Pot Prohibitionists Will Have to Do Better Than Bill Bennett's BS


A couple of months ago, arguing in favor of marijuana prohibition at the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC), radio producer Christopher Beach faced a mostly hostile audience. "There used to be a strong conservative coalition opposed to drugs, but it's dissipated in the face of mounting public support for legalization," Beach told The Atlantic's Molly Ball afterward. "We're fighting against the tide on this." According to the headline of an essay by Beach and his boss, former drug czar Bill Bennett, in the May 5 issue of The Weekly Standard, they are also fighting "The Legalization Juggernaut," which presumably is moving with the tide. Beach and Bennett nevertheless argue that it's not too late to turn this juggernaut around. Maybe so, but they are going to need a bigger boat, or at least better arguments. Here are a few they should consider retiring:

The great political scientist James Q. Wilson staunchly opposed the legalization of drugs. He explained that "drug use is wrong because it is immoral and it is immoral because it enslaves the mind and destroys the soul." No society should want unhealthy substances destroying the minds, bodies, character, and potential of its citizens.

As I note in my book Saying Yes, Wilson's explanation made no distinction between use and abuse, weirdly implying that consumption of psychoactive substances always (or at least usually) "enslaves the mind and destroys the soul," which was his tendentious description of addiction. Furthermore, Wilson conceded that alcohol poses the same sort of threat, which raises the obvious question of how it can be just to treat suppliers of beer, wine, and liquor as legitimate businessmen while treating suppliers of marijuana, cocaine, and heroin as criminals.

No country in the history of the world has persevered in the legalization of drugs. None. We may learn the hard way why. 

You can't persevere in a policy you've never tried, and to date no country has legalized the drugs currently banned by the U.S. government, although Uruguay is moving toward legalization of marijuana. Then again, marijuana prohibition is a relatively recent development, dating to 1937 at the national level in the United States, and all of the currently proscribed drugs were legal for almost all of human history, which many people might consider a precedent of some significance. 

Even in states that have allowed only medicinal marijuana, use among young people has risen. 

If Beach and Bennett mean that cannabis consumption by teenagers has increased more in states with medical marijuana laws than in other states, they are wrong, according to a March 2012 study in Annals of Epidemiology, an October 2013 analysis in the Journal of Policy Analysis and Management, and an April 2014 study in the Journal of Adolescent Health. "This study did not find increases in adolescent marijuana use related to legalization of medical marijuana," say the authors of the most recent study, which was published online a couple of weeks ago.

Marijuana today is far more potent than it was in the 1960s and '70s….The more potent the drug the more dangerous its effects.

Not if you are concerned about the respiratory health effects of smoking, which is probably the most serious physical hazard posed by pot. The stronger the pot, the less you smoke to achieve the desired effect.

Even casual pot smoking has been linked to harmful brain abnormalities. An important new study by researchers at Northwestern University to be published in the Journal of Neuroscience found that young adults who smoked pot only once or twice a week still showed significant abnormalities in the part of the brain that deals with memory and motivation.

The study to which Beach and Bennett refer did not actually show that the "brain abnormalities" were harmful, or even that they were caused by marijuana.

Marijuana, of course, is a gateway drug. Even the authors of Marijuana Legalization admit that "kids who use marijuana—particularly those who start marijuana use at a young age—are statistically much more likely to go on to use other drugs than their peers who do not use marijuana."

The authors of that book (Jonathan Caulkins, Angela Hawken, Beau Kilmer, and Mark Kleiman) go on to say, "What is not at all clear, however, is whether marijuana use causes subsequent use of other drugs or whether it is merely a signal indicating the presence of underlying social, psychological, or physiological risk factors—such as weak parental supervision, a taste for intoxication, or a willingness to take risks—for both early marijuana use and later hard drug use."

Over the last 10 years, fatal car accidents involving people who were stoned have tripled, according to a report in the American Journal of Epidemiology

What the study actually found, based on data from six states, was that the share of drivers killed in car crashes who tested positive for cannabinol, a marijuana metabolite, rose from from 4.2 percent in 1999 to 12.2 percent in 2010. Cannabinol is not psychoactive and can be detected up to a week after marijuana consumption, so its presence does not indicate a driver was stoned at the time of the crash, let alone that marijuana contributed to it. During the same period, the total number of traffic fatalities declined. There is reason to believe legalizing marijuana could accelerate that downward trend, assuming that more pot smoking is accompanied by less drinking.

On the subject of marijuana, Beach and Bennett note, "The shift in public opinion has been dramatic."  They cite recent polling data indicating majority support for legalization but say "we are convinced this headlong rush into disaster can be stopped—if, that is, political leaders can be found who have the nerve to take on the conventional wisdom." It is gratifying that pot prohibitionists feel compelled to portray themselves as underdogs, since most Americans disagree with them. But it seems they have not fully digested the implications of their new minority status, which means the same old moralistic assertions and scientific misrepresentations will no longer do. Drug warriors will have to step up their game now that they are in the unaccustomed position of needing to persuade people.

[Thanks to Richard Cowan for the tip.]