Marijuana and States' Rights: A Reason Debate

Drug Policy Alliance's Ethan Nadelmann and Drug Policy Institute's Kevin Sabet debate state cannabis initiatives.

This week, Kevin Sabet and Ethan Nadelmann will be debating marijuana laws and policy. 

Today's question concerns state efforts to loosen marijuana laws. Next month, Colorado voters will consider a broad marijuana legalization referendum in November, and half a dozen states have medical marijuana or legalization initiatives on their ballots. Legalization of medical marijuana has already passed in 17 states and broad decriminalization in many others. Yet the federal government has been cracking down on medical marijuana dispensaries in the Centennial State and elsewhere, and Washington considers these statewide changes subordinate to federal law.

Should states be free to chart their own course with regard to marijuana policy (both medical and recreational)?

Kevin Sabet:

My basic answer is that states can chart their own course, but that their course should remain within bounds of national and international law — unless those change. So if people want to see things that clearly violate federal and international law — like legalization, or the legislation of medicine (in this case, medical marijuana is being "voted" on by the populace, which is a rather bizarre concept) — they should change those broader laws. Within current laws, of course, states can and do vary widely in how they treat marijuana. In fact, most places punish the use of small amounts of marijuana similarly to a speeding ticket. Now we should make sure that these arrests — as insignificant as they may be — do not lead to the loss of benefits (like educational loans or health care) down the road, but those laws can be changed within our current framework of federal and international laws. Using alcohol as our example, putting marijuana under a similar structure would be a public health disaster. For one, we gain about $15 billion in revenue from taxes, but alcohol costs society over $200 billion in lost productivity, health care, accidents, and criminal justice. And unbeknownst to most people, legal alcohol also results in 1 million more arrests than for all illegal drugs combined. So I think we would be better off focusing on prevention, treatment, and stopping marijuana initiation before it starts. Under legalization, that becomes very hard to do.

Kevin A. Sabet, PhD, is Director of the Drug Policy Institute at the University of Florida. He served as a senior advisor in the Obama Administration's Office of National Drug Control Policy from 2009 to 2011.


Ethan Nadelmann:

The suggestion that reform of marijuana prohibition laws in the United States must start by focusing on federal and international law is simply an excuse for inaction.  Federal law in this area will only change as a result of political pressures associated with changes in state laws.  This does not mean that no efforts should be made to change federal and international laws, just that reforming state laws is an essential part of the political process by which federal and international marijuana prohibition laws will ultimately be reformed and repealed.  Keep in mind too that this country has a long tradition of states serving as incubators for innovative policy reforms.

Kevin makes two other mistakes in his commentary.  It’s not true – although I wish it were – that "most places punish the use of small amounts of marijuana similarly to a speeding ticket."  Few people are handcuffed or taken to a police station or incarcerated in a jail for speeding tickets, but all those indignities routinely are applied to people arrested for possession of small amounts of marijuana.  Government employees won’t lose their jobs for a speeding ticket but they may very well for a marijuana possession arrest.  Punishment can be even more severe if the person arrested is among the roughly five million Americans on parole or probation, often for very minor offenses.  Millions of Americans have suffered much worse than the equivalent of a speeding ticket in recent years for nothing more than being caught with a little marijuana.

As for the comparison with alcohol, the costs of alcohol abuse are so great in good part because alcohol can be a remarkably dangerous and destructive drug for a minority of consumers – much more so than marijuana.  There is no basis to assume that the costs of marijuana misuse would be anything comparable to those of alcohol misuse if marijuana were made legally available.

Ethan Nadelmann is Executive Director of the Drug Policy Alliance.

Kevin Sabet responds:

States as incubators are fine — but at what cost? And why legalize when we can optimize our current policies to work better? Legalization would significantly increase the risk of greater youth use and other health and safety costs in society. Ethan's points would make good sense only if our choices were so stark. Besides full blown prohibition-enforcement for marijuana on the one hand, and legalization on the other, there are plenty of things we can do to get rid of the worst parts of our current laws (the things Ethan mentions —job loss, being cuffed, etc.). But that is not a good reason for legalization. That's a compelling reason for some kind of specific reform. Given the risk we would take by legalizing marijuana — including the risks of increased use, accidents, and health and social costs [pdf] — it seems reckless and uncaring to go to such extremes in order to fix parts of the law that we can all agree are especially egregious. Ethan, would you abandon your legalization efforts if we got rid of the indignities you mention and yet kept marijuana illegal?

Though its harms are underappreciated, marijuana is also remarkably dangerous and destructive for a minority of consumers — about 1 in 7 people who try alcohol will become addicted; the number for marijuana is 1 in 10 — but it is 1 in 6 if you start smoking in adolescence. You might say that marijuana addiction is not as bad as alcohol addiction, but both are plenty bad. Ask any educator, parent, or highway safety official. I'm not suggesting alcohol is less dangerous than marijuana, but it has enough harms we should be worried about, including significant IQ loss and detrimental learning outcomes, a significant link to mental disorders, adolescent brain changes, and car crashes (the most exhaustive meta-analysis on this subject was recently published in the British Medical Journal and concluded that drivers high on pot are twice as likely to get into a car crash as non-high drivers). No one knows what the exact costs of increased marijuana use would be in society, but given the link between marijuana and these harms, we know that an increase in use would accompany an increase in costs to society.

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  • BakedPenguin||

    Kevin Sabet of the Drug Policy Institute and Ethan Nadelmann of the Drug Policy Alliance debate marijuana laws and policy.

    Splitters!

  • Voros McCracken||

    "Institute for Drug Policy suicide squad, attack!"

  • Scruffy Nerfherder||

    And why legalize when we can optimize our current policies to work better?

    You can't optimize a failure, only the way you spin it.

  • R C Dean||

    What does that even mean? Optimize to achieve what goal, exactly, better than legalization?

  • ||

    Ethan Nadelmann: Kevin Sabet. Only you could be so bold. The Drug Policy Institute will not sit still for this. When they hear you've attacked a diplomatic...
    Kevin Sabet: Don't act so surprised, Your Highness. You weren't on any mercy mission this time. Several transmissions were beamed to this ship by rebel spies. I want to know what happened to the plans they sent you.
    Ethan Nadelmann: I don't know what you're talking about. I am a member of the Drug Policy Institute on a diplomatic mission to Alderaan...
    Kevin Sabet: You are part of the Drug Policy Alliance and a traitor! Take him away!

  • Zair||

    "(the most exhaustive meta-analysis on this subject was recently published in the British Medical Journal and concluded that drivers high on pot are twice as likely to get into a car crash as non-high drivers)."

    Wow. That's really low, then. I mean, the odds of getting into a wreck in the first place are pretty low, merely doubling them, while it shouldn't be ignored, doesn't seem like a big increase in crashes.

    What are similar numbers for drunk vs sober drivers, I wonder?

  • Scruffy Nerfherder||

    I think the comparison of forty year olds to 80 year olds would be more telling.

  • Zeb||

    Seriously. If drunk or drugged driving is going to be a crime per se, then getting behind the wheel while 80 years old or older should be a felony. I'd feel a lot safer with a 25 year old driver who just pounded 4 beers than with a randomly selected licensed 85 year old driver.

  • Zeb||

    And what are the numbers for people who just smoked pot for the first time and for people who smoke daily and do everything while high? I'd bet that the latter do just as well as sober drivers.

  • R C Dean||

    How exactly did the they determine that the drivers were high on pot when the accident occurred?

  • ||

    Drug screen. That's right. They only really know that the driver has thc in his bloodstream.

  • ||

    OK but how did they count the drivers that were high on pot that didn't get in an accident?

  • Scruffy Nerfherder||

    As for the comparison with alcohol, the costs of alcohol abuse are so great in good part because alcohol can be a remarkably dangerous and destructive drug for a minority of consumers – much more so than marijuana.

    Can we ditch this argument already? The only reasonable position is that self-abuse is a choice. Otherwise, everything becomes a potential crime. Being fat will be a crime, tattoos will be a crime, not brushing for 2 minutes twice a day will be a crime, failing to chew exactly 27 times will be a crime.

    You have the right to mistreat yourself. You have the right to self-medicate. You have the right to do whatever the hell you want to do to yourself.

  • Zeb||

    What you say is right and good, but we still have to convince the assholes that think that it is a good idea to restrict drugs based on how "bad" they are. Let's face it, we aren't going to see heroin legalized anytime soon, even though all of the arguments for legalizing pot should apply there too.

  • BakedPenguin||

    States as incubators are fine — but at what cost?
    Whatever costs the users see fit to bear.
    ...why legalize when we can optimize our current policies to work better?
    No, you can't.
    Given the risks we would take by legalizing marijuana...
    Given that pretty much everyone who wants to use pot currently is using pot, the "risk" Sabet mentions are already baked (heh) into the system, if they exist at all.
    ...it seems reckless and uncaring to go to such extremes...
    Funny, to me it seems reckless, uncaring, and well, downright brutal to subject anyone to legal consequences for an activity that harms no one other than the user, and possibly not even him.
    ...it has enough harms we should be worried about, including significant IQ loss and detrimental learning outcomes, a significant link to mental disorders, adolescent brain changes, and car crashes...
    Correlation is not causation. Unless, apparently, you are against drugs.

  • Zeb||

    "alcohol costs society over $200 billion in lost productivity"

    Fuck Off, asshole. My potential productivity does not belong to society.

  • C. S. P. Schofield||

    Which is why I consider the people who make arguments like the one that set you off prime candidates for the revival of the guillotine.

  • Emmerson Biggins||

    It gains 490 billion in fun. So there is a net profit.

  • Guither||

    Thank you for that, Zeb.

    That "potential productivity" argument is for assembly lines, not citizens.

  • ||

    From Wiki's Kevin Sabet article:

    Sabet first received notice in California when at age 15, he publicly blasted the conservative-libertarian wing of the Orange County school board for refusing to accept federal dollars for after school anti-drug programs aimed at underprivileged students. Soon, Sabet drew national attention for his anti-drug work. By age 19 had worked with NIDA Director Alan Leshner on MDMA education efforts,[5] and by age 20 he had testimony entered on the official House record.[6]

    What a douchy little twerp!

  • Zeb||

    I genuinely hope that he regularly got the shit kicked out of him in school.

  • R C Dean||

    He seems to be making quite a nice living as an authoritarian asshole, so he's got that going for him.

  • TheApostle||

    Let me just say this first: I think marijuana should be legal... like roses.

    Now, I want, so desperately to be on Nadelman's side, but he's wrong, and Sabet is right. The US has ratified UN international drug treaties which call for marijuana to not be legal. The UN treaties stipulate that it must be against the law, but may be decriminalized, with a deterring punishment.

    Now, since the US has ratified the UN treaties, under Article Six of the US Constitution, these laws become like the Constitution itself... "the law of the land," and requires all judges to foll ow the Constitution, state and local laws notwithstanding.

    That said, bring on the national-level decriminalization, with the lowest possible penalties for personal use and personal production.

  • Emmerson Biggins||

    But the power they need to enforce this treaty isn't granted to them by the constitution. So the treaty ratification is null and void. So fuck them.

  • π-e||

    I think the point you bring up is that maybe we should'nt bind ourselves to useless UN "laws" or treaties

  • R C Dean||

    Now, since the US has ratified the UN treaties, under Article Six of the US Constitution, these laws become like the Constitution itself

    No, not like the Constitution itself. More like a federal statute.

    I'm not sure state judges are bound to follow federal treaties in any event. Probably, but its an interesting question. If the treaty is on par with a statute (and it is), then I think a state judge is free to follow state law, which would not permit him to impose penalties on something that was not against state law.

  • Calidissident||

    Treaties cannot contradict the Constitution

  • daveInAustin||

    So instead of a constitutional amendments, we can just sign a treaty with a random country agreeing to enforce whatever law we want and it becomes part of the constitution. If we were to sign and ratify a treaty with the Vatican that we agree to punish blasphemy with the death penalty, then poof, there goes our first amendment rights. And automatically, every state would be required to have it's own blasphemy laws too.

  • Lisa||

    I think states should get to decide, but at the same time I think drug legalization is a lower priority than getting rid of entitlements and public subsidizing of things like hospitals and infrastructure. I don't believe in making it easy for people who are f'ing up their own life to f up other people's lives. Public roads are a perfect example. If the private sector almost exclusively dealt with who gets to drive and where they get to drive, it would be much better for everyone. Where do you have a better chance of running into a drunk person? At the stoplight or in your backyard?

  • Zeb||

    Well, fortunately, it is possible to care about all of those things at once.

  • C. S. P. Schofield||

    There is an aspect to this debate that seldom gets mentioned (I'd say never, but I don't read EVERYTHING); whatever we decide to do we can later decide to change. This is an aspect of Prohibition that also gets passed over. We were convinced, by whatever means, that prohibiting alcoholic beverages would be a good idea. It wasn't. We repealed prohibition. The system worked. Not, perhaps, as quickly as we might have liked, but an efficient government is an authentic menace. The Prohibitionists took longer to get their hobby horse passed than the 13 years it took to repeal it. Not a perfect system, but one we can live with (which I doubt could be said of anybody's proposed perfect system).

    If we legalize marijuana, and society begins to crumble, we can make it illegal again.

  • Raston Bot||

    Sabet says:

    The key difference between alcohol and drug prohibition, however, lies in the substance itself. Alcohol, unlike illegal drugs, has a long history of widespread, accepted use in our society, dating back to before biblical times. Illegal drugs cannot claim such pervasive use by a large part of the planet’s population over such a long period of time.

    What are biblical times? Is that Sundays from 10-11AM?

  • π-e||

    I think one could argue that the Indians were probably smoking this stuff just as long ago as the drinking of alcohol

  • R C Dean||

    Illegal drugs cannot claim such pervasive use by a large part of the planet’s population over such a long period of time.

    I suspect he's completely wrong about that.

    For one thing, alcohol use has been illegal for Muslims for centuries. He might say that this doesn't count as "in our society", but the point still stands.

    For another, I don't think there were any laws against using any drugs in the US before the 20th century. If we're going back to Biblical times, I think you would find that most drugs could be used in the societies where they were found without legal sanction.

  • Tim Cavanaugh||

    Behind every good man there is a woman, and that woman was Martha Washington, man, and everyday George would come home, she would have a big fat bowl waiting for him, man, when he come in the door.

  • BlogimiDei||

    Yeah that song is 'bout aliens! You didn't know that?

  • Ron Stringfield||

    Mr. Nadelman allows to Mr. Sabet to make an argument in favor of prohibiton by changing context to alcohol and then making a rather dinsigenuous apples to oranges comparison says...

    For one, we gain about $15 billion in revenue from taxes, but alcohol costs society over $200 billion in lost productivity, health care, accidents, and criminal justice.
    ...

    Why would we compare ONLY tax revenues to what "alcohol costs society?" Would it not be more accurate to compare all revenues from sales, advertisment and wages earned from those employed? Add it up and I would wager it it makes the $200 billion number look very small. A rational comparison would either do that or the costs must be constrained only to government expenditures directly attributed to alcohol.

    Mr. Sabet agains uses the same trick when he says...

    about 1 in 7 people who try alcohol will become addicted; the number for marijuana is 1 in 10 — but it is 1 in 6 if you start smoking in adolescence.

    ...

    So? How many become addicted to alcohol if they begin in adolescence and what has that to do with prohibition? This should not be a debate about which makes more sense, alcohol or marijuana prohibition. Both are ill advised.

  • Ron Stringfield||

    Darn it. Need an edit feature...

    dinsigenuous = disingenuous

  • R C Dean||

    Hell,, that doesn't even twitch the needle on the typo meter around here.

  • ||

    Hey Kevin. Die in a fire you fascist fuck.

  • BlogimiDei||

    DISCO INFERNO!

  • godzleaf||

    I think what disturbs me the most about Kevin Sabet is that he has a PhD in social policy and yet he constantly tries to present himself in these articles on treatment sites like he is either a medical doctor or professional within the psychiatric community. He is neither, my friends. He is a political wonk for prohibitionist ideologies and he has successfully garnered international recognition in that respect, sadly enough.

    On the other hand he has an intellect of about two points above plant life and my friend Ethan Nadelmann is going to wipe the floor with him throughout this exchange.

    God

  • C. S. P. Schofield||

    What you fail to understand is the PhDs in Social Policy think they are psychiatrists for societies.

    That's what makes them so goddamned dangerous.

  • mdmeyer||

    "psychiatrists for societies..." :-)

    The doctor will see you now!

  • godzleaf||

    Oh, I clearly understand what they THINK they are doing. Frankly, I don't think they believe that crap themselves but rather they have found the bucks inherent in furthering their drug war propaganda to be a dark rider they care not to abandon. And WEALTH my friend is a very hard thing to step away from. Greed has much power. Unfortunately, Kevin Sabet will continue to seek the almighty buck demonizing the human need to explore the inner dimensions of the human mind until he (Sabet) has the occasion to discover this for himself.

    Until then, how many more must suffer?

  • mdmeyer||

    Some are leaves / some are branches
    Kevin Sabet is the pits!

  • Thomas O.||

    "Kevin, you ignorant slut."

  • FD||

    "My basic answer is that states can chart their own course, but that their course should remain within bounds of national and international law — unless those change."

    Then Sabet's "basic answer," as he calls it, is that a state _cannot_ chart its own course; he is speaking out of both sides of his mouth.

    It won't win any debating contests, but Zeb's profane blast re "society" is the heart of the issue.
    And the prohibitionists continue to evade the 'my body, my property' argument.

  • FlyingTooLow||

    If marijuana were treated like lettuce and tomatoes, this would end. After all, it is plant.

    Take the government out of the equation. It does not belong.

    I spent 5 years in Federal Prison for a marijuana offense.

    I wrote about the great times I had before my arrest...living free, smuggling marijuana, and harming no one.

    My book: Shoulda Robbed a Bank

    I would be honored by your review.

  • FlyingTooLow||

    This lunacy has gone on long enough. The marijuana prohibition laws should never have been passed.

    'Our' representatives need to re-visit the fourth grade in American public schools.

    Somehow, they missed the concept of 'freedom.'

    Freedom of the individual:

    “…over himself, over his own body and mind, the individual is sovereign”.”
    — from the essay On Liberty by John Stuart Mill

  • Aiden||

    Can we go over the WORST part about this?

    "[I]n this case, medical marijuana is being "voted" on by the populace, which is a rather bizarre concept"

    Excuse me? Oh my, how bizarre that people can VOTE on their policies rather than being ruled from on high. What an authoritarian pig.

  • Gart Valenc||

    I'm surprised Nadelmann didn't mentioned a couple of documents analising international experiences with decriminalisation policies:

    1. Release - Rosmarin, A. Eastwood, N. (2012) - A Quiet Revolution - Drug Decriminalisation Policies Across the Globe: bit.ly/PZMmY6

    2. Hughes, C.E. Stevens, A. (2012) - A Resounding Success or A Disastrous Failure - Portugal Decriminalisation of Illicit Drugs: bit.ly/Vm9uF8

    3. Hughes, C.E. Wodak, A. (2012) - What Can Australia Learn from Different Approaches to Drugs in Europe: bit.ly/QWnTU7

    Gart Valenc
    Twitter: @gartvalenc

  • Gart Valenc||

    didn't mention

  • RSteeb||

    News for Sabet: What is bizarre is how Cannabis came to be *absent* from the United States Pharmacopoeia after inclusion for most of a century.

    The prohibition of Earth's most widely beneficial plant species is a crime against humanity which shall NOT stand. To keep Cannabis illegal while tobacco and alcohol are ubiquitously marketed would be murderously stupid.

    We'll have a look at the validity of "Schedule I Cannabis" in federal court next Tuesday. I can hardly wait.

    Rick Steeb, plaintiff

  • godzleaf||

    "Doctor" Sabet is "prescribing" incarceration for what is at worst an addiction issue.

  • jason||

    after a long fight i am sure this drug will not legalize in the country.

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