Voters in five states – Arizona, California, Maine, Massachusetts, and Nevada – will decide this November on ballot initiatives seeking to legalize and regulate the adult use, production, and retail sale of marijuana. Polling data shows these measures to be leading among likely voters.
Predictably, those opposed to amending cannabis’ criminal status are warning that these proposed changes in marijuana policy will lead to a plethora of unintended consequences. Yet the initial experiences in jurisdictions like Colorado, Oregon, and Washington have shown these fears to be largely misplaced.
According to a just-released analysis by the Washington, DC think-tank The CATO Institute, the enactment of statewide laws regulating the adult use, production, and retail sale of cannabis has had negligible, if any, adverse impact on overall health and safety. Researchers from Harvard University assessed the impact of adult-use regulation laws in Alaska, Colorado, Oregon, and Washington on a variety of health and safety outcomes, including drug use, suicide rates, substance abuse treatment admissions, crime rates, and road safety. They concluded:
“[S]tate marijuana legalization [laws] have had minimal effect on marijuana use and related outcomes. The absence of significant adverse consequences is especially striking given the sometimes dire predictions made by legalization opponents.”
By contrast, authors determined that legal changes have had a significant impact on generating new streams of state tax revenue. “One area where legal marijuana has reaped unexpectedly large benefits is state tax revenue,” researchers concluded. In some jurisdictions “these figures are above some pre-legalization forecasts.” Specifically, retail cannabis sales in Colorado and Washington, sales have totaled over $2.2 billion dollars over the past two years. According to statistics compiled by the Colorado Department of Revenue, regulating marijuana is responsible for the creation of over 27,000 new industry jobs.
Contrary to the fears of some critics, marijuana regulatory schemes are not predictive of upticks in cannabis use by young people.
According to a June 2016 analysis by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control, the percentage of all high school students who have ever used cannabis fell from an estimated 43 percent in 1995 (one year prior to the passage of the nation’s first medical pot law) to 39 percent in 2015. The percentage of teens currently using pot (defined as at least once in the past 30 days) also declined during this same period, from 25 percent in 1995 to 22 percent in 2015. During this same period of time, nearly half of all US states significantly amended their cannabis policies.
The CDC further finds that fewer young people are reporting that they possess ready access to pot. Since 2002, the agency reports that the percentage of respondents aged 12 to 17 years who perceive marijuana to be “fairly easy or very easy to obtain” fell by 13 percent. Among those ages 18 to 25, marijuana’s perceived availability also declined.
These positive trends are also evident in Colorado and Washington. The 2015 Colorado Health Kids Survey, released earlier this year, reports that teens’ consumption of cannabis has declined since 2009 and that this trend has been uninterrupted by legalization. Data from Washington State tells a similar story. An analysis of state survey results from the years 2002 to 2014 by the Washington State Institute of Public Policy found no increase in teens’ marijuana use during the decade.
By contrast, federal data does report a recent increase in cannabis use by adults. That said, a just published study in the European Journal of Internal Medicine finds that this increased marijuana use “is not associated with increased health care utilization.”
In jurisdictions where marijuana access has long been available for therapeutic purposes, studies find that legalization is associated with reduced rates of opioid abuse and mortality, as well as decreased rates of workplace absenteeism.
In short, America’s real-world experience reveals that state and local governments can regulate cannabis in a manner that keeps marijuana out of the hands of children while simultaneously satisfying the seller, the consumer and the taxman — and the sky won’t fall. Just the opposite is true. Regulations, such as age restrictions for consumers and licensing requirements for commercial producers and merchants, are effective and proven alternatives to criminalization. For instance, the American
public’s overall consumption of alcohol and tobacco, and young people’s use in particular, now stands at near-historic lows. According to recent federal government figures alcohol consumption within the past 30 days among young people has fallen from 70 percent of 12th-graders in 1980 to 40 percent today. Monthly tobacco use among 12th-graders has similarly plunged from nearly 40 percent in the late 1970s to just 16 percent today.
Americans have grown weary of the failures of cannabis prohibition, and they are no longer persuaded by the Reefer Madness-inspired rhetoric of the past. They are ready to embrace proposals that reflect the plant’s rapidly changing cultural status, even if many of their federally elected officials are not. That is why majorities will head to the polls this November and cast their vote in favor of legalizing and regulating the responsible use of cannabis by adults.
Armentano is the deputy director of NORML (the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws) and an adviser for Freedom Leaf. He is the co-author of the book “Marijuana Is Safer: So Why Are We Driving People to Drink?” (Cheslea Green, 2013) and author of the book “The Citizen’s Guide to State-By-State Marijuana Laws” (Whitman Press, 2015) Follow NORML on Twitter @NORML