Going to Pot in 2019?

MarijuanaMany, many years ago when I was a freshman at the University of Illinois, I’d come back to my dorm room in dear old Scott Hall (Da Ritz) after class, and to get to my room, I had to wade through a cloud of marijuana smoke wafting from under the doors of practically every room on the floor. That, and the ubiquitous refrain of “Smoke on the Water” that played at an ear-splitting level from morning ‘til night from the room next door are two things that I’ll remember forever, and not in a good way (especially Smoke on the Water; God, how I came to hate that song).

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I say that to ease into the discussion of what will probably become the top story in Springfield in the upcoming session: legalization of recreational marijuana.

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Marijuana regulation started as a patchwork of state laws early in the 20th Century, and was then subjected to national regulation as a tax act in 1937. It was officially outlawed for any use, including medicinal, by the Controlled Substances Act of 1970. So we’re not dealing with ancient history here.

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My own view on marijuana use is one of complete ambivalence; much like the view that Jefferson had about religion: “[I]t does me no injury for my neighbour to say there are twenty gods, or no god. It neither picks my pocket nor breaks my leg”. To be fair, Jefferson said in the same breath that: “The legitimate powers of government extend to such acts only as are injurious to others” (what a quaint notion) and there are those who in good faith say marijuana use both picks my pocket and breaks my leg because of public safety concerns of impaired driving, the social cost of its use and health care costs attendant to its misuse. I’ll use the rest of this post to try to hit the high (no pun intended) points.

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In 2012, Colorado and Washington State legalized the production, distribution and sale of marijuana for recreational use, followed by Alaska, Oregon and Washington D.C. in 2014. Colorado’s experience has provided much of the focus when arguments are made against legalization here in Illinois, and that’s what I’ll focus on here.

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Before that, however, there’s one major difference between the means by which Colorado legalized marijuana and the effort to legalize it in Illinois: Colorado’s legalization was the result of a statewide ballot initiative to enshrine legal marijuana into the state Constitution, while Illinois’ effort to legalize will be brought forth through legislation. This is a critical distinction, because by going through the legislative process, there can be a closer examination of what works and doesn’t work in ballot initiative states. Many of the more egregious excesses reported from Colorado can be laid at the feet of the means by which they got there. Say what you want about Springfield, but Illinois’ legislative approach will provide a much more sober and measured approach to this issue and allow for changes to the law without having to change the state Constitution (see: Illinois State Pensions, guaranteed). If we’re going to do it, this is the right way to go.

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The first objection to legalization is that it will increase usage. Opponents cite a 2015 report from the Rocky Mountain High Intensity Drug Trafficking Area (RMHIDTA) (I hope John Denver’s estate is getting a royalty from this) which indicates that one-third of 18-25 year olds in Colorado reported using cannabis the previous month, up from 21% in 2006. The only problem is that Colorado didn’t legalize until 2012, so it’s unclear what this statistic is meant to signify; it certainly doesn’t support a large increase exclusively due to legalization. It also states that teen use increased since legalization, when there is evidence to indicate that teen use has in fact fallen.

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The social costs of driving under the influence of THC (the active ingredient in cannabis) are a second concern. Obviously we all want to get impaired drivers off the road. But again, the RMHIDTA uses statistics that don’t prove its point. The report says that the number of traffic deaths where the driver tested positive for cannabis doubled since legalization, but it doesn’t say if THC levels were a contributing factor to the accident. In fact, it appears that the results are, at best, mixed. Traces of THC remain in the body long after impairment has subsided, and as a Colorado Department of Transportation study notes: “The presence of a cannabinoid does not necessarily indicate recent use of marijuana or impairment.”

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In spite of what’s being said about the lack of field sobriety tests for THC impairment, a 2017 study by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration indicates that a “divided attention test” has been used to detect marijuana-based impairment along with all other drugs in addition to alcohol for many years and continues to be recommended by the NHTSA for marijuana-based DUI detection.

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The final point I’ll hit is the fear that legalization results in higher crime rates. Again, the data are mixed and without further evidence that there’s a direct correlation between marijuana use and crime, raw arrest data indicating impairment isn’t sufficient to make that claim.

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Part and parcel with the fear of increased crime are the stories coming out of Colorado about the influx of drug cartels setting up shop in areas such as Pueblo. It appears that there may to be another reason for such an increase in production. A loophole created by Colorado’s medical marijuana law allowed caregivers to grow up to 99 plants in the home so as to provide enough of the oils derived from them for therapeutic use. Criminal elements moved in under cover of the law and grew marijuana mostly for export to states that hadn’t legalized it. A law which took effect in 2018 reduced the number of plants grown for medicinal purposes to 12 per household, and local law enforcement has stepped up its efforts to crack down on large operations.

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The Colorado recreational use ballot initiative gave every Colorado resident of legal age a constitutional right to grow 6 marijuana plants for personal use. Attempts to impose a “per-household” limit of 12 instead of a per-person limitation on the number of plants which can be grown are running up against arguments that such limitations amount to a denial of a constitutional right (we know all about constitutional guarantees, don’t we?).

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Until we see the actual bill, we don’t know how the above issues and any other number of concerns which may arise will be addressed. Nonetheless, the question we must answer is whether we’re going to be content to just continue the policy of marijuana decriminalization. I don’t think that’s a good idea. Reducing or removing penalties for cannabis possession without regulating production and sale simply rewards the one group most able to rush in to fill the demand: the very criminal element which we’re trying to eliminate. Illinois residents will continue to consume cannabis regardless of what the law says. After decades of prohibition and now decriminalization, marijuana is the most commonly-used illicit drug in the country today. Staying the course on current policy only perpetuates that which hasn’t worked in the past. However… (to be continued)

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