Washington’s and Colorado’s marijuana legalization schemes are no model for California

Washington’s and Colorado’s marijuana legalization schemes are no model for California

November 14, 2012

Though widely celebrated by progressive drug-policy reform groups, Colorado’s Amendment 64 and Washington state’s Initiative 502 approved by voters “to regulate marijuana like alcohol” represent discriminatory approaches Californians should not emulate.

In fact, California’s current marijuana regulation design under SB 1449 is better than offered by Colorado or Washington. In particular, Washington’s marijuana legalization framework is flawed, containing several provisions that create more public dangers and threaten the state’s teenagers and children—but not in ways that drug-war lobbies claim.

The problem is not that these initiatives will stimulate more pot smoking. The sparse evidence, mainly from surveys by The Netherlands’ Trimbos Institute, indicates that at most, legalization may accompany modest, non-troubling increases in marijuana use among both teens and adults–results which may not apply here in any case.

The problem, if alcohol legalization is any teacher, is that adults’ legal puffing will generate an intensified police and political war against younger marijuana users. Since Colorado’s and Washington’s initiatives only legalize marijuana use by those age 21 and older, “regulating marijuana like alcohol” would not “end marijuana prohibition,” as legalizers claim. Half of the Americans arrested for pot possession, including 53% in California, in 2010 were under age 21.

The Marijuana Arrest Research Project’s report on Washington state found “serious consequences” of arrest for possessing a small amount of marijuana, including mandatory jailing for up to 90 days, revoked driving privileges, and potential “out of pocket expenses total(ing) more than $5,000.” These findings buttress claims by legalization lobbies that for most marijuana users, getting arrested for pot is more harmful than the drug itself. Yet, they are willing to continue to see young people harmed by arrest—and worse.

Both sides ignore the overarching reality that Americans of all ages abuse both legal and illegal intoxicants at levels far beyond those of every other Western country. The official “War on Drugs, backed by tens of millions of arrests and millions of imprisonments over the last 25 years in a futile crusade to prohibit use of certain drugs, has been a catastrophic failure. Drug abuse has skyrocketed to become the United States’ leading cause of premature death (topping 40,000 in 2011), now exceeding traffic crashes, guns, murders, and AIDS. Violence by illegal-drug marketers remains epidemic in many inner cities.

However, marijuana legalizers’ argument that alcohol regulation is the model for regulation of other drugs is equally flawed. American policies governing adults’ legal alcohol privileges also have had disastrous consequences. The deadliest are the hundreds of thousands of drunken driving crashes caused by grownups every year.

Children and teenagers pay a heavy price for adults’ legal, “regulated” alcohol. Over the last decade, 8,000 children and teenagers under age 21 were killed, an additional 800,000 were injured, and 2.5 million suffered traffic crashescaused by grownups of legal drinking ages 21 and older, Fatality Analysis Reporting System data show.Drunken driving by over-21 grownups is the fifth leading cause of death to American teenagers ages 15-19, inflicting far more fatalities and injuries on teens than drunken teens inflict on adults.

While our “alcohol regulation” system fails to prevent mayhem by drunken adults, it did arrest some 5 million Americans under age 21 simply for alcohol possession during the last decade, regardless of whether their drinking presented tangible harm. Possession arrest entails serious consequences from fines, jailings, and burdensome sentences to school and employment punishments.

American alcohol regulation allows adults to drive legally with dangerously high blood alcohol concentrations of up to 0.08%—a level found to boost odds of causing a traffic crash five-fold. Washington’s Initiative 502 continues thisdisturbing laxity, permitting adults to drive with blood levels of up to 5 nanograms of THC (the active ingredient in marijuana) per milliliter.

Studies have found that while drivers whose blood contained less than 2 nanograms of THC present negligible safety risks (in fact, may actually be a bit slower and safer drivers than those with zero THC levels!), those with more than 2 nanograms were twice as likely to cause traffic crashes compared to sober drivers. Although marijuana doesn’t present nearly the dangers of alcohol, it’s inevitable that adult drivers with legal levels of THC under Washington’s initiative will add to the accident, death, and injury toll adult recreational drug users inflict on children and teens.

Despite baseless, self-serving speculations by legalizers such as Change the Climate that regulating marijuana for adults would keep teenagers from getting it, the reality is the opposite. The definitive Monitoring the Future and National Household surveys demolish this notion, showing for decades that teens find legal drugs much easier to get than illegal drugs. Research and analysis of surveys clearly show that teenagers’ rates of drinking, binge drinking, drunken driving, and marijuana use closely parallel the corresponding rates of adults around them.

Given these realities, the Washington initiative’s funding for “coordinated intervention strategies for the prevention and reduction of marijuana use by youth” and publicity campaigns “separately targeting youth and adults, that provide medically and scientifically accurate information about the health and safety risks posed by marijuana use” is little more than a joke.

In fact, the science shows youths and adults cannot be “separately” targeted. If parents and adults don’t want teens using alcohol or marijuana, the most effective strategy is for adults not to use these substances, either. The more adults drink and get high, the more youths are likely to do likewise and to be arrested for possession. Or, if responsible use is the desired outcome, occasional and moderate use of marijuana is not harmful for anyone of any age. Heavy use of marijuana carries risks for all ages, particularly the small fraction already inclined to abuse the drug.

The futility and dangers of American drug control schemes revolve around the myth that “respectable” grownups can enjoy a party world of legal alcohol, tobacco, and other drugs they like while police, parents, and “education” campaigns unite to impose complete abstinence on those under age 21 and the banishment of drugs associated with young, minority, and “disreputable” populations.

Reconciling the reality that most Americans use various drugs with measures imposing strict standards to prevent drug abuse—not perpetuating failed policies that scapegoat young people—is a political challenge. Under SB 1149(effective January 1, 2011), California’s legislature reduced possession of less than an ounce of marijuana by all ages to a simple citation with a maximum $100 fine, similar to that for jaywalking.

The infraction approach is not the ultimate ideal, but it’s far better than the backwards step of legalizing marijuana for over-21 adults while continuing to arrest and punish under-21 users. Far from going pot-crazy after marijuana was semi-decriminalized for youths and adults alike, California’s teenagers registered a plunge in crimes of all types in 2011 to all-time lows.

The next reform California needs is to move toward fully legalizing small-scale marijuana production, sales, and possession for both medical and recreational use in a similarly non-discriminatory fashion while funding measures to prevent drug abuse by all demographics.

California’s goal (see the data and conclusions presented in, “Should California Reconsider Its Legal Drinking Age?”) for now should be similar to that pursued in The Netherlands, Uruguay, and similar egalitarian countries: to legalize alcohol, marijuana, and ecstasy use for those over the age of 18, with strict controls to address abuse; to permit use of beer, wine, marijuana, ecstasy, and milder drugs by those under age 18 under controlled conditions; and to study mechanisms for legalizing harder drugs. The state needs to lead the way out of America’s destructive, discriminatory frameworks of drug prohibition and alcohol legalization with research-based reforms.

In short, unlike reformers in Colorado, Washington, and elsewhere, California marijuana interests need to cut out the mythology and the “adultist” concern only for legalizing their own, grownup highs and consider the interests of all marijuana users, young and old.

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