A couple weeks ago, I discussed our initiative to regulate marijuana in Missouri with Jason Grellner of the Franklin County Sheriff’s Department on the Jaco Report. It was a pleasant conversation, but I would like to highlight some of the inaccuracies in Grellner’s argument that I did not have time to respond to on air.
In his first response, Grellner claims that no medical professional would say cannabis is “good for you,” and that may be true. However, doctors don’t think of drugs as either good or bad. All drugs have risks and side effects, so the question becomes: do the benefits outweigh the risks? Clearly, many doctors believe some of their patients can benefit from cannabis, as evidenced by the number of medical marijuana patients in states that allow it as medicine.
Grellner runs into a similar problem when he attacks medical marijuana near the end of the segment by comparing it to medical opium. The irony, of course, is that we have a plethora of drugs derived from opium (Vicodin, OxyContin, Percocet, etc.) that in many cases are even more powerful than opium itself. Nonetheless, doctors are allowed to prescribe these incredibly powerful drugs because they see the medical value in pain relief. There’s absolutely no reason politics should stand in the way of doctors making a similar decision regarding a substance that creates no physical dependence and no realistic chance of overdose.
This also undermines Grellner’s implication that cannabis is more harmful today than a few decades ago because THC content has risen. First of all, it’s not clear that average THC content has increased all that dramatically over time, but even granting that premise, it wouldn’t make marijuana any more harmful. As Dan Gardner of The Ottawa Citizen explained in a recent column:
We know that’s not true for many reasons. For one thing, marijuana is typically consumed in the form of hashish, not herbal marijuana, in several European countries. That’s significant because hashish usually has a potency of 15 to 20 per cent. It can even be as much as 50 per cent THC. If “more potent” equals “more dangerous,” that should be evident in cross-national comparisons. But as the EMCDDA report noted, it’s not.
The main reason why potency isn’t correlated with risk is simple. People aren’t idiots. They vary their consumption to account for potency. Someone who says “enough” after drinking 18 ounces of beer will not, if given vodka instead, drink 18 ounces. Similarly, marijuana users will smoke less if the pot they are consuming is of a higher potency. (And since lung irritation from inhaling smoke is a clear harm of pot-smoking, that is a good thing.)
Grellner further claims that cannabis use will increase if we remove legal penalties against the plant, but the evidence he cites doesn’t support that conclusion. He argues that the decline in drug use from the end of the 1970′s to the early 1990s shows that laws against marijuana were successful, but that time period immediately follows the first wave of marijuana decrminalization in the United States, when 11 states made possession a misdemeanor or less as opposed to a felony. After rising in the 1990s, Grellner explains, use fell again over the past decade. What he neglects to mention is that use fell along with a massive expansion in the availability of medical cannabis in the 2000s. None of this is to say that lower legal sanctions lead to less use, but it does suggest that the law is an extremely minor factor in determining the number of people who use cannabis.
Finally, I’d like to harp a bit on what I consider to be Grellner’s most ridiculous statement: “When we legalize a drug, we are basically telling the public that it’s safe.” Really? The government tells the public that alcohol is safe? Tobacco? I seem to recall all sorts of government warnings about the potential dangers of those drugs. There is no such thing as “safe.” There are only costs and benefits, risks and rewards. In a free country, we trust informed adults to make decisions about what sorts of risks they are willing to take. For instance, I play rugby, which is not a safe sport by any stretch of the imagination. In the past four months, I’ve bruised a rib, busted my head open, broken a thumb, and sustained more cuts and contusions than I can count. I would have been far safer sitting in my apartment smoking cannabis, but I’m glad that I live in a country where I am free to make that choice because I find rugby far more rewarding. However, I do not presume to make the same choice for others. Grellner and other government officials shouldn’t either.