Written by Eitan Scher, chapter leader of Rutgers University SSDP.
The following is a response to a December 4th editorial by former Member of Congress Patrick Kennedy titled “Legalize Weed? We should not empower an industry that profits from addiction”.
Over 1,900 New Jersey residents died from an opioid overdose in the past year. Heroin-related deaths have doubled, and fentanyl-related deaths have increased by a whopping 2,000 %. As more and more New Jersey residents suffer under the weight of addiction, it is becoming increasingly apparent that our response is not enough. Governor-elect Phil Murphy has promised an array of reforms including a large investment into treatment and preventative measures to address this public health emergency. While these actions are directly targeted at curbing the rampant opioid abuse in New Jersey, Murphy’s promise to legalize marijuana can be significantly beneficial if the success of marijuana legalization and medical marijuana in other states is any indication.
The American Medical Association published a study in the JAMA Internal Medicine journal highlighting the effects of medical cannabis laws and opioid overdose from 1999-2010. The study found that states with legalized medical marijuana saw an approximately 33 percent decrease in opioid-related deaths and a 25 percent decrease in opioid overdose deaths A 2016 study found that “the use of prescription drugs for which marijuana could serve as a clinical alternative fell significantly, once a medical marijuana law was implemented.” Recent studies have started to look at the effects of the legalization of recreational cannabis sale and use, finding similarly promising results. Research published in the American Journal of Public Health has shown that the legalization of cannabis in Colorado has led to a “reversal of the upward trend in opioid-related deaths” in the state with opioid-related deaths decreasing by more than 6%. Noting the litany of studies that suggest that the two most well-known components of cannabis, Delta-9 Tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) and Cannabidiol (CBD) have been shown to act as pain relievers, patients can reduce their intake of opioids by supplementing with cannabis, if not replacing it entirely.
Patrick J. Kennedy’s article highlighted issues of racial disparity in the opening of marijuana businesses. Kennedy finds issue with the fact that a higher amount of businesses are being opened in Denver’s low income, minority neighborhoods by white owners. Instead of looking at it as an opportunity to bring jobs and opportunities to struggling communities, he focuses on the issues of racial disparities that unfortunately still exist due to the drug war. The ACLU of New Jersey recently published an article presenting full legalization as the only way to begin to curb the issue of racial disparities in our state’s prison system, which are the worst in the nation. “In New Jersey, Black individuals are arrested at three times the rate of whites, despite similar usage rates for both” according to the ACLU’s reports. Legalization and regulation would not only bring business opportunities to struggling communities, but also allows for the funds to be reinvested into drug education and schools. While Kennedy is concerned about the “true societal costs of installing pot shops on every corner–exposing so many more young people to marijuana-infused candies, sodas, and ice cream,” the data shows that legalization reduces teen use. Even data collected from the federally-funded National Survey on Drug Use and Health (NSDUH) backs this up. After all, drug dealers are not asking for identification to ensure that their buyers are 21 or over, unlike any dispensary.
Of course, there are issues that some of the current implementations of recreational marijuana laws and in the current proposals. Legalization should not be seen as just an opportunity to make a quick profit and should absolutely not facilitate the creation of monopolies in the market. Home growing for personal use as well the opportunity for smaller entrepreneurial efforts in our state should be allowed. Marijuana advocates do not deny that driving while under the influence of marijuana has been linked to impaired motor skills, but the fatality rate in states post-legalization is statistically consistent to what it was preceding legalization. While drivers in fatal are more likely to test positive for marijuana, impairment due to the drug cannot be tested via blood tests the way that alcohol can currently. “It is difficult to establish a relationship between a person’s THC blood or plasma concentration and performance impairing effects,” the National Highway Transit Safety Administration writes. Alcohol sales have gone down in counties after the implementation of marijuana laws and with “these states (Colorado, Oregon, and Washington) now having fully implemented a [marijuana] retail infrastructure, the underperformance of beer in these markets has worsened over the course of 2016,” according to research firm Cowen & Company.
Marijuana is often habitual forming, and a psychological addiction can be extremely difficult to kick. Any gambling or sex addict will verify that. In comparison, caffeine has a higher rate of dependence among its hundreds of millions of users in the United States; some ¾ of American coffee drinkers are presumed to be addicted and those who are exhibit physical withdrawal symptoms. To decry the impending legal marijuana industry as one that “profits from addiction,” is a demagogic argument considering how beneficial the plant is for people truly suffering. If that was the real concern, the real crusade should be against Starbucks.