Not So Fast: Why the Rush to Legalize Marijuana may Backfire

Just as Canada made a sweeping decision to fully legalize marijuana, former Mexican President Vicente Fox made headlines of his own after joining the board of “High Times”, a publication that has carried the crusade for cannabis legalization since its inception. In an interview with the Associated Press, Fox argues in favor of extending legalization not just to marijuana but to all so-called street drugs. Fox cites as a reason for his position the brutality associated with the illegal drug trades. Government cannot successfully regulate people’s behavior, he argues, and so individuals ought to be free to do what they wish without fear of criminal repercussion.

Fox’s support of drug legalization is no longer the minority opinion it once was among national leaders. In the U.S., eight states — Alaska, Washington, Oregon, Nevada, California, Colorado, Maine and Vermont — have legalized recreational marijuana. Lawmakers are increasingly supportive of marijuana legalization not just as a means to relieve prison overcrowding but as another source of jobs, tax and investment revenue. When it comes to an across-the-board legalization at the federal level, however, a wait-and-see approach ought to be embraced. Why? Because early evidence in the wake of successful State-based decriminalization initiatives reveal problems policymakers have yet to resolve.

States that have legalized recreational marijuana nonetheless grapple with crime that some attribute to legalization. In some respects this is unsurprising. Why? Because drug dealers are not going to surrender their markets, legal or illegal, without a fight. Growers and smugglers who are associated with cartels, similarly, are likely to continue their ruthless trade practices in effort to dominate markets. Decriminalization, similarly, does nothing to reduce risks associated with use. Increased rates of Poison Control Center calls and emergency room admissions among children are but one unforeseen consequence. Perhaps most damning — and entirely contrary to the popular perception about marijuana’s mellowing behavioral impacts — regular marijuana use may lower inhibitions, paving the way for volatile, hostile and impulsive behavior. Dangerous and stupid, violent if not criminal, actions on the part of the intoxicated will not cease simply because the stigma associated with casual use wanes.

In states where marijuana is legal traffic accident rates have been reported. Additional DUI-linked fatalities on the road, along with higher car insurance rates in States where it is legal, are likely to follow (if early trends hold). Unlike alcohol, there is no field test for marijuana intoxication that law enforcement officers can deploy on the spot. Complicating matters, the active ingredient in marijuana can remain in the body for weeks — and may even show up in non-users who are exposed to secondhand smoke. This makes it difficult to confirm if or when intoxication occurred. Law enforcement officers are instead trained to spot marijuana intoxication using visual and behavioral cues. It is unclear, however, whether subjective observations will hold up in DUI court cases, which in turn may mean that DUI associated with marijuana use may be a difficult-to-establish criminal offense. On the flip side, DUI trends also suggest that where marijuana is a factor other substances, such as alcohol and opioid intoxication, are also implicated. As gateway drug theory proponents argue — and research has begun to confirm — an inclination to use one type of intoxicating substance does not preclude another. For some individuals, moving from one addictive substance to another is a predictable course in the addiction disease process.

Social ramifications are likely to play out on other fronts, too. If recreational drug abuse becomes just another medical issue for which treatment services are required of insurers, the high cost of housing inmates for drug-related offenses will simply transfer to other aspects of society — namely, the health care sector. The American health care system is already poised to be overwhelmed by a rapidly aging baby boomer population. Addiction treatment services, if mandated by law as a means to acknowledge legalization — though necessary to combating drug addiction  — will contribute to health care cost inflation at a time when we can least afford to absorb the impacts.

Few, if any, of the potential long-term impacts of drug legalization on a broader scale have been addressed. Many of the gains attributed to public campaigns against cigarette smoking, for example, may be lost as primary and secondary exposure to marijuana smoke expands in the wake of recreational marijuana legalization. It has long been observed, after all, that rates of marijuana use and cigarette smoking overlap. Thanks to secondhand smoke exposure, non-users — including children — may suffer ill effects, too. Male infertility rates are also linked to marijuana-impaired sperm. A systematic review of the literature indicates that “harms associated with active marijuana use include mental illness, brain developmental changes, respiratory and cardiac disease, and poor prenatal outcomes.” Despite marijuana’s established medicinal uses, much of the above is likely to translate to a rise in marijuana-linked health and psychiatric problems that are traceable to a broader acceptance of recreational use.

Fox points out that drug prohibition has a lousy record. And he’s right. But one thing public policy advocates must appreciate before they jump on the legalization bandwagon is the truism that “there is no free lunch”. Legalization of marijuana and other street drugs — and the inevitable push for health insurers to cover the treatment of “recreational” drug abuse — will be a positive development for users who seek medical intervention. But as recreational drug use becomes a facet of everyday life, conceivably fewer — not more — individuals will perceive such behavior as a serious problem in the first place.

Rightly or wrongly, especially among impressionable teens and young adults, how can drug use be bad for you if it’s not against the law?

As a former leader of a nation central to the illegal drug trades, Fox undoubtedly has a keen eye for the violent consequences of drug cartels run amok. But Fox will not foot the bill — or contend with the consequences — in the event marijuana legalization marks a turning point in the broader drug legalization debate. In the years to come, Americans and Canadians are likely to incur higher health care costs, higher life insurance rates and higher car insurance rates — just to name a few.

As marijuana use becomes no less taboo than downing a chilled beer at a summer barbecue, it seems probable that a greater share of Americans and Canadians will partake in this once-criminal pastime. (Notably, the rise in child emergency room admissions in States that have legalized marijuana indirectly suggests that legalization has already increased rates of possession.) Freedom, however, has its price. One of those costs will be a reduced capacity for society to recapture the stigma that once served, however imperfectly, to keep the public at large from normalizing psychotropic drug use.

Today’s marijuana isn’t your hippie grandfather’s weed.

Legal or not, we cannot trivialize the risks linked to illicit drugs. One of the reasons we cannot be sure whether the impact of legalization will be as benign as proponents propose is because marijuana potency, not unlike the heightened potency of street opioids, is stronger than it was in years past — yet another key consideration that has yet to inform the public policy debate. (Still riskier synthetic marijuana availability is also on the rise.)

While legalization may indeed lower incarceration rates associated with specific offenses such as drug possession, the current public policy debate fails to account for the increased rates of incarceration that may arise from intoxication-related offenses. (As an example, California law dictates that a DUI resulting in a felonious injury can result in between six and 16 years in prison.) Even proponents of decriminalization, for that matter, acknowledge that legalization will not eliminate the “war on drugs” on the part of syndicates operating in Mexico and the United States. As a result, legalization of drugs at the level Fox envisions bears little relationship to the question of how much, if any, crime trends — let alone tragic accidents — may shift. If anything, as drug-use stigmas decline and drug potency levels climb, society may contend with more fallout.

Properly implemented — in tandem with an ongoing public relations effort to drive home drug-use risks  — legalization may not be a disastrous path. Just the same, the haste with which States — entire nations, even — are pushing to legalize is almost certain to backfire. No matter which side of the legalization debate prevails, this much we ought to agree on: Changes to drug policy must be rolled out gradually so that we can identify unforeseen consequences before they take an irrevocable toll. For every action, there is an equal but opposite reaction. When it comes to drug legalization, we simply cannot afford to underestimate the law of unintended consequences.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.