The federal government’s incredibly poor, misleading argument for marijuana prohibition


Seattle City Attorney Pete Holmes, left, shakes hands with clerk Pam Fenstermacher after purchasing marijuana at Cannabis City on July 8, 2014, in Seattle, on the first day that sales of recreational pot became legal in the state. (Elaine Thompson/AP)

The New York Times editorial board is making news with a week-long series advocating for the full legalization of marijuana in the United States. In response, the White House's Office of National Drug Control Policy (ONDCP) published a blog post Monday purporting to lay out the federal government's case against marijuana reform.

That case, as it turns out, it surprisingly weak. It's built on half-truths and radically decontextualized facts, curated from social science research that is otherwise quite solid. I've gone through the ONDCP's arguments, and the research behind them, below.

The irony here is that with the coming wave of deregulation and legalization, we really do need a sane national discussion of the costs and benefits of widespread marijuana use. But the ONDCP's ideological insistence on prohibition prevents them from taking part in that conversation.

Here's what they have to say:

Marijuana use affects the developing brain. A recent study in Brain reveals impairment of the development of structures in some regions of the brain following prolonged marijuana use that began in adolescence or young adulthood.

The same is true for alcohol and tobacco. This is a great argument for restricting young peoples' access to the drugs (as Washington and Colorado have done with marijuana), but a poor one for banning it completely.

Moreover, the study cited was of a group of 59 individuals who had been heavy marijuana smokers for 16 years, and who had smoked an average of 4.5 joints every single day over that period.

This is far outside the realm of normal, moderate use. A recent Colorado Department of Revenue report found, for instance, that the majority of users in that state smoked five or fewer times per month. Again, what we have is not an argument against marijuana use, but an argument against overdoing it.

Marijuana use is associated with cognitive impairment, including lower IQ among adult chronic users who began using marijuana at an early age.

The same is true for alcohol and tobacco. The study cited by the ONDCP looked at changes in IQ among heavy marijuana users, defined in this case as those who smoked marijuana at least four times a week. In general, the authors found a "small" IQ effect for people who had used marijuana heavily at some point in their lives, with the exception of those who showed consistent heavy use over a period of 20 years, for whom the negative effect was "medium." Again, a solid argument for a minimum age and moderate use.

Substance use in school age children has a detrimental effect on their academic achievement. Students who earned D’s or F’s were more likely to be current users of marijuana than those who earned A’s (45% vs. 10%).

This comes from a CDC fact sheet. ONDCP doesn't report that students who earned D's or F's are also more likely to be current drinkers of alcohol than those who earned A's (62 percent vs. 32 percent). Setting aside that there's zero causality implied in these findings, the only argument here is, again, for keeping marijuana and alcohol out of the hands of minors.

Marijuana is addictive. Estimates from research suggest that about 9 percent of users become addicted to marijuana. This number increases to about 17 percent among those who start young and to 25-50 percent among people who use marijuana daily.

This is from a 20-year-old paper on the addictiveness of various substances. Taking these findings at face value, the important thing to note is that the 9 percent addiction rate for marijuana users is substantially lower than the 15 percent addiction rate for alcohol drinkers and the 33 percent addiction rate for tobacco users. This comports with more recent research showing that marijuana is a relatively non-addictive substance.

Or, to put it another way, marijuana is about as addictive as video gaming.

Drugged driving is a threat to our roadways. Marijuana significantly impairs coordination and reaction time and is the illicit drug most frequently found to be involved in automobile accidents, including fatal ones.

Undoubtedly true, and a strong argument for legalization and regulation to keep stoned drivers off the road. One important point in the study: Marijuana was a factor in about 12 percent of the fatal crashes studied in 2010. Alcohol was a factor in nearly 40 percent of fatal crashes throughout the study period. Distracted driving was the cause of 18 percent of all fatal crashes, on the other hand.

There are plenty of things that it is stupid to do behind the wheel, from being tired to texting. But that's a case for not doing stupid things when you drive — not a case for outlawing those things altogether.

Addictive substances like alcohol and tobacco, which are legal and taxed, already result in much higher social costs than the revenue they generate. The cost to society of alcohol alone is estimated to be more than 15 times the revenue gained by its taxation.

This is a weak argument for alcohol prohibition, and a terrible one for marijuana prohibition. The study ONDCP cites estimates the total societal cost of excessive drinking to be $223.5 billion. On the other hand, the alcoholic beverage industry estimates it generates about $400 billion in economic activity. And since marijuana is widely regarded to be a less harmful substance than alcohol, the economic cost of marijuana legalization would be even lower than for alcohol.

Reports from the nonpartisan RAND Institute found that the potential economic benefits from legalization had been overstated, citing that:

Marijuana legalization would not eliminate the black market for marijuana.
Dramatically lowered prices could mean substantially lower potential tax revenue for states.

For starters, these two statements are at odds with each other — if marijuana legalization results in dramatically lowered prices, how would there be an incentive for black market trade?

The RAND black market study looks at the effect that legalization in Calfornia, and California only, would have on drug trafficking organizations in Mexico. Not surprisingly the effect they find is small — the study assumes continued black market demand in all 49 other states, and notes that marijuana trafficking makes up a small proportion of Mexican cartels' overall export revenue.

But the study says absolutely nothing — literally nothing! — about the effects of national legalization, nor about the impact that legalization would have on domestic black markets. The study never even purports to make those types of conclusions. It's hard to see how the ONDCP's citation of this study to claim that "marijuana legalization would not eliminate the black market for marijuana" is anything other than a deliberate attempt to mislead.

The revenue picture is less clear. Colorado's marijuana revenues are coming in below forecasts, partly because existing medical marijuana patients are continuing to patronize the medical marijuana dispensaries, where prices are lower.

Any discussion on the issue should be guided by science and evidence, not ideology and wishful thinking. 

Indeed, ONDCP. Indeed.

More on marijuana legalization:
>> The federal government's own statistics show that marijuana is safer than alcohol
>> America's marijuana arrest rates, in one chart
>> Medical marijuana opponents' most powerful argument is at odds with a mountain of research
>> Americans finally understand that marijuana is less harmful than alcohol

Christopher Ingraham is a data journalist focusing primarily on issues of politics, policy and economics. He previously worked at the Brookings Institution and the Pew Research Center.
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