Marijuana Reform and the Politics of Postponement

Reform

With recreational marijuana legal in four states, the federal government’s nearly 80-year war on marijuana is slowly but surely coming to a close. But while it may seem like we’ve won the war, opponents of reform have begun implementing an insidious tactic to stymie legalization: delay.

Instead of criticizing the inherit pros and cons of legalization, opponents are now relying on the idea that we don’t know enough about marijuana and that legalization advocates should simply wait until we know all of the facts. Here’s an example:

In Massachusetts, state Sen. Jason Lewis recently came out against a proposed ballot initiative that would legalize recreational marijuana in the state. Taken at face value this is neither surprising nor newsworthy, but what makes this significant is that Lewis serves as the chair of the special legislative committee on marijuana.

Lewis spent the last year studying the effects of legalization and even went so far as to visit Colorado to see the effects first hand. After a year of interviewing experts and looking at the research, Lewis concluded that it was the “wrong time” for Massachusetts to legalize recreational marijuana.

Speaking with the Boston Globe, Lewis goes to great pains to say that he is not opposed to legalization in theory but rather that the state isn’t ready for the seemingly complicated process of legalizing marijuana. He even detailed five reasons why the state is not ready:

  • Legal marijuana has led to a decrease in the number of teenagers that perceive marijuana as harmful.
  • There is no clear metric to determine whether a driver is too high on marijuana to drive.
  • Massachusetts should focus on getting medical marijuana right first.
  • The state should gather marijuana use statistics first.
  • Massachusetts should wait for the federal government to take action first.

While these arguments may hold legitimate concerns, you will notice that none of these points actually counter arguments for legalization, but rather argue for more delays and hand wringing. Lewis, and other legislators like him, operate under the assumption that legalization is this giant X factor and that no one know what will happen when marijuana is legalized. But we do.

Yes, it is true that the perception of marijuana’s harm is declining but A) it should and B) that does not translate into higher teen use.

From 2009 to 2014, Colorado saw a 4.8 percent decrease in teen marijuana use while the rest of the nation saw a 3.4 increase. And while Colorado is number one in teen marijuana use, which is mostly due to significant decreases in other states, its teen marijuana use rate has statically remained the same since 2014.

It is also worth mentioning that a well regulated system is better suited for keeping marijuana out of the hands of kids than relying on the morals of black market drug dealers.

Admittedly, the issue of drugged driving remains thorny for regulators but as of yet there is no clear indication that legalization has led to increased dangers for drivers. Look at Colorado’s fatal crash data.

Even though there are more vehicles on the road in Colorado than ever before, and even though marijuana is now legal, the number of fatal accidents is actually down 26.8 percent from the state’s peak in 2002.

So while the issue of drugged driving is still a public policy issue, it is also a pathetic argument against legalization. Lewis’ third point that the state needs to get medical marijuana right first is also laughably poor.

It is true that the state’s medical marijuana system is having issues, but that is mostly due to the incompetence of lawmakers. The licensing process has been a complete mess, and most issues with the system now have more to do with lack of supply than anything else.

The state government’s incompetency does not mean people should be fined or imprisoned for marijuana.

Lewis’ final points about gathering marijuana statistics and waiting for federal action is perhaps the most absurd, and also the most common, argument used by legislators to delay legalizing marijuana for recreational purposes.

While gathering marijuana use statistics is an important part of tracking legalization’s impact on the greater population, it serves as a poor argument for continued prohibition. Just as it is possible to walk and chew gum at the same time, so too is it possible to start the process of legalization and collect statistics about marijuana use.

Remember, it took Colorado two years to fully implement its legal marijuana system. Assuming it took Massachusetts, or any state for the matter, the same amount of time to implement such a system, that would be ample time for statistics to be gathered.

And although federal intervention is sorely needed in the marijuana industry, especially when it comes to banking services, it would be foolish to hang all hopes of marijuana reform on the federal government.

We are living through the one of the most politically toxic environments in our lifetime. Given all of the issues facing our government, and given that Congress can barely pass a budget much less address the issues everyday Americans are facing, it will be a long time before marijuana reform is addressed at the federal level.

To simply hope and wait for action is no strategy for reform, it is the strategy of someone trying to delay the inevitable, which is what this all boils down to.

Twenty years ago, all lawmakers had to do to stop marijuana reform was to employ “Reefer Madness” and racially coded rhetoric. But now, in the face of overwhelming facts, the new prohibitionist presents the false narrative that they are on our side; they just want to know “all the facts” first.

For nearly eight decades, politicians have called marijuana users un-American, evil, and drags on society. Now politicians, from presidential candidates like Hillary Clinton all the way down to Massachusetts state Sen. Jason M. Lewis, are telling us to sit back and wait.

To wait for information, that we already have, to confirm what we already know, which is that marijuana is less dangerous than alcohol and should be legalized.

If we as an industry, and as a people, want to see real reform in our state and federal marijuana policy, we must acknowledge this new tone and soundly reject it. We must stand up and say “We won’t wait any longer!” Because the truth is, we can’t afford to wait anymore—and we shouldn’t have to.

William Sumner, a freelance writer and marijuana journalist, was a staff writer for MJINews from May 2014 through February 2018. You can follow him on Twitter @W_Sumner.

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