Drug Policy

This Was the Decade When Politicians Stopped Panicking About Marijuana and Started Panicking About Nicotine

Despite notable progress in policies regarding pot and psychedelics, the war on drugs always finds new targets.


During the same week last month when a congressional committee passed a groundbreaking bill aimed at repealing the federal ban on marijuana, another congressional committee approved a new federal ban on flavored e-cigarettes. The House Judiciary Committee's vote on the Marijuana Opportunity Reinvestment and Expungement Act showed how far politicians have moved in their thinking about drugs during the last decade. The House Energy and Commerce Committee's vote on the Reversing the Youth Tobacco Epidemic Act showed how far they have to go.

The shift from demonizing cannabis to demonizing nicotine is not a good sign for anyone who hoped that recognizing the folly of marijuana prohibition would lead to a broader understanding of the costs inflicted by attempts to forcibly prevent people from consuming psychoactive substances. By and large, neither legislators nor the voters they represent think about this subject in a principled way. If they did, the repeal of National Alcohol Prohibition in 1933 would not have been followed four years later by the Marihuana Tax Act, a federal ban disguised as a revenue measure. When it comes to ending the war on drugs, the same arguments have to be deployed anew for every intoxicant.

Still, there's no denying the dramatic progress we've seen since 2010, when no state allowed recreational use of marijuana (with the partial exception of Alaska, where the state constitution had been interpreted as protecting private possession of small amounts). Today recreational use is legal in 11 states, 10 of which also allow commercial production and distribution, while medical use is legal in 33 states, up from 13 at the beginning of the decade. During the same period, according to Gallup, public support for general legalization has risen from 44 percent to 66 percent.

Marijuana remains illegal for any purpose under the Controlled Substances Act, which creates all sorts of problems for the cannabis industry. But in recent years (and under two administrations), the feds generally have not targeted state-licensed marijuana suppliers for prosecution or forfeiture. Nearly every Democratic presidential contender supports legalization (with the notable exceptions of Joe Biden and Michael Bloomberg), and even Donald Trump has repeatedly said states should be free to abandon pot prohibition.

One other sign of the times: Former House Speaker John Boehner, a Republican who not long ago described himself as "unalterably opposed" to marijuana legalization, is now a cannabis industry lobbyist. Boehner saw the light sooner than several prominent Democrats, including Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (N.Y.), New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo, and Sen. Kamala Harris (Calif.).

The movement away from total prohibition has not been limited to marijuana. The Food and Drug Administration (FDA), which last year approved the first cannabis-derived medicine to be recognized by the federal government (an oral cannabidiol solution used to treat epilepsy), in 2017 recognized MDMA as a "breakthrough therapy" for post-traumatic stress disorder. The Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies, which sponsored the research that the FDA found compelling, says MDMA could be available by prescription as soon as 2021, more than three decades after the Drug Enforcement Administration banned it.

Psilocybin, the main psychoactive ingredient in "magic mushrooms," may join MDMA as a prescription drug. Last year, based on preliminary research, the FDA identified psilocybin as a breakthrough therapy for depression. A 2017 YouGov survey found that 53 percent of Americans support clinical trials involving "illegal psychedelic substances" such as "mushrooms, ketamine, [and] MDMA," while 63 percent would try a psychedelic as a treatment for "a medical condition" if it were "proven to be safe and effective."

Local activists in various states want to go further by decriminalizing nonmedical use of psilocybin. This year Denver voters approved a ballot initiative that instructed police to stop arresting adults 21 or older for possessing psilocybin. While the practical consequences of that initiative will be modest, it is symbolically and politically important as the first successful measure of its kind. Activists in Oregon and California hope to pass ballot initiatives that would decriminalize psilocybin statewide.

When it comes to opioids, by contrast, the pendulum has been swinging toward more government control. Responding to a surge in opioid-related deaths that began in the early 2000s, the government imposed new restrictions on the use of narcotic analgesics. Since 2010, those policies have succeeded in driving down pain pill prescriptions, which had increased dramatically since the late 1990s. Yet the upward trend in opioid-related deaths not only continued but accelerated as nonmedical users switched to heroin and illicitly produced fentanyl, which are much more dangerous because their potency is unpredictable. Today those black-market drugs account for the vast majority of fatalities involving opioids. Meanwhile, the indiscriminate campaign against prescription analgesics has deprived many bona fide patients of the medication they need to control their pain.

Like the crackdown on pain pills, the government's reaction to the recent surge in adolescent vaping promises to increase drug-related harm. The popularity of e-cigarettes, which first hit the U.S. market in 2006, took off during the last decade. Millions of Americans have switched from smoking to vaping, a much less hazardous source of nicotine—a development that Scott Gottlieb, former head of the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), hailed as "a tremendous public health opportunity." But legal responses to rising e-cigarette use by teenagers, including state bans on flavored e-liquids and similar restrictions proposed by the FDA, undermine the harm-reducing potential of these products by eliminating the varieties that former smokers overwhelmingly favor. The result is likely to be more tobacco-related disease and death as former smokers return to their old habits and current smokers are deterred from switching.

Thanks to unfounded warnings that e-cigarettes are hooking "a whole generation of young people," members of Congress who want to eliminate the federal ban on marijuana, which was originally imposed in the name of protecting America's youth, think that same goal justifies a new federal ban that would make it impossible for adults to legally obtain the nicotine products they demonstrably prefer. The paradox is all the more puzzling because those legislators recognize that the recent outbreak of vaping-related lung injuries, which are associated mainly with illegal cannabis extracts, is not a sound argument for pot prohibition. Since the real hazard seems to be dangerous additives or contaminants in black-market products of unknown provenance and composition, prohibition only increases the risks to consumers.

Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Wolf therefore argues that the lung disease outbreak reinforces the case for marijuana legalization. "The real problem with vaping is the illicit substances that are being introduced into the vaping," he told a reporter in September. "Bring it out in the open. Let's deal with it."

Meanwhile, Pennsylvania legislators are considering a ban on flavored e-cigarettes, and the congressman who introduced the proposed federal ban nonsensically cites lung injuries involving black-market THC vapes as a reason to ban legal e-cigarettes that deliver nicotine. Drug panics, it seems, never fade away; they just shift to new targets.

NEXT: Forgotten Workers

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  1. That s not true, politicians have been panicking about nicotine for over two decades, at least.

    1. Panicking over tobacco for several decades, but this is ‘purified’ nicotine, not quite the same. It’s the partial combustion products in tobacco smoke – CO, HCN, etc – that are deadly along with some materials in chaw (hence oral cancer). Nicotine alone appears to be rather safe.

      1. “deadly”??? That’s a pretty far-fetched word for something people generally do 20-times a day for 70-years and are still around.

        1. Well, it may be slow, but then so is the Chinese water torture. Nevertheless, sans those compounds smoking would not be a serious health problem. So, yes, deadly.

    2. Tobacco was essential to the colonization and eventual creation of the US.
      Hence progressives regard it as evil

      1. It wasn’t really, but that’s how they see it. It was an important export, but so were timber, furs, rum, and cotton.

      2. Tobacco was essential to the colonization and eventual creation of the US.
        Hence progressives regard it as evil

        Don’t forget fur trapping.

  2. For a Team D politician, Governor Wolf at least has half a brain = The real problem with vaping is the illicit substances that are being introduced into the vaping. Bring it out in the open. Let’s deal with it.

  3. Sullum does a good job when he sticks to topics he knows and are not influenced by TDS.

  4. Boehner saw the light…

    And by the light we mean money and power, amiright?

    1. YUp. He can spot that ol “green” light from three thousand miles away in broad daylight. His sniffer is pretty well calibrated for the smell of “green” as well.

  5. Murray Rothbard at least in the second, 1979 edition of For A New Liberty saw a vexing shift from anti-marijuana to anti-tobacco policy, and Joe Haldeman’s The Forever War “predicted” it satirically.

    I think there is a principle contributing to the simultaneous pro-psychedlic, pro-cannabis, anti-narcotic, and anti-nicotine policies and policy shifts: what the scuttlebutt is regarding what’s good for people or at least not bad for them. Nicotine’s got to be bad, since that’s what caused all those deaths from tobacco in the previous generation, “right”? Similarly narcotics. But the story on cannabis is that it’s healthful, huh? And psychedelics have similarly good press now.

    So that’s it: Follow the trends, and especially follow the demographic trend of one generation’s replacing another. If CBD came from tobacco plants, it wouldn’t be having the fad we’re seeing now.

    1. Busy bodies gotta be busy.

      1. But it’s also culture war. That’s what I think Rothbard and Haldeman saw: that the same people who wanted to decontrol cannabis wanted to control tobacco. Largely it was the hippies’ revenge on the older generation. It’s not just being a busybody, it’s who gets the handle of the sword and who the point.

  6. Seriously, the strategy of promoting medical marijuana first worked, and exactly as its advocates had hoped. It promoted the idea that pot is good for you, hence not a worthy target of prohibitions.

    Meanwhile, narcotic analgesics must be bad for you, since there were all these people taking them and dying. Never mind that they tended to be taken by individuals who were already severely debilitated, and that medical authorities tended to withhold them from people who weren’t already very sick, for fear of “addicting” them. So narcotics became increasingly associated with sickness. Cannabis, while at first prescribed only for those who were even sicker, once it got out as something to make things better for a wide swath of people who were only mildly troubled, became the health food that you smoked.

  7. Fascists gotta control the populace.
    Any old ban will do, as long as it gets the populace to accept federal government interference in any area where they have no constitutional basis to be.

    1. No, I don’t think it’s about “control the populace”, but rather, “take away their pleasure, not ours”. And it’s really not about federal anything, it’s irrespective of the level or mechanism of government, and operates in other countries as well.

  8. Gee you mean the 4 decades you spent hysterically exaggerating the risks of alcohol, tobacco and prescription drugs in order to get your dope legalized actually had some consequences?

  9. I think the shift can largely be explained in terms of underlying concerns on the part of the prohibitionists. The objections to cannabis and psychedelics were essentially moral ones – the decay of society and whatnot. It was never about actual demonstrable health effects.

    People who support prohibitions on tobacco/nicotine and opiates, meanwhile, are looking at it from a “public health” perspective. They’ve decided that these substances present health risks that justify the exercise of lethal state force in the name of prevention.

    To be clear I don’t agree with either framing, but I do think the shift in which substances are in the doghouse reflects an underlying change in voter priorities.

    1. But it’s not that simple either, because nicotine is practically harmless. It’s some dark halo effect wherein because nicotine is associated with a product that did a lot of damage because it was smoked (and very dilute. hence necessitating large amounts of smoke to be inhaled). Cannabis was smoked too, but it’s so much more potent that a lot less smoke had to be taken in with it.

    2. opiates are FAR WORSE as far as altering one’s state of mind the MUST also be an attendant moral issue with them, but that is largely ignored for the simple reason that Big Pharma make bank on manufactured opioid products. Meanwhole maruhootchie can easily be grown in nearly every area of the US for next to nothing, and plucking and slowly drying the buds is something any eedjit can manage, at least closely enough to have a saleable product at high profit.

      Meanwhile cannabis is able to be used beneficially in ways that do NOT have any psychoactive component, yet profide VERY effective relief from a wide range of symptoms. I know people who use it in a way they do not feel anything inway of psuchoactivity, and yet the stuff absolutely removes debilitating chronic pain, muscle cramps and weakness, arthritis and joint pain, yet with NO side effects. He is able to grow the stuff legally in his own yard, enough each crop to carry him until next harvest. He is finally as close to pain free as he was in high school, decades ago, at almost no cost. And the stuff remains “schedule one”? We ridicule the bozos who bought the lie from duPont to list hemp as schedule one thus eiminating all US competition for their new fibre for cordage……

      Amazing how corporate America are able to bribe/persuade government to do their bidding to “fix” the market in favour of a given corporate entity, which “fixing” in most every case is for government to turn fascist and control a certain class of private means of production. DuPont hornswoggle/buy Congress, Congress make a law that controls private means of production and boinggg, we have fascism. Which , defined, is government control of private means of production. And all over something we do/don’t put into our bodies, a class of goods over which FedGov have been assigned absolutely NO CONTROL of any sort.

  10. re: “Responding to a surge in opioid-related deaths that began in the early 2000s, the government imposed new restrictions”

    That statement is technically true but gets the real causation backwards. The surge starting in the early 2000s was itself the result of government restrictions of the 1990s.

  11. Larry Niven & Jerry Pournelle predicted this decades ago.

  12. Started Panicking About Nicotine

    Someone slept through the 90s.

  13. And the federal government was granted the Constitutional power to prohibit substances WHERE???

    America will never be great again UNTIL politicians start learning they have Constitutional Restrictions of which they SWORE to uphold.

  14. Nannies are wont to nannie.

    Having controlled a given activity for years, they now learn “oh, right, that’s changed now, you mustn’t worry yourself on that one further”. In their frustration they cast about until they unconver the NEXT hidden bit of nastiness over which they conclude they MUST nannie.

    Meanwhile, we out here mutely suffer under their ever-watching eye.

    Time we give notice, two minutes should be ample, and let them go in search of another position elsewhere. Maybe Venezuela need a few “good” nannies. Surely Maduro could find a post for a few of them. Tuppence a week and all found should suffice, Character references not necessary,

  15. Let’s acknowledge that opioids are a current primary target for restrictions. And the perpetrators of opioid abuse are the minority of doctors who prescribe them irresponsibly (i.e., unethically and illegally) and those who acquire them illegally and use them predominantly (research shows) in combination with other drugs including alcohol at levels resulting in overdosing and sometimes death. Those two classes of people are the ones against which restrictions and regulations (and education and treatment) should be directed and/or penalties imposed.

    But let me shout out in a loud and ANGRY voice who is actually “punished” these days. It’s people who suffer from chronic intractible (24/7/365) pain due to some medical condition that is incurable at present by medications/treatment OTHER than opioids. The opioids prescribed for them in carefully monitored dosages by trained and responsible physicians enable them to tamp down their pain enough to have “half a life”, not pain free but still able to do some kinds of work and get out of bed to engage in things in and (if lucky) outside the home SOME of the time. These people usually can care for themselves with minimal help from family and outsiders. However the “others”, those who are being denied pain control by having their prescriptions tapered or curtailed dramatically or cut off altogether or whose doctors simply refuse to treat them any longer or shut down and retire — THOSE are the victims of the insane and cruel overreaction to opioids. They are sentenced, without a trial, to a lifetime of unrelenting pain.

    Yes, we need research into better pain medicine in the long term. Yet, today, regulators’ scare tactics and overzealous “enforcement” are driving good doctors out of legitimate pain-treatment prescribing for fear of being persecuted and prosecuted as so many have been in their field; this despite their rigorous adherence to medical standards and all the required screening and record-keeping. Being accused is enough to drive their practices under in most cases; forget about actually being convicted. I cannot blame them for protecting their careers, income, and families from ruin.

    My late wife (cancer victim) would have committed suicide — no doubt about it — if her oxycontin had been taken from her. Her central nervous system had done on “pain signal overdrive” for a decade following a tragic accident and subsequent neurosurgery and orthopedic surgery to put her spine back together. The only “out” was death, and she was prepared for it at age 79.

    As a society, we are turning a blind eye to the REAL victims of the opioid “crackdown”. It is a national tragedy, large scale. Borders on crimes against humanity, and certainly is contrary to the credo of the medical profession to treat suffering individuals. It’s also at the core of senior citizens taking their own lives out of sheer desperation.

    Government, even when well-intending, should not interfere with doctor/patient decision making except where reasonable laws are being broken by those who cause problems for society… and chronic pain sufferers on prescribed opioids, the millions of them today, are not only NOT a problem for society, they are people who are increasingly being kept outside “normal society” when they could be active contributors as they were prior to their pain affliction. The increasing difficulty of them getting ongoing treatment IS a problem as they are rendered unproductive in their pain-driven solitude … until they die.

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  17. Anyone who has been paying attention has noticed that the drug warrior types have had tobacco in their crosshairs for at least the past 20 years. I think the WHO even made a declaration for the world to be tobacco-free by 202o (now 2030) at one point. They left nicotine alone because it is offered as a treatment for smoking cessation and sold by pharma companies-vaping has changed all that, so now look for them to go after nicotine itself with equal fervor. It matters not if nicotine is actually even that harmful, they didn’t need any kind of scientific evidence that pot was harmful to ban it. All the politicians see is a bunch of scared soccer mommies freaking out that they found a Juul pod in their precious little one’s underwear drawer.

  18. “This Was the Decade When Politicians Stopped Panicking About Marijuana –”


    They realized the war had failed and that they might as well make money from it through taxation.

    Simply because politicians write laws that might comply with libertarianism does not mean they did so for that reason !

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