by Mitch Earleywine
The New York Times has joined the majority of US citizens in the call for a more rational marijuana policy. The White House responded with an attempt to explain why a taxed and regulated market is no “silver bullet solution.” Alluding to The Lone Ranger probably wasn’t a great idea, but I think they mean that this isn’t a panacea for every problem related to cannabis.
Of course, all our other legislation is perfect, so we shouldn’t change this policy until we have a solution with all advantages and no disadvantages.
Our government says that this use of law enforcement and court time targets marijuana users because the plant alters brain development, impedes academic achievement, impairs driving, and creates addiction. The tacit assumption, that prohibition is going to prevent all of these problems, is tenable at best. (We’ve had police officers whip out the handcuffs over 18 million times since 1981. From 1995 until now, we’ve had at least one marijuana arrest per minute. The plant is more available than ever.) But let’s forget about how prohibition isn’t going to help and address the White House’s Furious Four Factors.
The first two (brain development and academic achievement) fall under the “what about the children” category. When all else fails, it’s great to play the baby card. NORML has condemned juvenile consumption for decades now. Of course, the underground market is notoriously bad at carding purchasers. When was the last time a dealer asked for ID? Licensed distributors who could lose their livelihood for underage sales would be markedly more motivated to keep the plant from children. But let’s address the claims.
Brain Development. Regular use early in life could alter brain development. But here’s the point no one is supposed to mention: we don’t really know for sure. It’s likely. It works in animals. But it’s not proven. The niftiest gizmos that take pictures of brains often can find differences between those who’ve used early and those who haven’t. But we don’t have a time machine. We don’t really know if these people had deviant brains before they ever saw the plant.
Investigators who run these expensive studies also have a hell of a time publishing results unless they find some differences. Many would rather leave the data in a drawer than battle editors and reviewers in an attempt to publish a paper that says that marijuana has no impact. What has been found is not always consistent. It’s one brain area showing differences in one study and another in the next. Reports that find nothing, or that the non-users actually have deviant brains (e.g. Block, O’Leary, Ehrhardt, et al., 2000, who found bigger ventricles in non-users), never get mentioned. Big reviews try to tell a coherent story, but effects are small. Binge drinking is markedly worse. (See Lisdahl et al.). Cigarette smoking leads to detectable changes in brain structure, too. I’d joke that we should make alcohol and tobacco illegal following this logic, but I’m afraid some people will actually try to do so.
Academic achievement. If the government genuinely cared about my academic achievement, I think I would have learned more in public school. But that’s another issue. We know that mastering new material immediately after using cannabis is extremely difficult. Going to class high is a dumb waste of time. It would certainly interfere with grades. But what’s the real issue here?
Decades ago, researchers showed that college students who used the plant had better grades than their peers who didn’t (Gergen, Gergen, & Morse, 1972; Goode, 1971). It’s not that marijuana’s a study aid. Students who liked the plant might have taken classes they enjoyed and flourished as a result. Subsequent studies didn’t always confirm these results, and investigators lost interest.
But high school kids who use the plant often bonk their exams. Most heavy users had earned lower grades prior to their marijuana consumption, suggesting cannabis could not have caused the poorer performance (Shedler & Block, 1990). Essentially, cannabis users with bad grades in high school also had low marks when they were in fourth grade. Cannabis might not lead to bad grades, but folks with bad grades often turn to cannabis. In addition, high school students who smoke cannabis heavily also tend to use alcohol and other illicit substances. Once these factors are taken into account, the link between cannabis and academic performance disappears. These results suggest that drugs other than marijuana might lower grades (Hall, Solowij, & Lennon, 1994).
In truth, if the government wants to see better achievement in school, the best answer would require schools with funding. Perhaps we could attract more of the energetic, enthusiastic, well-trained teachers who inspire learning if we offered better salaries. Students might find school more engaging when teachers are delighted and facilities are excellent. Busting teens for possession seems too indirect a strategy for improving education.
Driving. Paul Armentano has done such a superb job of summarizing the relevant data on this topic that I don’t want to belabor it.
A few points are worth emphasizing. NORML has always opposed impaired driving. People who can’t pass appropriate roadside sobriety tests should not operate a motor vehicle. Note that passing a sobriety test has little to do with the content of anyone’s blood or urine.
A recent meta-analytic review suggests that, at most, cannabis is no worse than antihistamines and probably on par with penicillin when it comes to culpability for accidents. If we’re going to make all drugs that impair driving illegal, we’re going to have a lot of runny noses and infections to handle.
Research from The Netherlands shows that folks who use cannabis in the laboratory lose their willingness to drive (source). When the experimenter forced them, they go slower, avoid trying to pass other cars, and start putting on the breaks earlier when they have to stop. These compensatory steps probably explain why a couple of studies have found cannabis users less culpable than drug-free drivers. Surprise surprise! This work never got any press. (Drummer, 1994, Bates & Blakely, 1999).
A study of over 300 drivers involved in fatal crashes in California focused on motorists who tested positive for cannabis but no other drug. Unexpectedly, they were half as likely to be responsible for accidents as those who were free of substances (Williams,,Peat, & Crouch, 1985). Another investigation of over 1,800 fatal crashes in the United States found that drivers who used only cannabis were only 70% as likely to have caused an accident as the drug-free group (Terhune, Ippolito, & Crouch, 1992). These are literally impossible to publish anymore, potentially suggesting the bias alluded to in the Elvik meta-analysis. So don’t drive high, but drive as if you were. Go slowly. Don’t try to pass. Leave room to stop.
Addiction. The new DSM V definition of addiction qualifies me for a caffeine disorder, so I’m obviously biased. Better take what I say with a grain of salt. But be careful, salt allegedly has addictive properties, too.
After five millennia and a series of moving definitions, researchers have finally identified something that they can call marijuana withdrawal and marijuana addiction. I’m guessing that prohibitionists really love this one. it conjures up images of sweaty heroin users snatching purses and plunging needles into infected arms. Have you met people who mug girl scouts to maintain their marijuana money? Neither have I. So what is marijuana addiction supposed to be? Among the most common symptoms are disturbed sleep and, I can barely say this with a straight face, loss of appetite. Anybody who uses every day and then gets irritated on a day without the plant could end up qualifying. If you tell anyone struggling with the opiates that these are the symptoms of your addiction, you’re likely to get a swift kick in the crotch. Expert opinions suggest that only the hallucinogens are less addictive than marijuana.
The most negative thing a government can do to its citizens is punish them. If we want to use punishment, we need outstanding reasons. These four simply do not qualify.
Block, R. I., O’Leary, D. S., Ehrhardt, J. C., Augustinack, J. C., Ghoneim, M. M., Arndt, S., et al. (2000). Effects of frequent marijuana use on brain tissue volume and composition. NeuroReport, 11, 491-496.
Drummer, O. H. (1994). Drugs in drivers killed in Australian road traffic accidents. (Report no. 0594). Melbourne, Australia: Monash University, Victorian Institute of Forensic Pathology
Gergen, M. K., Gergen, K. J., & Morse, S. J. (1972). Correlates of marijuana use among college students. Journal of Applied Social Psychology, 2, 1-16.
Goode, E. (1971). Drug use and grades in college. Nature, 239, 225-227.
Hall, W., Solowij, N., & Lennon, J. (1994). The health and psychological consequences of cannabis use. Canberra: Australian Government Publication Services.
Shedler, J., & Block, J. (1990). Adolescent drug use and psychological health: A longitudinal inquiry. American Psychologist, 45, 612-630.
Terhune, K. W., Ippolito, C. A., & Crouch, D. J. (1992). The incidence and role of drugs in fatally injured drivers (DOT HS Report No. 808 065). Washington DC: U.S. Department of Transportation, National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.
Williams, A. F., Peat, M. A., & Crouch, D. J. (1985). Drugs in fatally injured young male drivers. Public Health Reports, 100, 19-25.