Who's got the facts on cannabis legalization in NJ?

 

Recently, NJ-Ramp has begun a campaign to combat recreational cannabis legalization in New Jersey. Their campaign mimics Reefer Madness style propaganda during which fear mongering and falsehood promulgation were commonplace. NJ-Ramp is doing a disservice to New Jersey citizens by obscuring reality.

Cannabis legalization isn't a panacea-like answer to all of the woes and issues of our society, but it is a necessary step to achieve our unified goal of a fair & just judicial system. While we want legally regulated recreational cannabis, we want the policy to be discussed and implemented in a fair manner.

Here are the facts.

Cost-Benefit

Many individuals and groups wary about cannabis legalization are concerned about the potential costs to society. NJ-RAMP, a coalition that lists this very concern as one of their tenets, claims that any revenue gained by legalized cannabis is outweighed by the societal costs attributed to legalization. They relate this to alcohol and tobacco, where the costs easily far outweigh the benefits [1] [2].

NJ Annual Healthcare Costs Directly Caused by Smoking $4.06 bil
NJ Medicaid Costs Caused by Smoking $1.17 bil
Residents' State & Federal Tax Burden From Smoking-Caused Gov't Expenditures $870/household
NJ Total Costs of Underage Drinking $1.6 bil

NJ-RAMP references a report discussing the incidence of ER visits among kids in Colorado. However, the referenced report states that:

"...one Colorado emergency room’s admissions alone due to pot use alone may cost the state hundreds of thousands of dollars. "

This statement seems to be conjecture; we didn't find any support for this in the literature. Citations are traditionally used to acknowledge the ideas of others and support the credibility of writing. Using a citation to falsely support your own opinion is generally frowned upon.

Cannabis use is not associated with any costly diseases such as lung cancer or hepatitis. No death has ever been attributed solely to cannabis. On the contrary, cannabis is associated with a substantial reduction in premature deaths [3].  Furthermore, the cannabis industry brought in $745 million in tax revenue for 2017 [4]. In New Jersey, the potential tax revenue from legalized cannabis is estimated to be approximately $300 million. [5]. Thus, there is a strong argument that legalized cannabis is economically a net positive.

Law enforcement costs

New Jersey spends more than $143 million per year to enforce our marijuana possession laws. Imagine if these funds could be diverted to more pressing issues? Washington State spent over $200 million on marijuana enforcement between 2000 and 2010. By no longer arresting and prosecuting possession and other low-level cannabis offenses (due to legalization), Washington is saving millions of dollars each year [15]. 

Cannabis & Child Safety

Concerns about cannabis legalization and the safety of our children and teens are not unwarranted. The safety of our children is of paramount importance. While it is easy to pick and choose statistics to frame an argument, especially with a sensitive topic such as child safety, a more rigorous analysis is necessary to successfully separate the signal from the noise.

We gathered the data below from the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA). The data are based on national surveys on drug use and health and the values are statistically-supported estimates created by SAMHSA [6]. We chose to use six states with varying cannabis laws.

absolute_cannabisuse.png

Interestingly, "cannabis use in the past month" for 12-17 year olds seems to follow a decreasing trend independent of a state's particular cannabis policies. Below, we graphed the percentage change of "cannabis use in the past month" for 12-17 year olds for each SAMHSA dataset.

percentage_cannabisuse.png

Again, you can easily see that all of the states follow the same general trend irrespective of their particular cannabis policies. In Colorado, slightly more than 9% of teens age 12-17 used cannabis monthly in 2015 and 2016. This is a statistically significant drop from the prior period and is the lowest rate of monthly cannabis use in the state since 2007 and 2008 [7].

What about decriminalization?

Interestingly, the only state that had a positive percentage change between 2015 and 2016 is New York, where cannabis is decriminalized. While more sophisticated analysis is necessary to conclude its validity, this is an interesting correlation that should be further explored; especially by Senator Ronald Rice of Essex, NJ and other supporters of NJ RAMP—the anti-legalization coalition discussed earlier—who have recently been arguing for decriminalization [8]. With common sense it is easy to understand that decriminalization can be particularly dangerous because it:

  • increases the availability of cannabis and cannabis-based products without the regulation and safety precautions awarded by fully legalized cannabis. This is especially dangerous for children.
  • forces people interested in consuming cannabis to continue to resort to illegal drug dealers, which strains our law enforcement.
  • nullifies the ability for taxation.

Summary of cannabis & Child Safety

As seen in the graphs above, the WSIPP report, and other studies; cannabis legalization has not been associated with higher rates of underage use. However, a large concern is the unintentional ingestion of cannabis by children. Some studies have established a link between cannabis legalization and pediatric emergency department visits due to the unintentional ingestion of cannabis. While this could be due to these cases being better reported, it is extremely essential that child safety be a top priority. These findings bolster the importance of proper education and regulation of cannabis, a drug which has been historically stigmatized under prohibition.

How have other states handled these concerns?

The Washington State Story

Washington State, where cannabis is legal for adults, has these exact same concerns. Under Initiative 502, the Washington law that legalizes cannabis, the Washington State Institute for Public Policy is required to conduct periodic cost-benefit analyses of legalization on issues ranging from drugged-driving to prenatal use of cannabis. After three years of legal sales the data are beginning to roll in. We present a summary of their findings, all of which are fully supported by data [9]:

  • Cannabis use in grades 6, 8, 10, & 12 has remained stable or fallen slightly since cannabis legalization.
  • State-wide cannabis use has increased among adults, whereas alcohol and cigarette use has remained stable or slightly decreased.
  • The number of cannabis-abuse admissions funded by the state fell from 7,843 to 6,142.
  • 6,277 full-time jobs created (wages totaling $286 million) by the cannabis industry.

It's not just "big marijuana business" that benefits from legalized cannabis. The cannabis industry creates full-time jobs in a variety of different areas including retail, distribution, cultivation, education, public health, and public policy.

Washington_Teenage_Marijuana_Use.jpg
washington-cannabis-report-3-1024x640.jpg

What about Colorado?

In Colorado, the Marijuana Policy Group (MPG) found that the cannabis industry:

Overall, this claim that the costs to society outweigh the revenue is an over-generalization that relies upon many different variables. It is very difficult to accurately collect, organize, and analyze these data.  When making a decision regarding legalization a rational approach to cannabis policy, as well as drug policy in general, is needed. The Washington State report discussed above is possibly the most current credible source for discussing the costs and benefits of cannabis legalization. Quantitatively, they have concluded that the costs do not outweigh the benefits. 

Is Cannabis a gateway drug?

There exists a major flaw in the argument that cannabis is a gateway drug. The simple correlation that many people use cannabis before using "harder" drugs does not prove that "cannabis use leads to the use of harder drugs." Cannabis is the most widely used illicit drug so it is predictably the first illicit drug most people encounter. Likewise, underage smoking and alcohol use typically precede cannabis use. There is simply no conclusive evidence that the drug effects of cannabis are causally linked to the subsequent abuse of other illicit drugs. Correlation does not equal causation. A very recent study by the National Institute on Drug Abuse concludes that:

"...the majority of people who use marijuana do not go on to use other, 'harder' substances...Alcohol and nicotine also prime the brain for a heightened response to other drugs and are, like marijuana, also typically used before a person progresses to other, more harmful substances [11]."

Even DARE and the federal government have abandoned their argument for the "gateway drug" theory. So why is NJ-RAMP using an unproven claim to support their agenda. This is propagandist fear-mongering and it will not be tolerated.

One thing that anti-legalization proponents often fail to consider is the use of synthetic cannabis products (K2 Spice) that are 30 times more dangerous than cannabis. This is an interesting twist on the "gateway drug" theory because it has been postulated that not cannabis use, but cannabis criminalization itself leads many to turn to synthetic cannabinoids [12].

The opioid epidemic

This is in addition to the many anecdotes of people using cannabis as an alternative to prescription painkillers, and it has been estimated that over 2 million Americans are addicted to prescription painkillers. Some states are even experimenting with using cannabis as a treatment for opioid addiction. However, it is difficult to compete with the medical opioid industry estimated to be valued at $1.96 billion [4].

CRIME

a fair & just judicial system

Crime & marijuana have a torrid past due to prohibition which allows criminal enterprises to fill the supply gap. From people of color being incarcerated at a disproportionate rate to fostering the growth of Mexican Drug cartels, prohibition failed in preventing access to cannabis while also adding accessory issues [13] [14]. Nationally, 653,249 people were arrested for a marijuana law violation in 2016, 89% of which were for possession only. Looking at the relationship between cannabis and crime we see a reduction in crimes correlated with legalization and no increase in vehicle fatality rates [15] [16].

“In Colorado, marijuana arrests fell by nearly half from 2012 to 2014. Marijuana possession charges in Washington state fell by a more dramatic 98 percent between 2012 and 2013. Alaska, Oregon and D.C. show similar declines.”
exhibit14.png

Without the criminalization of cannabis, government regulations are able to effectively take hold, lessening the burden on the judicial branch. Unfortunately in Colorado, while the amount of adults arrested for cannabis-related crimes has decreased, for all racial groups, people of color are still arrested at a disproportional rate. The Drug Policy Alliance states:

"...while legalization substantially reduces the total number of blacks and Latinos arrested for cannabis offenses, it does not eliminate the forces that contributed to the disparity in the first place. "

Cannabis legalization isn't a panacea-like answer to all of the woes and issues of our society, but it is a necessary step to achieve our unified goal of a fair & just judicial system.

By criminalizing cannabis, you give cannabis control to the criminals.

As a simple market principal demand creates supply, regardless of legality. This has been shown through alcohol prohibition during which, as a parallel to the drug barons of today, organized crime capitalized on the void while prohibition proceeded to fail for the same reasons that cannabis prohibition is falling today [17] [18] [19].

However, the fact that our current law is ineffective isn't a solely sufficient reason to repeal it. Instead, we need to combine our knowledge of prohibition with knowledge of cannabis itself. Regulation is the best option to safely tackle both crime and drug abuse [20] [21].

With legal cannabis sales burgeoning across the United States, legalized & regulated cannabis is doing what the prohibition was never able to accomplish: damaging the Mexican Drug cartels [22]. With United States Border agents seizing 2.5 million pounds in 2011 down to 1.9 million pounds in 2014, Drug Cartels are losing their control of the illicit drug [22]. Their loss of a presence smuggling cannabis also came to a precipitous drop in violence along The United States - Mexico border [23].

Drug Abuse & Crime Correlate with Socioeconomic Conditions & Traumatic Events: Drugs are a Symptom

Anecdotally, crime & drug use seem to go hand in hand. As stated earlier, correlation does not mean causation, and underneath the statistics lies a deeper issue. Pervasive through every demographic in the United States, drug use & crime correlate heavily with socioeconomic status [24] [25]. Even in mice, when stability is a constant, there is no drive for mice to use drugs [26]. Also, traumatic events during childhood & adolescence present a double-digit increase in the likelihood of drug abuse [27]. Drug abuse is a systemic issue that stems from socioeconomic causes external to the drugs themselves, and addressing this through prohibition does not serve to address the root cause of drug abuse.

Reality

Facts & figures can be manipulated in any direction to paint any picture. You can find studies showing a world in which schools and social programs are funded by legal recreational cannabis while others claim societal harm. The picture is obfuscated from decades of misinformation & propaganda leaving all of us confused about cannabis.

What we do know is that our current system is broken and unusable. Cannabis does not cause death nor is it a gateway drug. Drug abuse is primarily a health—not criminal—issue.

We do know that cannabis prohibition is ineffective and leads to an overworked judicial system. Cannabis prohibition disproportionately affects minority groups and allows for the degradation of Mexico by providing fiscal support to Mexican cartels.

There is a better way to handle cannabis. A way that is fair & equitable in which we value regulation, education, and safety. Society has suffered too long from misinformation & prohibition. Let's move forward using a fact-based approach.

Sources

  1. http://www.pire.org/documents/UDETC/cost-sheets/NJ.pdf
  2. https://www.tobaccofreekids.org/problem/toll-us/new_jersey
  3. https://scholarworks.iu.edu/dspace/handle/2022/21632
  4. https://newfrontierdata.com/wp-content/uploads/2015/11/CIAR_Webinar_FINAL.pdf
  5. http://www.nj.com/politics/index.ssf/2016/05/legalizing_marijuana_would_net_300m_in_sales_taxes.html
  6. https://www.samhsa.gov/data/population-data-nsduh/reports
  7. https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/wonk/wp/2017/12/11/following-marijuana-legalization-teen-drug-use-is-down-in-colorado/?utm_term=.057db4efe792
  8. http://www.nj.com/politics/index.ssf/2018/02/legal_marijuana_foes_offer_a_compromise_decriminal.html
  9. http://www.wsipp.wa.gov/ReportFile/1670/Wsipp_I-502-Evaluation-and-Benefit-Cost-Analysis-Second-Required-Report_Report.pdf
  10. https://www.denverpost.com/2017/05/19/colorado-unemployment-rate-record-low/
  11. https://www.drugabuse.gov/publications/research-reports/marijuana/marijuana-gateway-drug
  12. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4048873
  13. http://www.drugpolicy.org/issues/race-and-drug-war
  14. https://www.huffingtonpost.com/tony-newman/bloodbath-in-mexico-drug_b_499378.html
  15. http://www.drugpolicy.org/sites/default/files/Marijuana_Legalization_Status_Report_101316.pdf
  16. http://ajph.aphapublications.org/doi/abs/10.2105/AJPH.2017.303848
  17. http://www.bbc.co.uk/schools/gcsebitesize/history/mwh/usa/prohibitionrev2.shtml
  18. http://www.nytimes.com/2012/06/17/magazine/how-a-mexican-drug-cartel-makes-its-billions.html
  19. http://www.bbc.co.uk/schools/gcsebitesize/history/mwh/usa/prohibitionrev1.shtml
  20. https://www.usnews.com/opinion/economic-intelligence/2015/07/13/marijuana-prohibition-and-the-war-on-drugs-have-utterly-failed
  21. https://www.huffingtonpost.com/2015/02/24/marijuana-safer-than-alcohol-tobacco_n_6738572.html
  22. http://time.com/3801889/us-legalization-marijuana-trade/
  23. https://www.theguardian.com/world/2018/jan/14/legal-marijuana-medical-use-crime-rate-plummets-us-study
  24. https://academic.oup.com/epirev/article/26/1/36/384217
  25. https://www.bjs.gov/content/pub/pdf/hpnvv0812.pdf
  26. https://www.futurity.org/mice-addiction-cocaine-959182/
  27. http://www.nctsn.org/sites/default/files/assets/pdfs/SAToolkit_1.pdf