My beautiful Oregon is now at the jumping off point and facing the abyss of one of the greatest social experiments of the past century. Voters will soon decide the fate of Measure 91 and whether or not marijuana, currently a controlled substance, can join the ranks of legalized free enterprise. Worry pounds in my head and the reverberation screams, don’t jump!
There is so much myth flying around about what marijuana is, and what it is not. To have an intelligent discussion about legalization for recreational purposes, we need to first separate it from so-called medical marijuana. The two are entirely different discussions.
Next, we need to review the research… the facts. One’s personal experience with marijuana during the Summer of Love is not science, nor would we be even talking about the same drug. The marijuana of the ‘60’s, ‘70’s and ‘80’s, is not the marijuana of today. The potency of today’s weed, which really isn’t weed at all, is many times stronger than the bygone days. And these are not poinsettia-sized plants in 6” pots. There are some marijuana grows today which are trees upwards of twelve feet tall.
One thing that we know today, that we didn’t know when I was coming of age, is the danger marijuana poses to the developing adolescent brain. It affects motivation, can impair intellectual development, and produces dependence in 16 percent of the teenagers who use it. Proponents of Measure 91 don’t contest this fact, and offer the solution of “control.” They say let’s control it the way we currently control tobacco and alcohol, and youth access will not only diminish, but the product will also be tested, and the quality purer and less hazardous.
As a recovering control freak, I’m drawn to the idea of control. But this scenario will unlikely work. Let me explain: The two drugs in this country that are legal and are controlled in all fifty states, kill more people each year than all other drugs combined. While counter-intuitive for sure, legality is part of the problem. We know in prevention science that with legalization comes greater availability, and with greater availability comes increased use. Legal drugs are simply used more than illegal drugs. Legalization also reduces the perception of harm. I mean… why on earth would a sane society legalize a mind-altering substance that is widely known to pose danger to children and teens? Uninformed adults, and young innocents as well, could reasonably conclude that if marijuana is harmless enough to legalize, then it must be harmless enough.
Another myth perpetuated by the proponents of Measure 91 is that legalization will somehow send the Mexican drug cartels packing. If only. The marijuana consumed in this country is grown in the good old USA. Some of the best pot in the country is grown right here in Oregon. No one is buying Mexican scrap weed anymore. Cartels do control some U.S. marijuana, however, and we can be sure that in a legalized environment, black market marijuana will still be accessible and it will be cheaper than taxed marijuana.
And what about all of the unfortunate Oregonians who fill our prisons for insignificant marijuana crimes? Another myth. Oregon in fact has some of the most liberal marijuana laws in the country. Virtually de-criminalized in the 1990’s, marijuana-specific crime accounts for less than .012 percent of Oregon’s nearly 14,500 prison population. Only ten people are currently serving time exclusively for possession (ref Oregon Dept of Justice).
The other side would also have you believe that tax revenue from marijuana sales will fill our state’s coffers, funding everything from education to law enforcement and mental health. That would be wonderful if true. A historical fact of which most Americans are unfamiliar, is that alcohol was legalized in this country not so much to rid ourselves of Al Capone, but as the perceived solution to income tax (ref. Daniel Okrent, Last Call). We know how that turned out. In fact, the social costs of alcohol consumption in the U.S. are about ten times the amount that is generated from tax revenue. What makes us think it will be any different, any better with marijuana?
There’s been a lot of jumping up and down as supporters point to numbers in Colorado and Washington and profess reduced crime rates, huge tax revenue, as well as overall happiness. We need to settle down, wait and watch, and see how this really plays out… over time. What’s the hurry Oregon? We’re in the enviable position of letting these other states manage the experiment and then carefully decide whether or not to follow suit.
Please… don’t jump.