Stirring the Pot: California’s Proposition 19

Mary Jane. Pot. Weed. Chronic. No matter what name you give to it, marijuana remains at the center of drug policy in the United States. No other illicit drug is as controversial or causes as many schisms in the treatment and advocacy communities. In California this November, voters will cast a ballot that could have a substantial impact on the future of this policy. According to California’s official voter guide Website, Proposition 19 legalizes marijuana under California, but not federal, law. It permits local governments to regulate and tax commercial production, distribution and sale of marijuana.

According to the same Website, the fiscal effects of this measure could vary substantially depending on: (1) the extent to which the federal government continues to enforce federal marijuana laws and (2) whether the state and local governments choose to authorize, regulate and tax various marijuana-related activities. There could be savings of potentially several tens of millions of dollars annually to the state and local governments on the costs of incarcerating and supervising certain marijuana offenders.

Marijuana is classified by the Drug Enforcement Agency as a schedule 1 narcotic, the same classification given to cocaine, heroin and methamphetamine. In 1936 the Federal Bureau of Narcotics (FBN) noticed an increase of reports of people smoking marijuana, which further increased in 1937. The Bureau drafted a legislative plan for Congress, seeking a new law, and the head of the FBN, Harry J. Anslinger, ran a campaign against marijuana. During this particular time frame, the media was swarmed with propaganda regarding the effects of marijuana. Anslinger devised advertisements and commercials to inform the public of the believed side effects of marijuana. Citizens who were high on marijuana were portrayed as crazy, insane, suicidal, had murderous intentions and the like, according to the propaganda.

Blatant racism was also a factor in creating policy. As Anslinger once wrote, “There are 100,000 total marijuana smokers in the U.S., and most are Negroes, Hispanics, Filipinos and entertainers. Their Satanic music, jazz and swing, result from marijuana usage. This marijuana causes white women to seek sexual relations with Negroes, entertainers and any others.” Disregarding the scientific research on the subject and the falsified claims, the Marijuana Tax Act passed in 1937 quickly and with little debate and no opposition in Congress.

According to SAMHSA’s most recent National Survey on Drug Use & Health, released just this September, marijuana was the most commonly used illicit drug (15.2 million past-month users). The survey also found that among 12 to 17 year olds, marijuana use increased by 9 percent — going from 6.7 percent in 2008 to 7.3 percent in 2009. Consider these numbers in context: Among persons aged 12 or older, the rate of past-month marijuana use in 2008 (6.1 percent) was similar to the rate in 2007 (5.8 percent). The rate of current marijuana use among youths aged 12 to 17 decreased from 8.2 percent in 2002 to 6.7 percent in 2006 and remained unchanged at 6.7 percent in 2007 and 2008. So the increase in marijuana use from 2008 to 2009 is especially poignant.

Monitoring the Future, the nation’s largest and most cited longitudinal study on substance use in children, is funded by the National Institute on Drug Abuse and conducted by Dr. Lloyd Johnston and his team at the University of Michigan. According to the most recent results, marijuana use among American adolescents has been increasing gradually over the past two years (three years among 12th graders) following years of declining use, according to the latest Monitoring the Future study, which has been tracking drug use among U.S. teens since 1975.

“So far, we have not seen any dramatic rise in marijuana use, but the upward trending of the past two or three years stands in stark contrast to the steady decline that preceded it for nearly a decade,’’ said Johnston, the study’s principal investigator, last December. “Not only is use rising, but a key belief about the degree of risk associated with marijuana use has been in decline among young people even longer, and the degree to which teens disapprove of use of the drug has recently begun to decline. Changes in these beliefs and attitudes are often very influential in driving changes in use.” The proportion of young people using any illicit drug is also up slightly over the past two years. This measure is driven largely by marijuana use, because marijuana is the most widely used of all illicit drugs.

The Drug Policy Alliance is one of the chief supporters of Proposition 19. “Prop. 19 would reduce racial disparities in California’s criminal justice system by taking away a major excuse for law enforcement to search, harass and arrest young black and brown men; weaken Mexican drug cartels by taking away their profits; and allow marijuana to be controlled, regulated and taxed,” said Bill Piper, Director of National Policy for the Drug Policy Alliance. “While some marijuana users become dependent on the drug — about 9% — it is safer and less addictive than alcohol or tobacco. Most importantly, repealing marijuana prohibition would end the practice of destroying people’s lives by branding them criminals for nothing more than using marijuana. The war on marijuana has become a means of disenfranchising communities of color, allowing the facade of a marijuana arrest to be used to legally discriminate against people of color in housing, employment and public assistance. Instead of wasting billions of dollars arresting and incarcerating people for marijuana, the U.S. should spend that money on treatment for the small number of marijuana consumers who need it.”

The California Society of Addiction Medicine is in a unique position: It takes no official position on Prop. 19, but wants Californians to look at the research before they make up their minds on how to vote. Dr. Timmen Cermak is president of the California Society of Addiction Medicine, and has written extensively on the issue. Cermak represents the doctors who specialize in the treatment of drug abuse, including alcohol. CSAMS is committed to combining science and compassion to treat our patients, support their families and educate public policy makers. Less than one-third of the Society of Addiction Medicine’s 400 physician members believe prison deters substance abuse. Most believe addiction can be remedied more effectively by the universal availability of treatment.

According to the FBI, nearly half — 750,000 — of all drug arrests in 2008 in the United States were for marijuana possession, not sales or trafficking. Cermak believes Prop. 19 does offer a way out of these ineffective drug policies. However, two-thirds of CSAM members believe legalizing marijuana would increase addiction and increase marijuana’s availability to adolescents and children. A recent Rand Corp. study estimates that Prop. 19 would produce a 58-percent increase in annual marijuana consumption in California, raising the number of individuals meeting clinical criteria for marijuana abuse or dependence by 305,000, to a total of 830,000. Marijuana is addicting to 9 percent of people who begin smoking at 18 years or older. Withdrawal symptoms — irritability, anxiety, sleep disturbances — often contribute to relapse. Because adolescent brains are still developing, marijuana use before 18 results in higher rates of addiction — up to 17 percent within two years — and disruption to an individual’s life. The younger the use, the greater the risk.

Cermak asserts that Prop. 19 erroneously states that marijuana “is not physically addictive.” This myth has been scientifically proven to be untrue. CSAM believes that Prop. 19 asks Californians to officially accept this myth. Public health policy already permits some addictive substances to be legal — for instance, alcohol, nicotine and caffeine. Cermak asks that if Californians decide to legalize marijuana, who will pay for the additional treatments that will be needed? If marijuana is legalized, a truly fair, socially just public policy would use tax revenue from marijuana sales to pay for increased treatments. The Society of Addiction Medicine strongly recommends that, if marijuana is legalized, restrictions must minimize access for anyone younger than 21, and a tax on revenues must be directed to treatment.

Many who represent the treatment community are staunchly opposed to Prop 19. “We agree with the stance of the California Society of Addiction Medicine,” said Warren Daniels, Founder and President of CFAAP, the California Foundation for the Advancement of Addiction Professionals. “If the public decides to try legalization as an alternative strategy, it would be well advised to be aware of the addictive nature of marijuana and to be prepared to create an effective public health, prevention and treatment response to what will undoubtedly be an increase in marijuana use.”

The Community Anti-Drug Coalitions of America, a very influential voice in federal drug policy and prevention, has also weighed in on the issue. “With national data already showing softening attitudes and across-the-board increases for drug use — particularly marijuana, which increased in all grades according to a recent survey — this is not a message we can afford to send to California or the rest of America’s youth,” said Gen. Arthur T. Dean, CADCA Chairman and CEO, in a recent press release. “Marijuana already costs the United States $181 billion annually in increased health care and treatment costs, crime and lost productivity. So any revenue gained by taxing marijuana would be far outweighed by the health care and criminal justice costs to the state.”

Even law enforcement organizations are split on this issue. Those groups opposed to Proposition 19 include the California District Attorneys Association, and the California Police Chiefs Association, Yes on 19’s endorsements include that of the National Black Police Association. “At each step of my law enforcement career — from beat officer up to chief of police in two major American cities — I saw the futility of our marijuana prohibition laws,” said Joseph McNamara, former police chief in San Jose and Kansas City, MO, now a speaker for Law Enforcement Against Prohibition (LEAP). “But our marijuana laws are much worse than ineffective: they waste valuable police resources and also create a lucrative black market that funds cartels and criminal gangs with billions of tax-free dollars.”

For the most part, members of Congress, even from California, have been silent on the issue. Perhaps because it is a state issue that politicians are hesitant to interfere with, perhaps because the issue is so closely contested. Whatever the reason, California’s congressional delegation has taken a pass on getting involved. The lone exception seems to be Senator Diane Feinstein, who called Proposition 19 “a jumbled legal nightmare that will make our highways, our workplaces and our communities less safe.”

Other federal policymakers have expressed their disapproval. Not surprisingly, the Office of National Drug Control Policy is in opposition. Gil Kerlikowske, John Walters, Barry McCaffrey, Lee Brown, Bob Martinez and William Bennett were directors of the Office of National Drug Control Policy in the administrations of Presidents Obama, George W. Bush, Bill Clinton and George H.W. Bush, respectively. In an op/ed piece in the Los Angeles Times, they cite that no country in the world has legalized marijuana to the extent envisioned by Proposition 19, so it would be impossible to predict precisely the consequences of wholesale legalization. They also express concern over increased social costs.

A chief concern of these experts is highway safety. They cited a 2004 meta-analysis published in the journal Drug and Alcohol Review of studies conducted in several localities showed that between 4 percent and 14 percent of drivers who sustained injuries or died in traffic accidents tested positive for delta-9-tetrahydrocannabinol, or THC, the active ingredient in marijuana. Because marijuana negatively affects drivers’ judgment, motor skills and reaction time, it would stand to reason that legalizing marijuana would lead to more accidents and fatalities involving drivers under its influence. The authors closed the op/ed by citing the bi-partisan effort it took to produce the piece.

All polls have reported this vote going down to the wire, and the result is sure to influence future policy. Regardless of the result, advocates on both side of the issue have taken this opportunity to educate the public. In the end, however, it is almost certain that the courts will have the final word, as state and federal laws are bound to conflict.

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