After Curtis Hill, the Attorney General of Indiana, wrote an opinion piece on the dangers of cannabis legalization, State Senator Karen Tallian pushed back on Hill’s claims that stem from old assumptions, bad data, and misplaced values.
Hill labeled his criticism of cannabis as a call to “speak the truth.” His arguments hit on may of the hallmarks of the anti-cannabis stance: marijuana as a “gateway drug,” the harmful effects it can have on children, impaired driving, and cannabis’ association with “crime.” He also cites a strange statistic. “Eighty percent of men arrested for crimes in Sacramento in 2012 tested positive for at least one illegal drug. The most common was marijuana — found in 54 percent of the arrestees.” In this argument, Hill disregards the fact that medical cannabis is legal in California.
As is typical of politicians who spent years either observing or participating in the war on drugs, Hill ignores studies that prove his arguments wrong. While his statistics about the effects of cannabis on children are true, legalization advocates do not support providing drugs to children. State Senator Karen Tallian, who supports cannabis legalization in her state, takes issue with this and many of his other opinions. “Having submitted marijuana reform legislation, and monitored every proposal that has been filed, I have some experience in what is in the legislature,” she said. Although there is a lot of citizen interest, most of the lobbyists roll their eyes at the thought of marijuana legalization in Indiana.”
Tallian first distinguishes the importance of cannabis reform, aside from the argument of cannabis legalization itself. Talian wrote,
“We should stop putting our kids in jail, or giving them criminal records, for possession of a substance that is legal in many other places.”
Children and adults alike are victims of “tough on crime” policies that create maximize sentencing for nonviolent drug infractions. Combined with arrest statistics that show African Americans are disproportionately punished for drug crimes, these policies are ruining lives. “Current laws make it impossible for someone convicted of a drug crime as a teenager to find a job once they have completed school. We penalize our youth for their lifetime for being busted in high school,” wrote Tallian.
Both Tallian and Hill agree that the opioid epidemic is a grave concern, but their opinions on how to combat it differ greatly. While Hill commented that Indiana leaders should work to curtail drug abuse rather than welcoming more of it.” Tallian counters that “A huge part of [the opioid epidemic] is attributable to prescription drugs, and the situation is not relevant to marijuana reform.” According to the CDC, many substances that are 100% legal are causing fatal overdoses, whether they are purchased from the liquor store or a pharmacy. To this day, there have been no fatal overdoses of cannabis.
Hill also makes a similar argument that that Governor Chris Christie made last month, insinuating that liberal politicians were simply supporting cannabis legalization in order to gather tax revenue. But Tallian left politics out of it, and closed her op-ed with this statement, ”Finally, and we know this as a nation, prohibition of a substance that is accepted by such a huge portion of society has never worked. I could have written an entire Op-Ed on this subject alone.”
Multiple studies and analyses from patient data are proving that cannabis can help fight addiction, and that its use does not lead to more dangerous drugs.
A study published in the Journal of American Medicine (JAMA) indicated that in “States with medical cannabis laws had a 24.8 percent lower mean annual opioid overdose mortality rate compared with states without medical cannabis laws.” A separate study also showed a sharp reduction in patients admitted for opioid abuse after states legalized medical marijuana. The decline in drug use wasn’t limited to opioids. Patients are spending less on prescription drugs for depression, anxiety and sleep disorders after trying medical cannabis.
As for marijuana as a “gateway drug,” the research suggests that cannabis could have the opposite effect. Researchers at the University of Montreal and the University of British Columbia witnessed patients using cannabis to cope with crack cocaine addiction. “In this longitudinal study, we observed that a period of self-reported intentional use of cannabis … was associated with subsequent periods of reduced use of crack [cocaine]” according to the report.
“Given the substantial global burden of morbidity and mortality attributable to crack cocaine use disorders alongside a lack of effective pharmacotherapies, we echo a call for rigorous experimental research on cannabinoids as a potential treatment for crack cocaine use disorders.”
Cannabis may also help recovering heroin addicts stay on track and complete their addiction treatment compared to those who don’t use cannabis.
Research is also showing that cannabis can curb addiction to legal substances. Data from a clinical trial showed that CBD helped patients smoke 40 percent fewer cigarettes compared to patients give a placebo. In another recent study, 40 percent of medical marijuana patients reported that cannabis reduced their alcohol consumption. The authors of the study admit more research is needed on the precise effect of cannabis on alcohol addiction, but they also stated, “cannabis does appear to be a potential substitute for alcohol.” People report that cannabis can help to ease the debilitating symptoms of alcohol withdrawal.
The mounting evidence that cannabis poses no risk for fatal overdose and has a lower threshold for abuse compared to other legal drugs has clearly not reached politicians.
Department of Homeland Security Secretary John Kelly describes cannabis as a “dangerous gateway drug that frequently leads to the use of harder drugs.” Attorney General Jeff Sessions has compared marijuana to heroin and suggested that people who use cannabis are bad. If science isn’t enough to convince them, perhaps public opinion can. Some survey data suggests less than a third of Americans think of marijuana as a gateway drug. That number drops to less than one in four when surveying people 65 and younger.
The concept of gateway drugs has been around for several decades. In fact, the idea was introduced exactly 40 years ago. In 1975, Denise Kandel, a professor of sociomedical sciences at Columbia University, coined the term “gateway drug.” What many don’t know: Despite adoption by anti-cannabis prohibitionists, Kandel was actually referring to nicotine.
Promoted by Nancy Reagan’s “Just Say No” campaign in the 1980s and modern day politicians like Chris Christie — who recently called marijuana both a gateway drug and highly addictive — the idea that use of cannabis often leads to consumption of harder drugs has been debated for decades.
Black Market Effect
Unfortunately, there is some credence to the gateway theory. Instead of being caused by the mere use of cannabis, however, support for the gateway theory arises instead from the black market caused by prohibition. Where illegal and not available via safe access, users wanting simply to obtain cannabis must obviously seek it from underground dealers. Often, these dealers also sell harder drugs, like cocaine, meth, or heroin. With tens of millions of people purchasing cannabis on the black market in the majority of states where it remains illegal, the mere exposure of marijuana consumers to harder drugs may convince a small percentage to actually experiment with these highly addictive substances.
Sociology professor Miriam Boeri, in a recent article entitled Why are Politicians Still Referring to Marijuana as a Gateway Drug?, argues that poverty, social environment, association with hard drug users, and mental illness are actually much better predictors of hard drug use than the mere consumption of marijuana. Boeri wrote:
“Crime has not increased in states that have legalized marijuana; it’s actually gone down. Surprisingly, opiate overdose deaths have gone down as well. If anything, marijuana can work as a gateway out of hard drug use.”
Nicotine is the Gatekeeper
In fact, it seems that cigarettes and, more specifically, nicotine, are the real culprits in gateway exposure. In a recent study, Kandel and her husband, Eric Kandel (a Nobel Prize-winning neurologist), discovered scientific evidence of nicotine’s role in hard drug addiction. The researchers concluded:
“Nicotine acts as a gateway drug on the brain, and this effect is likely to occur whether the exposure is from smoking tobacco, passive tobacco smoke, or e-cigarettes.”
The next time someone mentions gateway drugs, don’t think of cannabis. Instead, look toward the common tobacco cigarette. It seems the real culprit has been right under our noses all along….