Too little info makes reform on marijuana challenging
Washington faces a lot of unknowns as it tries to make legal recreational marijuana use work, but the new challenges are better than criminalization.
Seattle Times staff columnist
And now into the haze. Washington took another concrete step toward legal sales of marijuana for recreational use last week, picking the first person to receive a license, but there’s a lot about this new direction that’s still hard to know.
Decriminalizing marijuana sales and recreational use by adults was the right thing to do, but now the state has to deal with potential health and safety issues that can’t be easily predicted.
Will more young people get their hands on marijuana, and if they do, what effect will that have? Will users be more inclined to drive high than they are now, and what would that mean for safety? How fast will the illegal trade wither away? The questions go on and on, and the answers are rarely clear.
Colorado and Washington both voted in 2012 to decriminalize adult recreational use. Sales in Colorado began at the start of this year, but Washington’s start date likely will be sometime in June or July, so maybe we can see what’s going on in the Rocky Mountains and get a jump on things here.
A few months isn’t really much lead time, but it’s worth paying attention anyway. The day after Washington named the fist dispensary, I saw a news report that Colorado is spending $1 million on television commercials it hopes will dissuade people from driving high. So, I thought we should definitely see how well that works.
An Associated Press story said that in our state more than 1,300 drivers tested positive for marijuana last year, an increase of nearly 25 percent over 2012.
Driving while stoned is illegal in every state, including Washington, and it should be. Driving impaired is dangerous no matter what causes the impairment. But it seems it’s harder to pin down impairment levels from marijuana use. Like a lot about the drug, it isn’t very clear how much of the main proactive ingredient, THC, signals impairment. Some studies suggest it takes quite a bit to come close to the effect of alcohol. And besides, the levels of THC that authorities use to measure marijuana use stay in the body long after a person is no longer high.
It’s hard to tell with marijuana how and how much it affects people, and hard to measure its ill effects and its benefits. One reason often cited for the shortage of information is that under federal law, marijuana is an illegal drug, so it is difficult for researchers to get money for studies. Without sufficient information, policy makers face a lot of stumbling around in the dark.
There is still a lot to learn about how marijuana affects health and safety, but as I said at the start, decriminalizing it was a good choice for other reasons. I have no interest in using it myself, but I don’t want to punish people who do so responsibly anymore than I’d want someone to stop me from having a glass of wine with dinner, or a beer when I’m watching the Seahawks.
Arresting, prosecuting and jailing adults for possessing small amounts of marijuana distorts our justice system, wastes money and damages lives unnecessarily.
One clear fact is that across the country, police arrest black users at a disproportionately high rate. In Washington, black users have been arrested at more than twice the rate of white users. Only one state, Hawaii, arrests white and black users at the same rate. Nationally, there is not much difference in rates of use between black and white Americans, though white people ages 18-25 report slightly higher use.
All of that drug-war damage, and what to show for it?
Now there’ll be some new tax revenue, a chance to get criminal gangs out of the selling business, and less disruption of lives in heavily targeted minority neighborhoods.
Who knows what will happen going forward, but the challenges of making decriminalized sales work are less onerous than the impact of prohibition. We are not so lost as we were before. The fog will clear.
Jerry Large’s column appears Monday and Thursday. Reach him at 206-464-3346 or firstname.lastname@example.org
Information in this article, originally published March 9, 1014, was corrected March 10, 2014. A previous version of this story incorrectly gave the acronym for tetrahydrocannabinol, the primary psychoactive substance found in cannabis, as TCH. The correct acronym is THC..
About Jerry Large
I try to write about the intersections of everyday life and big issues. I like to invite readers to think a little differently. The topics I choose represent the things in which I take an interest, and I try to deal with them the way most folks would, sometimes seriously, sometimes with a sense of humor. My column runs Mondays and Thursdays.
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