Among the five panelists at Saturday’s “Blunt Talk” in New York City, there appeared to be only one point of agreement: Recreational cannabis, when and if legalized, should not be available to minors. All other points were hotly and passionately debated. This was the scene at the panel discussion that took place as part of the annual New Yorker Festival.
Here are the highlights:
ON PROHIBITION OF MARIJUANA IN THE US
In a failed attempt to extract an area of agreement amongst the panelists, Patrick Radden Keefe, panel moderator and contributor to The New Yorker, asked if they could all agree that prohibition has failed.
Carl Hart, associate professor of psychology at Columbia University and member of the National Advisory Council on Drug Abuse, disagrees: “Prohibition has been largely successful. Otherwise it wouldn’t have been around for so long.” He cites several industries as making large amounts of money from prohibition: law enforcement and the prison system, for example.
Mark Kleiman, a professor of public policy at U.C.L.A., also challenged the assertion that prohibition has failed, but on a different basis than Hart. According to Kleiman, prohibition made cannabis more expensive and stigmatized to get. As a result, he argued, the fraction of problem users is lower than it otherwise would have been under alcohol-style legalization. “From that point of view,” he said, “it hasn’t been futile, but I’d say it’s no longer sustainable.”
ON MARIJUANA LEGALIZATION
“We ought to be arguing now, not about whether to legalize because we’re gonna, but how to legalize. And, at the moment, because the drug warriors are insisting ‘no absolutely not’ and the legalizers say ‘oh, you know, this stuff is great everybody should smoke it,’ we’re getting a set of legalizations on the worst possible model,” says Kleiman.
Steve DeAngelo, long-time cannabis activist, advocate, and educator, questioned the moral justification for punishing people who choose to use marijuana over alcohol. Kevin Sabet, director of the Drug Policy Institute at the University of Florida and the co-founder of SAM (Smart Approaches to Marijuana), responded to DeAngelo by discouraging the comparison of marijuana and alcohol, what he called an “unmitigated disaster,” citing that, for every dollar the US earns on alcohol tax, another ten is spent on “social costs.” DeAngelo and Sabet could agree on one thing, however: Cannabis can be used responsibly.
ON THE EFFECTS OF MARIJUANA ON THE BRAIN
“We know a lot about marijuana’s acute effects on the brain,” says Jodi Gilman, a neuroscientist and an instructor at Harvard Medical School/Massachusetts General Hospital with the Center for Addiction Medicine. “The earlier age of onset is associated with poorer outcomes. That’s been pretty consistently studied. We know that adolescents probably shouldn’t be using marijuana on a daily basis. Gilman noted many gaps in the research; most notably the absence of literature on the long-term effects of marijuana use and what amount of is safe for use.
According to Gilman, “We know that it [marijuana] can be addictive to some people. It’s not addictive to everybody, but it’s addictive particularly for young people and for heavier users.” She noted that about 9% of people who use cannabis regularly will develop problems with addiction.
ON CONDUCTING MARIJUANA RESERACH
DeAngelo and Gilman went head-to-head on the reliability of marijuana research. “The quote unquote science of cannabis has been highly politicized,” said DeAngelo. “We’ve had an unholy alliance of researchers who need to show results and get financing.” Gilman responded that scientists “generally don’t have an agenda.”
Hart stepped in noting that the problem sat not with the scientists, but with the context in which funding operates. He noted that 90% of the world’s research on drugs such as marijuana and methamphetamines are funded through the National Institutes of Drug Abuse (NIDA), whose mission is to focus specifically on the pathology of drug use, not on the benefits.