Opinion: Legalize Pot? No, Reform Laws

By: Kevin Sabet for CNN
By: Kevin Sabet for CNN

Editor's note: Kevin Sabet served as a senior drug policy adviser in the Obama administration. He is an assistant professor and director of the Drug Policy Institute at the College of Medicine, University of Florida.

(CNN) -- On Election Day, marijuana enthusiasts rejoiced as Colorado and Washington legalized marijuana. (Ballot initiatives in Oregon and a medical initiative in Arkansas did not fare so well.) From the federal government's perspective, however, marijuana remains illegal. It is anyone's guess what the Obama administration's next move will be, but it is important to understand that this president has long stated his opposition to marijuana legalization.

When it came to medical marijuana expansion in several states, Obama's Justice Department sent out strongly worded letters warning that even medical marijuana was in "violation of federal law regardless of state laws permitting such activities" and that "this includes prosecution of business enterprises that unlawfully market and sell marijuana."

Why the opposition to marijuana legalization in the first place? First, we know that legalization would dramatically decrease the price of marijuana and increase use, according to a 2010 study from the Rand Drug Policy Research Center. And today's marijuana is not the marijuana of the 1960s; potency has tripled in the past 15 years, according to a 2009 report from the U.S. government .

This is not reefer madness thinking. High-potency marijuana has contributed to addiction for one out of six kids who start using it in their teens, direct IQ loss (an 8-point loss among kids using regularly), car crashes, and mental illness.

Many who support legalization have claimed that we could control marijuana use, especially among teens, if only we regulated it through legalization. Sadly, however, the provisions passed in Colorado and Washington do everything but control marijuana. If these state laws were enacted, in fact, we could face a major industry commercializing and promoting marijuana to kids. As we know from alcohol and tobacco, even when age limits are in place, getting people hooked young is a key long-term strategy for profiteers.

Indeed Big Tobacco, for one, has long been perched and ready to make some serious cash from marijuana sales: According to internal documents released during its historic court settlement, in smoking's heyday, Big Tobacco considered marijuana legalization a golden opportunity.

"The use of marijuana ... has important implications for the tobacco industry in terms of an alternative product line. (We) have the land to grow it, the machines to roll it and package it, the distribution to market it. In fact, some firms have registered trademarks, which are taken directly from marijuana street jargon. These trade names are used currently on little-known legal products, but could be switched if and when marijuana is legalized. Estimates indicate that the market in legalized marijuana might be as high as $10 billion annually," said a report commissioned by cigarette manufacturer Brown and Williamson (now merged with R.J. Reynolds) in the 1970s.

If increased use and addiction might be unwelcome results of legalization, what hoped-for results might not materialize? Many have already begun touting tax revenues from legal marijuana as a major plus of the recently passed state laws. Sadly, however, we know that vice taxes rarely pay for themselves. The $40 billion we collect annually from high levels of tobacco and alcohol use in the U.S. are about a tenth of what those use levels cost us in terms of lost productivity, premature illness, accidents and death.

Additionally, our experience with many state lotteries has shown that promised funding for schools falls well short of expectations. As the California Department of Education said recently: "Although the public still perceives the lottery as making a significant difference in the funds available for education, it is a minor source that cannot be expected to provide major improvements in K-12 education." School officials are not happy about this: "We thought that it would be a windfall," said Michael Johnson, executive director of the Illinois Association of School Boards. "The general public -- they were fooled by this."

We also know that the promise of ending violent cartels is far from reality. A recent RAND report showed that Mexican drug trafficking groups only received a minority of their revenue from marijuana. So they are likely to stay around, legal marijuana or not.

Voters have been sold a false dichotomy: "You can either stick with failed, current policies, or you can try a 'new approach' with legalization." Sadly, this kind of black-and-white thinking betrays the fact that there are better ways than legalization or prohibition to deal with this complex issue.

Legalization may not be the answer, but that also means that former users with an arrest record should not be prevented from getting a job or accessing social benefits. We need to have an adult conversation about marijuana arrests among disadvantaged communities, too, to ensure equal justice under the law. Increased education and treatment will work better than incarceration and a sole reliance on the criminal justice system.

Indeed, we can reform the worst part of our current laws without increasing rates of addiction and harms. Let's think before we legalize.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Kevin Sabet.

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