The New Scrutiny

Photo Courtesy of Vortex Farmacy

The decay and rot of prohibition laws throughout the United States (and the world) is producing even greater attention to marijuana, its use and effects, and their impact on individuals and society.

There are two reasons for this new scrutiny of marijuana by academics, journalists and policymakers—the realization that marijuana will be legalized and the fantasy that that legalization can be reversed.

The third great phase in the history of marijuana research is underway.

Throughout the 20th century, the primary purpose of research on marijuana was to figure out how the drug caused its characteristic effects. For some researchers, this was a matter of believing the drug was harmful and finding ways to prove it, but for others, it was a matter of simply discovering the mechanism of action by which the accounts of marijuana uses could be explained. This latter research path resulted in the discovery of the endocannabinoid receptor system in 1988 by Lyn Howlett and her research team at Washington University in 1988.

This discovery produced a tremendous paradigm shift in cannabinoid research. While concern about potentially harmful effects of marijuana continued (as it does to this day), the bulk of modern research shifted to understanding how the endocannabinoid receptor system could be used for medical use.

A consequence of this new research focus was greater understanding of just how the cannabinoids in marijuana affected the human body. In other words, this research proved that not only were many of the scare stories about cannabis false and unfounded, but also that marijuana use was relatively safe.

It is this second wave of research that paved the way for marijuana’s legalization—first by way of state medical marijuana laws and then recently in the form of state laws legalizing all adult use (subject to reasonable regulation of commerce and prohibitions on driving under the influence).

While research on marijuana’s effects and its medical use continues, a third wave of research and commentary has emerged in response to these radical reforms in state-level marijuana policy. Those who understand that legalization is irreversible are devoting greater attention to understanding the impact of legalization policies, while those who fantasize about reversing this new trend are seeking evidence that the impact of legalization is as harmful as they have always feared.

As a result, there will likely be more studies about marijuana in the next 10 years than there have been in the last several decades combined.

The reactionaries who want a return to prohibition will argue that any negative finding about marijuana or marijuana’s legalization validates their historical opposition to reform. In many respects, there is nothing new here, and the most important characteristic of such arguments is their historic reliance on the delusion that prohibition works.

However, the new scrutiny has begun and will continue to highlight differences among supporters of marijuana’s legalization. There are two important fault lines becoming exposed.

The first is receiving a lot of attention among policy analysts and concerns whether the priority for public policy will be public health or profits (in terms of industry profits, tax revenue, or both).

The second fault line, one which has and will continue to receive attention in High Times, is between the interests of industry and the interests of consumers.

Both represent conflicts for the emerging marijuana industry, a conflict on one side with public health proponents and on the other with marijuana consumers. It might seem that the industry’s two adversaries have a conflict of their own, in that public health proponents wish to minimize and/or constrain both the popularity of and the amount of marijuana used by consumers. But potential conflicts between the public health community and marijuana consumers are illusory because both groups embrace the concept of safe and responsible use, regardless of their disagreements over the characteristics use and abuse.

Public health advocates and marijuana consumers have a common cause in uniting against the excesses and self-interest of commercial interests which will seek to maximize profits at the expense of the public interest.

The new scrutiny that defines the third wave of marijuana research and policy analysis concerns the actions, interests and impacts of the marijuana industry and its clash with the interests of the consumer and the public.

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