his entire “state-of-the-state” address talking about the nearly eightfold increase in people seeking opiate treatment there since 2000.  “What started as an OxyContin and prescription-drug addiction problem in Vermont has now grown into a full-blown heroin crisis,” he said.

In addition to providing an important reminder about the dynamic (and sometimes unpredictable) intersection of medical care, drug abuse and the "war on drugs," this piece also suggests a reason why we might not want to readily assume (or trust) that the medical profession will be an effective and healthy intermediary when debating how best to reform marijuana laws and regulate the use of cannabis-based products as a pain relievers.

March 20, 2014 in Drug Offense Sentencing, Marijuana Legalization in the States, Pot Prohibition Issues, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (13) | TrackBack

Friday, March 14, 2014

Who will create an astute marijuana litigation and legal practice blog?

Regular readers know that I have long covered marijuana laws, policies and reform advocacy here because I see so many crime and punishment issues intersecting with the drug war generally and criminal justice approaches to marijuana specifically.   And, last year, I felt compelled to start a new blog, Marijuana Law, Policy and Reform, in part because there were so many broader issues of public policy implicated by modern marijuana reform efforts: as I have said in my marijuana seminar course description, "contemporary state-level reforms of marijuana laws have raised significant new constitutional, legal, political and practical issues; policy concerns relating to states' rights, local government law, race, gender, public health, crime, political economy, and bioethics intersect with modern marijuana law reform." 

Now, as the title of this post suggests and largely thanks to some terrific guest blogging by Alex Kreit over at MLP&R, I think the time may be right for an enterprising lawyer and/or law firm to start a blog focused particularly on marijuana-related litigation and emerging legal practice issues surrounding this new industry.  I say this based in part on these four new recent posts over at MLP&R which highlight the array of diverse issues and courts now dealing with dynamic marijuana-related litigation:

In this post a few months ago, I speculated that green (i.e., young/junior) lawyers may have a uniquely important role to play in the emerging marijuana green rush industry: not only may veteran lawyers be cautious and concerned about representing persons actively involved in state marijuana business, but marijuana reform often seems a "young man's game" for which junior lawyers may be uniquely positioned to be of service to persons needing legal help in this arena.  Now I am thinking, based in part on the posts above, that an especially effective way for a young lawyer or small law firm to make a name here (and to learn a whole lot) would be to start blogging astutely about the emerging challenges and opportunities that surround marijuana litigation and legal practice.

March 14, 2014 in Marijuana Legalization in the States, Pot Prohibition Issues, Preparing for pot professing | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack

Sunday, March 09, 2014

This week's review of marijuana reform news and notes

I continue to make a habit of doing a weekly round up of posts from Marijuana Law, Policy and Reform because here continue to be so many developments in that realm that ought to be of great interest to senencing fans.  For example, Alex Kreit has a new post at MLP&R, Race, marijuana enforcement and legalization, which astutely observes that "though the criminalization of marijuana has disproportionately impacted people of color, it seems the emerging marijuana industry is largely white." For more discussion of this insight and others, here are links to some notable recent posts:  

March 9, 2014 in Marijuana Legalization in the States, Pot Prohibition Issues | Permalink | Comments (3) | TrackBack

Thursday, March 06, 2014

Florida conservatives now talking up nuanced positions on marijuana reform

As reported in this lengthy local article, headlined "Conservative committee opens door to medical marijuana for Florida," a notable swing/southern state now has a number of notable legislators talking in notable ways about marijuana reform.  Here are excerpts:

One conservative Republican who has suffered from brain cancer talked about the deceit of the federal government in hiding the health benefits of marijuana for his cancer. Another legislator reluctantly met with a South Florida family, only to be persuaded to support legalizing the drug.

Then there was Rep. Charles Van Zant, the surly Republican from Palatka who is considered the most conservative in the House. He not only voted with his colleagues Wednesday to pass out the bill to legalize a strain of marijuana for medical purposes, he filed the amendment to raise the amount of psychoactive ingredients allowed by law — to make it more likely the drug will be effective.

The 11-1 vote by the House Subcommittee on Criminal Justice, was a historic moment for the conservatives in the GOP-dominated House. It was the first time in modern history that the Florida Legislature voted to approve any marijuana-related product. “That’s because people here in Tallahassee have realized that we can’t just have a bumper-sticker approach to marijuana where you’re either for it or against it,” said Rep. Matt Gaetz, R-Shalimar, the committee chairman and sponsor of the bill after the emotional hearing. “Not all marijuana is created equally.”

The committee embraced the proposal, HB 843, by Gaetz and Rep. Katie Edwards, D-Plantation, after hearing heart-wrenching testimony from families whose children suffer from chronic epilepsy. A similar bill is awaiting a hearing in the Senate, where Senate president Don Gaetz, a Niceville Republican and Matt’s father, has said he has heard the testimony from the families and he wants the bill to pass as a first step. “Here I am, a conservative Republican but I have to try to be humble about my dogma,” Senate President Don Gaetz told the Herald/Times....

For a committee known for its dense, often tedious scrutiny of legal text, the debate was remarkable. Rep. Dave Hood, a Republican trial lawyer from Daytona Beach who has been diagnosed with brain cancer, talked about how the federal government knew in 1975 of the health benefits of cannabis in stopping the growth of “brain cancer, of lung cancer, glaucoma and 17 diseases including Lou Gehrig’s disease” but continued to ban the substance. “Frankly, we need to be a state where guys like me, who are cancer victims, aren’t criminals in seeking treatment I’m entitled too,” Hood said.

Rep. Dane Eagle, R-Cape Coral, said he had his mind made up in opposition to the bill, then changed his mind after meeting the Hyman family of Weston. Their daughter, Rebecca, suffers from Dravet’s Syndrome. “We’ve got a plant here on God’s green earth that’s got a stigma to it — but it’s got a medical value,” Eagle said, “I don’t want to look into their eyes and say I’m sorry we can’t help you,” he said. “We need to put the politics aside today and help these families in need.”

The Florida Sheriff’s Association, which adamantly opposes a constitutional amendment to legalize marijuana for medical use in Florida, surprised many when it chose not to speak up. Its lobbyist simply announced the group was “in support.” The bi-partisan support for the bill was summed up by Rep. Dave Kerner, a Democrat and lawyer from Lake Worth. “We sit here, we put words on a piece of paper and they become law,” he said. “It’s very rare as a legislator that we have an opportunity with our words to save a life.”

The only opposing vote came from Rep. Gayle Harrell, R-Stuart, an advocate for the Florida Medical Association. Her husband is a doctor. She looked at the families in the audience and, as tears welled in her eyes, she told them: “I can’t imagine how desperate you must be and I want to solve this problem for you.” But, she said the bill had “serious problems.” It allowed for a drug to be dispensed without clinical trials and absent the kind of research that is needed to protect patients from harm. “I really think we need to address this using science,” Harrell said, suggesting legislators should launch a pilot program to study and test the effectiveness of the marijuana strain. “This bill takes a step in the right direction … but it’s not quite there.”

Cross-posted at Marijuana Law, Policy and Reform

March 6, 2014 in Elections and sentencing issues in political debates, Marijuana Legalization in the States, Pot Prohibition Issues, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (13) | TrackBack

Saturday, March 01, 2014

Another review of highlights from Marijuana Law, Policy and Reform

Another week of interesting developments covered at  Marijuana Law, Policy and Reform seems to justify linking to some higlights:

March 1, 2014 in Marijuana Legalization in the States, Pot Prohibition Issues | Permalink | Comments (2) | TrackBack

Thursday, February 27, 2014

Seeking a (much?) broader perspective on the modern marijuana reform movement

Today's New York Times has this notable new front-page article headlined "Pivotal Point Is Seen as More States Consider Legalizing Marijuana."  Here are some excerpts:

A little over a year after Colorado and Washington legalized marijuana, more than half the states, including some in the conservative South, are considering decriminalizing the drug or legalizing it for medical or recreational use. That has set up a watershed year in the battle over whether marijuana should be as available as alcohol.

Demonstrating how marijuana is no longer a strictly partisan issue, the two states considered likeliest this year to follow Colorado and Washington in outright legalization of the drug are Oregon, dominated by liberal Democrats, and Alaska, where libertarian Republicans hold sway.

Advocates of more lenient marijuana laws say they intend to maintain the momentum from their successes, heartened by national and statewide polls showing greater public acceptance of legalizing marijuana, President Obama’s recent musings on the discriminatory effect of marijuana prosecutions and the release of guidelines by his Treasury Department intended to make it easier for banks to do business with legal marijuana businesses.

Their opponents, though, who also see this as a crucial year, are just as keen to slow the legalization drives. They are aided by a wait-and-see attitude among many governors and legislators, who seem wary of pushing ahead too quickly without seeing how the rollout of legal marijuana works in Colorado and Washington. “We feel that if Oregon or Alaska could be stopped, it would disrupt the whole narrative these groups have that legalization is inevitable,” said Kevin A. Sabet, executive director of Smart Approaches to Marijuana, which is spearheading much of the effort to stop these initiatives. “We could stop that momentum.”...

At least 14 states — including Florida, where an initiative has already qualified for the ballot — are considering new medical marijuana laws this year, according to the Marijuana Policy Project, which supports legalization, and 12 states and the District of Columbia are contemplating decriminalization, in which the drug remains illegal, but the penalties are softened or reduced to fines. Medical marijuana use is already legal in 20 states and the District of Columbia.

An even larger number of states, at least 17, have seen bills introduced or initiatives begun to legalize the drug for adult use along the lines of alcohol, the same approach used in Colorado and Washington, but most of those efforts are considered unlikely of success this year.

The allure of tax revenues is also becoming a powerful selling point in some states, particularly after Gov. John W. Hickenlooper of Colorado said last week that taxes from legal marijuana sales would be $134 million in the coming fiscal year, much higher than had been predicted when the measure was passed in 2012....

Opponents of legalization, meanwhile, are mobilizing across the country to slow the momentum, keeping a sharp eye on Colorado for any problems in the rollout of the new law there. “Legalization almost had to happen in order for people to wake up and realize they don’t want it,” Mr. Sabet said. “In a strange way, we feel legalization in a few states could be a blessing.”...

While much of the recent attention has focused on these legalization efforts, medical marijuana may also cross what its backers consider an important threshold this year — most notably in the South where Alabama, Georgia and South Carolina are among the states considering such laws....

Election data, compiled by Just Say Now, a pro-marijuana group, showed that the percentage of the vote that came from people under 30 increased significantly from 2008 to 2012 in states that had marijuana initiatives. This youth vote, predominantly Democratic, rose to 20 percent from 14 percent in Colorado, and to 22 percent from 10 percent in Washington, both far above the 1 percent rise in the national youth vote....

A narrow majority of Americans — 51 percent — believe marijuana should be legal, according to a New York Times/CBS News poll conducted last week, matching the result in a CBS News poll the previous month. In 1979, when The Times and CBS first asked the question, only 27 percent wanted cannabis legalized. There were stark differences in the new poll, though. While 72 percent of people under 30 favored legalization, only 29 percent of those over 65 agreed.  And while about a third of Republicans now favored legalization, this was far below the 60 percent of Democrats and 54 percent of independents who did so....

Mason Tvert, director of communications for the Marijuana Policy Project, a leading advocate for legalizing marijuana, said campaigns were already underway to stage aggressive legalization drives in several states over the next couple of years, including Arizona, California, Maine, Massachusetts, Nevada, and possibly Montana. “It is certainly important to maintain the momentum,” Mr. Tvert said,  “But I don’t think we can look at any one election cycle and see what the future holds. This is going to be a multiyear effort.”

I do not disagree with the general view that 2014 is a "watershed year" concerning discussion and debate over marijuana reform (and this was one big reason I developed a taught a seminar on the topic at my law school last Fall). But, as the title of this post highlights, I have come to believe that a much broader set of social and political forces help account for modern marijuana reform movement. The forces include, inter alia, a growing distrust of all government among both left-leaning and right-leaning opinion leaders over the last 15 years, growing evidence that the many aspects of the drug war may do more harm than some drugs, the failure of Big Pharma to provide effective pain relief (without too many side effects) to many who suffer from a range of serious medial problems, and changing labor and economic realities that change to cost/benefit realities of pot prohibition versus pot regulation.

I am happy to see the front-page of the NY Times discuss the various 2014 short-term realities that may impact marijuana reform over the next few years. But I would be especially eager to hear from readers concerning what they think are broader social and political forces that will shape these stories over the next few decades.

Cross-posted at Marijuana Law, Policy and Reform

February 27, 2014 in Drug Offense Sentencing, Marijuana Legalization in the States, Pot Prohibition Issues, Preparing for pot professing | Permalink | Comments (6) | TrackBack

Wednesday, February 26, 2014

Two notable new commentaries via HuffPost

Though they both both likely merit their own posts, I will have to be content on this busy hump-day afternoon to just provide links to, and recommend folks read in full, these two new commentary pieces at The Huffington Post:

February 26, 2014 in Drug Offense Sentencing, Marijuana Legalization in the States, Scope of Imprisonment, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack

Monday, February 24, 2014

Attention 2016 Prez candidates: new poll says 87% in Ohio support use of medical marijuana

One of many reasons I thought Colorado's 2012 vote to legalize marijuana was such a big deal is because the Mile High state is something of a swing state in the national race for President and thus all 2016 candidate for Prez will need to have a somewhat more refined message on marijuana come the next national election than other recent candidates.  Additional reasons why would-be candidates for the Oval Office need to start working on their pot platform has emerged today via this new about a new poll from the ultimate swing state:

Ohio voters overwhelmingly approve of medicinal marijuana and narrowly support same-sex marriage, according to a poll released Monday.

A Quinnipiac University poll of Ohio voters found 87 percent support the use of medical marijuana while only 11 percent oppose. Ohio voters also narrowly approve of allowing adults to possess small amounts of the drug for personal use -- 51 percent in favor, 44 percent opposed. Two medical marijuana proposals are in the works, but it's unclear whether either will collect the more-than 385,000 signatures of valid Ohio voters required to put the issue before voters in November.

Twenty states and Washington, D.C. allow for medical marijuana programs and Colorado and Washington voters gave the green light for legal recreational use in 2012. Ohio voters say Colorado's legalization is bad for the state's image, with 37 percent of those polled saying it helps the state.

Peter A. Brown, assistant director of the Quinnipiac University Polling Institute, said Ohioans' views of marijuana are complicated. "Twice as many voters think alcohol is more dangerous than marijuana, and about half the state's voters think the two are equally harmful," Brown said in a statement.

Support is strongest among voters age 18 to 29, who approve of personal marijuana use 72 percent to 25 percent, but boomers and Gen-Xers say they've tried marijuana at a higher rate than younger voters.  More than half of Ohio voters -- 55 percent -- say they've never tried marijuana.

The poll surveyed 1,370 registered Ohio voters from Feb. 12-17 on land lines and cell phones, and the poll had a margin of error of plus or minus 2.7 percentage points.

For a bunch of reasons, I think all polling numbers concerning views on marijuana are subject to lots of "noise" based on how the poll questions are posed. And, of course, at least until the 2014 mid-term elections take place, it is way too early to make too many predictions about 2016 candidates and issues. Nevertheless, these latest poll numbers from Ohio reinforce my view that the 2016 Prez campaign is sure to have a lot more serious and sophisticated discussion of federal marijuana laws, policies and practices than any other election cycle in memory.

Cross-posted at Marijuana Law, Policy and Reform

February 24, 2014 in Marijuana Legalization in the States, Pot Prohibition Issues | Permalink | Comments (6) | TrackBack

Saturday, February 22, 2014

Another weekend review of news and notes from the modern marijuana movement

I have not done a round up for posts from Marijuana Law, Policy and Reform in a few weeks, so here goes:

UPDATE: This new lengthy Washington Post piece provides some historical perspective on all the modern developments discussed above. The piece is headlined "Marijuana’s rising acceptance comes after many failures. Is it now legalization’s time?," and here are its final two paragraphs:

As the rhetorical battle continues and politicians remain cautious about speaking out on marijuana, the facts on the ground are changing fast. The Cannabis Cup, an open-air marketplace the size of two football fields in the San Bernardino Valley, featured open consumption of pot-infused sodas, candies and cookies and displays of whole marijuana plants — staged with virtually no controversy.

“Generations coming up now don’t see what the big deal is,” says Brian Wansolich, 39, wearing a white coat emblazoned with the logo of his online cannabis ratings service, Leafly. “My parents still have moral problems with it, but now they see we can tax this and get states out of trouble. It’s the American way.”

February 22, 2014 in Drug Offense Sentencing, Marijuana Legalization in the States, Pot Prohibition Issues | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack

Friday, February 21, 2014

How might opponents of marijuana reform want Colorado to spend its $100 million in new annual tax revenue?

The question in the title of this post is prompted by the notable tax revenue news emerging from Colorado as reported in this New York Times piece headlined "Colorado Expects to Reap Tax Bonanza From Legal Marijuana Sales." Here are the basics (with some of the existing state spending plans highlighted):

For Colorado’s new flock of recreational marijuana growers and sellers, Thursday was Tax Day — their first deadline to hand over the taxes they had collected during their inaugural month of sales. And as store owners stuffed cash into lockboxes and made the nervous trek to government offices, new budget numbers predicted that those marijuana taxes could add more than $100 million a year to state coffers, far more than earlier estimates.

The figures offered one of the first glimpses into how the bustling market for recreational marijuana was beginning to reshape government bottom lines — an important question as marijuana advocates push to expand legalization beyond Colorado and Washington State into states including Arizona, Alaska and Oregon.

In Colorado, where recreational sales began on Jan. 1 with hourlong waits, a budget proposal from Gov. John W. Hickenlooper estimated that the state’s marijuana industry could reach $1 billion in sales in the next fiscal year, with recreational sales making up about $610 million of that business. “It’s well on its way to being a billion-dollar industry,” said Michael Elliott, executive director of the Marijuana Industry Group, a Colorado trade association. “We went from 110,000 medical marijuana patients to four billion people in the world who are 21 and up.”

In the budget proposal that Mr. Hickenlooper released Wednesday, his office said the state could collect about $134 million in taxes from recreational and medical marijuana for the fiscal year beginning in July. He proposed to spend $99 million on programs including substance-abuse treatment, preventing marijuana use by children and teenagers, public health and law enforcement.  “This package represents a strong yet cautious first step toward ensuring a safe and responsible regulatory environment,” Mr. Hickenlooper wrote in the proposal.

In Washington, where retail sales of marijuana are expected to begin in June, budget forecasters estimated Wednesday that marijuana could bring the state nearly $190 million in taxes for the four years beginning in the middle of 2015. That money would go to a variety of health and substance-abuse programs, and the state’s general fund. “Every governor and legislator in the country will be like, ‘Hey, check out these numbers,’ ” said Reuven Carlyle, a Democratic state lawmaker from Seattle who is chairman of the House Finance Committee.

For marijuana advocates, taxes were one of the major selling points of legalization. They have said that expanding the market for the federally prohibited plant could give states money for school construction, health care, substance-abuse programs and public health. Colorado’s legalization measure said $40 million in tax revenue would go toward school construction, and in November, voters across this otherwise tax-averse state overwhelmingly approved 25 percent taxes on recreational marijuana.

But opponents, and some skeptical economists, say the dreams of a windfall are far too optimistic. They worry that the higher costs of enforcement and regulation could outweigh any tax revenue from marijuana sales.

Officials in Colorado and Washington warned that the marijuana revenue numbers were only their best guesses for the moment and could shift, depending on marijuana prices, demand, the number of cities that prohibit marijuana retailers and other factors. In Washington, where retail sales have not begun, Mr. Carlyle said it was far too early to say how marijuana might affect the state’s pocketbook.

As this article suggests, it is likely far too early to assume that Colorado can expect to reap $100 million in extra tax revenues every year in the future. But it is now plainly not too early to start a robust discussion — in which I want marijuana reform opponents to play a leading role — about the best ways for the new state tax revenue from marijuana legalization to be used.

Given the limited evidence of success for youth drug education programs like DARE, I am not sure it is wise to invest too much of the new state money on programming to prevent marijuana use by children and teenagers. But I do think spending more money on law enforcement and public health and substance-abuse programs is a great idea, and I would expect that some very significant public safety (and other) benefits ought to be achievable with $100 million in extra tax revenues to spend on such programming.

I suspect fierce opponents of marijuana reform have a much different perspective than I have about the needs of a state like Colorado and its local communities as it move forward with its experiments in ending pot prohibition. Ergo, I am genuinely hopeful that readers deeply concerned with what is unfolding in Colorado and Washington and other states will express their views on how communities ought to be using its new tax revenues.

February 21, 2014 in Marijuana Legalization in the States, Pot Prohibition Issues, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (10) | TrackBack

Tuesday, February 18, 2014

Could marijuana reforms end up making our roadways much safer?

The question in the title of this post might be a bit of foolish wishful thinking on my part, but these passages from this notable new New York Times article provides the foundation for my (undue?) optimism:

[S]cience’s answers to crucial questions about driving while stoned — how dangerous it is, how to test for impairment, and how the risks compare to driving drunk — have been slow to reach the general public.  “Our goal is to put out the science and have it used for evidence-based drug policy,” said Marilyn A. Huestis, a senior investigator at the National Institute on Drug Abuse.  “But I think it’s a mishmash.”

A 2007 study found that 12 percent of the drivers randomly stopped on American highways on Friday and Saturday nights had been drinking.  (In return for taking part in the study, intoxicated drivers were told they would not be arrested, just taken home.)  Six percent of the drivers tested positive for marijuana — a number that is likely to go up with increased availability.  Some experts and officials are concerned that the campaign against drunken driving has not gotten through to marijuana smokers.

“We’ve done phone surveys, and we’re hearing that a lot of people think D.U.I. laws don’t apply to marijuana,” said Glenn Davis, highway safety manager at the Department of Transportation in Colorado, where recreational marijuana use became legal on Jan. 1. “And there’s always somebody who says, ‘I drive better while high.’ ”

Evidence suggests that is not the case. But it also suggests that we may not have as much to fear from stoned driving as from drunken driving.  Some researchers say that limited resources are better applied to continuing to reduce drunken driving.  Stoned driving, they say, is simply less dangerous.

Still, it is clear that marijuana use causes deficits that affect driving ability, Dr. Huestis said.  She noted that several researchers, working independently of one another, have come up with the same estimate: a twofold increase in the risk of an accident if there is any measurable amount of THC in the bloodstream....

The estimate is low, however, compared with the dangers of drunken driving. A recent study of federal crash data found that 20-year-old drivers with a blood-alcohol content of 0.08 percent — the legal limit for driving — had an almost 20-fold increase in the risk of a fatal accident compared with sober drivers. For older adults, up to age 34, the increase was ninefold.

The study’s lead author, Eduardo Romano, a senior research scientist at the Pacific Institute for Research and Evaluation, said that once he adjusted for demographics and the presence of alcohol, marijuana did not statistically increase the risk of a crash. “Despite our results, I still think that marijuana contributes to crash risk,” he said, “only that its contribution is not as important as it was expected.”

The difference in risk between marijuana and alcohol can probably be explained by two things, Dr. Huestis and Dr. Romano both say. First, stoned drivers drive differently from drunken ones, and they have different deficits. Drunken drivers tend to drive faster than normal and to overestimate their skills, studies have shown; the opposite is true for stoned drivers. “The joke with that is Cheech and Chong being arrested for doing 20 on the freeway,” said Mark A. R. Kleiman, a professor of public policy at the U.C.L.A. School of Public Affairs....

Another factor is location. A lot of drinking is done in bars and clubs, away from home, with patrons driving to get there and then leaving by car. By contrast, marijuana smokers tend to get high at home....

All of these facts lead experts like Dr. Romano and Dr. Kleiman to believe that public resources are better spent combating drunken driving. Stoned driving, they say, is best dealt with by discouraging people from mixing marijuana and alcohol — a combination that is even riskier than alcohol alone — and by policies that minimize marijuana’s risk on the road.

For instance, states that legalize recreational marijuana, Dr. Kleiman said, should ban establishments like pot bars that encourage people to smoke away from home. And Dr. Romano said that lowering the legal blood-alcohol concentration, or B.A.C., to 0.05 or even 0.02 percent would reduce risk far more effectively than any effort to curb stoned driving. “I’m not saying marijuana is safe,” he said. “But to me it’s clear that lowering the B.A.C. should be our top priority. That policy would save more lives.”

My supposition based on this article that marijuana reforms could end up making our roadways much safer is a result of two potential impacts of ending pot prohibition: (1) if marijuana reform leads a number of people who would generally go get drunk at a bar to instead now just get stoned at home, the net effect will be safer roads, and (2) if enduring concerns about the impact of marijuana reform leads more policy-makers to focus on highway harms, we might see a greater effort to get much tougher on the enduring public safety disaster that is drinking and driving.

I am not expecting that we will get strong evidence that marijuana reforms end up making our roadways much safer anytime soon, but I am hopeful that researchers like Dr. Romano and Dr. Kleiman continue to stress that our modern alcohol policies and practices now impact highway safety much more than any marijuana reforms are likely to do. And, as these related recent articles also highlight, the media so far is doing a pretty good job defusing the risk of misguided reefer madness when it comes to driving under the influence:

Cross-posted at Marijuana Law, Policy and Reform

February 18, 2014 in Marijuana Legalization in the States, Offense Characteristics, Pot Prohibition Issues, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing | Permalink | Comments (7) | TrackBack