Weekly Standard Exposé: Pot Prohibition Promotes Pretense, Paranoia


Matt Labash has an amusing, informative, and frequently astute report on Michigan's medical marijuana industry in the latest issue of The Weekly Standard. As in California, he finds, it's not hard to qualify as a patient who is permitted to use cannabis under state law, and many people who do so have common complaints (such as back pain and migraine headaches) that are difficult to verify and may simply be a cover for recreational use. Likewise, the people who go into the business of supplying patients with marijuana include budding entrepreneurs and black-market dealers going semi-legit as well as sincere Good Samaritans who are keen to help people suffering from debilitating conditions such as AIDS wasting syndrome and the side effects of cancer chemotherapy. This being The Weekly Standard, Labash's emphasis is on the shadier patients and suppliers, and the title of his piece is "Going to Pot: The Medical Marijuana Charade."

But which charade is Labash talking about? It's not the claim that marijuana is a useful medicine. Although Labash is right that some enthusiasts implausibly portray pot as a wonder drug that is good for whatever ails you, he overstates the doubts about its medical utility:

Whether pot actually works as medicine is a scientific tit-for-tat too tortured and voluminous to replicate here. Suffice it to say that hardliners on both sides of the issue have blood-red fingertips from cherry-picking the literature.

The medical establishment will always resist whole-plant medicines, preferring synthetic, isolated chemicals. But double-blind clinical trials of both synthetic THC (Marinol) and oral cannabis spray (Sativex) establish beyond any reasonable doubt that marijuana is effective as an anti-emetic, appetite enhancer, and analgesic. (Cannabis also shows promise in other applications, such as controlling muscle spasms related to multiple sclerosis.) Compared to commonly used pharmaceuticals, marijuana is remarkably safe, especially when consumed via vaporizers or edibles, which avoid exposure to combustion products. There are several reasons (including quicker onset, easier absorption, and better dose control) why some patients prefer inhaling cannabis smoke or vapor to swallowing a Marinol capsule.

Still, it's certainly true that the most common use for marijuana is not medical, and demand for the drug would not be much affected even if a cheap, equally effective pharmaceutical alternative were readily available to patients. So it is hardly surprising that a medical marijuana regime like Michigan's or California's would invite a lot of pretending. But the root of this dishonesty is the continued federal and state prohibition of marijuana, which exposes even bona fide medical dispensaries to the risk of raids, forfeiture, arrest, prosecution, and imprisonment. (Michigan, like California, does not explicitly allow over-the-counter sales of medical marijuana.) Everyone associated with contraband is a little shady by definition. Labash would have had a grand time documenting drinking-related fakery during alcohol prohibition (which included religious as well as medical excuses), but such an account would not have been seen as evidence in favor of prohibition.

On the question of why the government is justified in treating marijuana users and suppliers as criminals, Labash is remarkably glib. Here is his response to a dispensary manager who says marijuana should be decriminalized:

Sure, I say, jabbing. Because that's exactly what a city with 15 percent unemployment that's as chronically crime-ridden and dysfunctional as Detroit needs: more drugs.

Here is Labash's reponse to "Herb," a Detroit dealer (a "friend of a friend") who offers him some pot:

I thank Herb, but tell him I never touch the stuff, figuring it will only get in the way of more important things like work, family, and drinking. 

Ha ha. But does Labash really think people should be arrested because their taste in intoxicants differs from his? He never makes that clear, but he does summarize the argument of "Smoky," a "former Office of National Drug Control Policy official" who sees medical marijuana as a tactic to achieve full legalization:

(1) Straight-up marijuana legalization is a political loser. Has been, is, will be. (Sorry Reasonoids, hippies, Barney Frank, Comicbook Store Guy, Bill Maher, you just need to get over this.) Which leads to .??.??. 

(2) Well .??.??. how 'bout if we sell it as "medical"? Turns out?—no surprise—when you ask people if their fellow citizens dying of cancer-AIDS should be allowed to have a puff or two during their last moments, most Americans say sure, why not? Which leads to .??.??. 

(3) Profit.

So, Smoky continues, "You have something (de facto legalization) that most people don't want. They really won't want it once the consequences (increased drug use, dependency, accidents, mental illness, stupider kids, less efficient workers) become clearer. But by that point the economic infrastructure will be in place to prevent a rollback. Stoners win. Everyone else loses. And I know you know there will be no tax revenue from any of this," he adds facetiously. "Still, a violation of federal criminal law, bro."

It's no mystery why this guy, who is presented as a sophisticated drug policy thinker, insisted on a pseudonym, just like the pot entrepreneurs Labash met at Detroit's Med Grow Cannabis College. The former ONDCP official needn't worry about getting busted, but he should be embarrassed by the quality of the arguments he uses to justify arresting his fellow citizens.

More on crappy prohibitionist arguments here and here. Brian Doherty described the L.A. medical marijuana scene in the May issue of Reason.

[Thanks to CK for the tip.]