In 2014, the General Assembly took a major step toward the toleration of marijuana consumption by decriminalizing the possession of 10 grams of marijuana — that’s roughly the equivalent of 30 marijuana cigarettes. The marijuana industry is now pushing the General Assembly to boldly move beyond mere toleration to full-fledged commercialization of marijuana. So far, given the great uncertainty surrounding the true impacts of such a major public policy change, the General Assembly has wisely taken a measured, incremental approach and deferred the mass experimentation involved in outright commercialization to those states (Alaska, California, Colorado, Maine, Massachusetts, Nevada, Oregon, Vermont and Washington) that have volunteered to serve as national guinea pigs.
Two of the primary motivators for states that have approved commercialization have been to minimize the incarceration of marijuana users and to provide opportunities to explore the potential medicinal benefits of marijuana. The General Assembly has already incrementally addressed both of these concerns. The final barriers to commercialization are identifying and addressing the unknown social and economic costs.
As members of the General Assembly wrestle with the costs vs. benefits of marijuana commercialization, we are challenged to find credible studies. Zealous commercialization advocates tout their product as a major gain with little or no negative impacts. The Drug Policy Alliance, a pro-commercialization entity, makes the outlandish claim that marijuana legalization has a “positive effect on public health and safety,” reduces youth consumption of marijuana, reduces alcohol-related driving offenses, and reduces opioid overdoses.
A 2017 report by the Health and Medicine Division of the The National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine challenges such assertions but concludes that credible studies on the impacts of mass consumption of marijuana have been hampered by challenges and barriers, including federal regulations, inhibiting research.
Fortunately, independent studies on marijuana consumption have begun to emerge, thanks in part to the growing body of evidence from states that have already commercialized. These studies raise serious concerns regarding the potentially harmful impacts of mass marijuana consumption and ought to give us pause in the rush toward commercialization.
A 2017 study, Cannabis use and risk of prescription opioid use disorder in the United States, in the “American Journal of Psychiatry,” found that cannabis use is related prospectively to opioid use and opioid use disorder. Studies out of Colorado tied marijuana commercialization to a doubling of traffic fatalities, a 12 percent increase in underage consumption, a 72 percent increase in marijuana-related hospitalizations, and a 380 percent increase in arrests for the production of black market marijuana.
The 2017 report by the Health and Medicine Division of the The National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine found substantial evidence of a statistical association between maternal cannabis smoking and lower birth weights, pregnancy complications, admission to the neonatal intensive care unit and the development of schizophrenia or other psychoses. The study found moderate evidence of a statistical association between cannabis use and the impairment in the cognitive domains of learning, memory and attention, increased risk for the development of depressive disorders, increased incidence of suicidal ideation, suicidal attempts and suicidal completion, increased incidence of social anxiety disorder and the development of substance abuse disorder.
Marijuana advocates claim that, harmful effects aside, marijuana will produce a tax windfall greater than existing taxes on alcohol and tobacco, eliminating revenue shortfalls in education that were supposed to have been covered by legalized gambling. But such claims appear widely exaggerated. States that have commercialized marijuana have not seen any measurable impact on GDP. Marijuana tax revenue generated in Colorado and Washington represent less than 1 percent of total state expenditures and about one percent of tax revenues. Moreover, there is little information on the offsetting state expenditures caused by marijuana commercialization in the areas of law enforcement, healthcare treatment, addiction recovery and preventative work. A recent study out of Colorado indicates that marijuana revenue gains are outweighed four to one by marijuana-related expenditures for public health and safety.
In my first year in the legislature, I was concerned about the considerable unknowns regarding a piece of legislation moving toward passage. A seasoned senator explained that reconciling such diversity of views requires striving for “good enough” and that one reason the legislature meets every year is to allow opportunities to correct past mistakes. While that advice is generally helpful, it is not appropriate in this instance where so much is at stake, the harms are likely irreversible, and there is no imminent reason to change the status quo without the benefit of thorough analysis.
Reasonable caution suggests that the legislative debate at this stage ought not to be on how fast to rush forward with marijuana commercialization. Rather, the debate should concern the amount of funding to apply toward the detailed, independent studies that are necessary to support honest appraisals of the costs vs. benefits of commercialization and identify best practices to mitigate negative consequences.