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June 11, 2010

How can and should we assess the "success" of medical marijuana and pot prohibition reform efforts?

Frequent blog commentor Bill Otis has a notable and curious post here at Crime & Consequences that references this new AP article in which "Montana Gov. Brian Schweitzer says legalization of medical marijuana has not worked out as voters planned, and agrees the state needs a legislative fix."  This AP piece goes on to explain that Montana's "medical marijuana law has become one of the hottest topics facing lawmakers as the state deals with an explosion in the number of patients, caregivers and growers."  According to Bill, this story demonstrates "[o]ne of the myths of pot legalization (first for so-called medical purposes, then for any purpose) ... that life gets better after it's done."

I was intrigued and troubled by Bill's quick conclusion that the AP report suggested that life was now worse in Montana because of the state's medical marijuana reforms.  Especially if one sees pot use as comparable to alcohol use, an "explosion" of the number of persons legally using pot (and thereby creating a legitimate and taxable industry instead of a problematic black market) seems like evidence that life is getting better.  Indeed, digging around a bit, I found some other media discussions of Montana's marijuana issues (see local editorial and pieces from NPR and Drug War Chronicle), and it seems that the big problem in Montana is not legalization, but very poor regulation under existing law. 

Indeed, I spent some time checking out out the website of a Montana group called Safe Communities, Safe Kids that is seeking to repeal the state's medical marijuana law, and I had a very hard time finding any evidence that life is worse in Montana because of the state's medical marijuana reforms (unless one believes that having any "patients, caregivers and growers" of marijuana necessarily makes the state worse off).  A key theme of the anti-pot forces seems to be that legalization allows kids to have a chance to access pot.  But, again, if one sees pot use as comparable to alcohol use, I have a hard time seeing the big deal.  All kids in Montana and elsewhere have a ample opportunity to access alcohol (and tobacco and guns and knives and rat poison lots of other dangerous legal stuff), but we generally seek to deal with these concern of access through sensible regulations, not through categorical prohibitions.

The deeper issue that goes beyond the debate in Montana, as suggested by the title of this post, is just how we can and should assess the "success" of medical marijuana and related pot reform and decrminalization efforts.  If most people continue to consider the "wicked weed" truly wicked, then there will be persistent claims that pot reform has made life worse because more people will have legal and ready access to pot.  But unless and until these same people can effectively assert and establish that the life has been worse in America since we repealed alcohol Prohibition, I think it is important to be a bit more thoughtful and critical when seeking to assess and/or criticize the consequences of on-going marijuana reform efforts.

Some related posts:

June 11, 2010 at 11:42 AM | Permalink


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The idea that ending a medical marijuana program will somehow keep marijuana out of kids' hands is laughable. When I was a kid, growing up in a conservative, Bible-belt state, marijuana was exponentially easier to get that alcohol, which was pretty easy to get itself. This was decades before the idea of medical marijuana occurred to anyone. Don't kid yourself; prohibitionists have a visceral objection to marijuana that's grounded more in religious or moral belief than science or logic.

Personally speaking, like virtually all of my peers, I smoked marijuana in high school and college with no ill effects (other than some increased consumption of Doritos). Can't think of a single person I know who's been negatively effected, either.

Posted by: FRS | Jun 11, 2010 12:14:10 PM

I might be an outlier, but I did not have ready access of marijuana in high school. This was in the 1980s in a NE major city. My parents let me drink alcohol when I was under 21 and even let me purchase the stuff when I wasn't carded. No such easy use of pot. Likewise, I can drink at home now; smoking would very likely get the attention of my landlord, who would simply not approve. Prohibition did keep alcohol away from many people, and criminalization does to some extent keep marijuana away from kids.

This doesn't justify prohibition. I don't know the numbers, but a reasonable guess would be that a majority of kids do have pretty easy access. The limited value of keeping it away -- many laws have limited deterrence value but we still have them -- does not justify all the negative problems of marijuana prohibition.

But, I still think the "well everyone gets it anyways" argument is at times overblown.

Posted by: Joe | Jun 11, 2010 12:43:09 PM

Bill needs to go to Amsterdam and smoke some legal weed. Then he can go to a legal brothel and get laid. No, I am not suggesting that life gets better after it's done. But is not too bad while it is going on. A little thing our founding fathers might call the "pursuit of happiness" -- not that you actually achieve happiness.

Posted by: Z | Jun 11, 2010 2:17:03 PM


Small correction: marijuana is not legal in Amsterdam--the law just isn't enforced against average people. The only time someone is ever arrested for using marijuana is if the police want to nail him on something else, but don't yet have evidence to support it, or if the person using is causing public discord (which I imagine only happens if "The Wall" is being projected on a building face).

Which leads me to my next point: why can't America do something sensible like this? True, pot is illegal--but why arrest someone who is harmlessly smoking it in a field or in his home? Seems to me that Amsterdam has found a happy medium--only enforce the law when public safety requires it. Novel concept...

Posted by: Res ipsa | Jun 11, 2010 2:43:18 PM

My problem with Bill's logic is that weed like most drugs treat symptoms not the underlying cause.

One could say that the myth of most drug use, other than anitbiotics, is that life gets better after it's done.

If I quit taking Claritin my allergies reappear.
If I quit getting high my stressors come to the forefront.

On the other hand, a full course of anitboitcs will hoepfully cure any STD's I get at the Amsterdam brothel.

Posted by: Z | Jun 11, 2010 3:30:26 PM

Z --

"Bill needs to go to Amsterdam and smoke some legal weed. Then he can go to a legal brothel and get laid. No, I am not suggesting that life gets better after it's done. But is not too bad while it is going on. A little thing our founding fathers might call the "pursuit of happiness" -- not that you actually achieve happiness."

Maybe I should do heroin too, since, as you say, it's "not too bad while it is going on."

Still, I think I'll pass. Ditto with the brothel.

Posted by: Bill Otis | Jun 11, 2010 5:41:19 PM

Res ipsa --

The laws against dope in this country are also given quite spotty enforcement. Basically, if you're in your own house with your friends, my guess is that your chances of getting arrested are less than one-one hundreth of one percent. Or, to put it another way, essentially zero. In almost 20 years in the USAO, I do not recall a single case in which a person in the circumstances I described was arrested for dope.

If you're smoking a joint in public and on public property, you're asking for it.

I'm always amazed that people who readily see that long term consumption of tobacco is unhealthy refuse to see that similar long term consumption of dope (i.e., smoking joints) is also unhealthy.

It is quite true that society does not criminalize all unhealthy products. This is scarcely a reason to remove existing impediments to those that are (sort of) criminalized so that we can increase access to unhealthy stuff as much as possible.

There is a reason parents are unhappy when they find out their kids are doing drugs, and it's only partly about the strictly legal risks. It's more about their health and the direction of their lives.

Posted by: Bill Otis | Jun 11, 2010 5:55:56 PM

Z writes, "On the other hand, a full course of antibiotics will hopefully cure any STD's I get at the Amsterdam brothel."

When did you take sex ed, Z? 1969? There are multiple STD's now for which antibiotics are ineffective.

Posted by: Kent Scheidegger | Jun 11, 2010 6:15:12 PM

"A key theme of the anti-pot forces seems to be that legalization allows kids to have a chance to access pot."

When I was in high school, finding someone to buy alcohol for me was usually a fairly difficult task. Finding someone to sell me marijuana was never a problem.

Posted by: JC | Jun 11, 2010 6:19:46 PM

I just purchased the recently published book - Last Call-The Rise and Fall of Prohibition by Daniel Okrent. I think there may be some parallels to marijuana prohibition that may be illustrated in this work.

There is one element in marijuana prohibition that was not present during prohibition - that is the vast expansion of law enforcement and prosecution during the last three decades. Anyway, I know it will be a good read.

Posted by: beth | Jun 11, 2010 7:42:10 PM

The lawyer is so stupid. He legalizes tobacco and alcohol, and kills 500,000 middle aged people each year at peak of skill and responsibility. Alcohol causes half of all crime, especially pointless violent crime, with half the perps legally drunk, and half the victims legally drunk. It wastes at least a third of the health care bill.

He outlaws marijuana that kills what, dozens of people or hundreds of people. He funds narco-terrorists. He wastes $billions on the hunt for the productive male marijuana grower, seller, and user. We could have tobacco companies make $billions on marijuana, and collecting $billions in taxes instead.

Isn't it time to fire this lawyer moron from all policy positions?

Then test two conditions in two counties.

Apply the 3 B's to all tobacco and alcohol use, see what happens to the health costs, crime rates, economic productivity, accidents, and general quality of life. The 3 B's to apply to the users of alcohol and cigarettes are, 2 beatings and a bullet. There may be unintended consequences if people are totally intimidated into ending their alcohol and tobacco uses. For example, as people get very healthy, do not have accidents, do not get murdered, half of mental illness is averted, and massive unemployment in the health field follows. They never die, and pension costs, nursing home costs soar out of control. Extremely annoying averted murder victims now breed like bunnies and overwhelm the schools with defective spawn. Who knows, the county may become healthier but beg for the return of the bad old days.

In another matched county, let her rip. All adults may use any substance they please, and these are taxed. The prisons are emptied, the narco-terrorists cartels are defunded. Government grows fat off its take of taxes on addictive substances. People die young, but have fun.

Then apply the lessons learned to two matching states, and then go national.

The moron, totally irresponsible lawyer wants to enact the laws, then do the experiment.

Posted by: Supremacy Claus | Jun 11, 2010 9:15:42 PM

Jonathan Eig - the former writer for the Wall Street Journal has written a new book Get Capone. It may show some similarities in the violence that was a by product of prohibition and violence resulting from the War on Drugs. There is also the added component of the corruption of Law Enforcement and political graft.

Posted by: beth | Jun 12, 2010 11:25:24 AM

An effective alternative to kicking in doors and destroying lives exists if the goal is really just to discourage marijuana use (as opposed to sustaining burgeoning criminal-justice jobs programs and asset-seizure revenue).

It's called education. Teach kids about the health risks of using marijuana, if any, and fewer children will use it...IF they believe the information they're being given is accurate and honestly presented.

The killer-weed, gateway-drug nonsense many of us were exposed to long ago was largely ineffective because it was obviously bogus.

Warnings about heroin (getting hooked, needing fixes, actual video of users going through withdrawal), on the other hand, had the ring of truth. It scared the hell out of me and virtually every friend with whom I ever shared a joint during and after college.

Bill says there's only a small chance of getting busted using pot in your living room. Maybe. But since the only thing separating lots of typical American citizens from misery and ruin is an ill-informed or malicious tip to police, the potential downsides of taking the risk are nightmarish.

Tips (good or bad) scuttle Bill of Rights protections. And once inside a "suspect's" home, it's a poor cop/agent that can't find a violation of some sort (on Harvey Silverglate's plausible "Three-Felonies-a-Day" premise) so as to not have to leave empty-handed...plus they get to steal (seize) your stuff.

All for a substance virtually everyone but rear-guard scolds has acknowledged is a mostly harmless stress-reducer.

Posted by: John K | Jun 12, 2010 12:36:23 PM

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