Why Legalizing Marijuana Hasn’t Cured Oregon Reefer Madness

Two states legalized marijuana in 2012. It’s 2014 and so far, the sky has not fallen in Washington and Colorado. But that’s not stopping one Dr. Todd Huffman, a pediatrician in Eugene, Oregon, from predicting all manner of danger in store for teenagers now that his state has legalized marijuana.

“Let me begin by acknowledging that the sky will not fall next July once the adult recreational use of marijuana becomes legal in Oregon,” he writes in his opening paragraph. Then Dr. Huffman spends the rest of his op-ed describing how the sky is going to fall.

“Legalization means greater use among teens as their perception of risk drops,” Dr. Huffman begins, without any source for his mistaken belief. My source, the Colorado Healthy Kids Survey, shows that as Colorado has legalized, teen perception of risk dropped, yet Colorado teens report less use of marijuana in two successive surveys, from 24.8 percent monthly teen use in 2009 to 20.0% monthly teen use in 2013.

Dr. Huffman then claims that “Legalization also means greater access…” According to the same source, Colorado teens report more difficulty in accessing marijuana than US teens on average.

“And for the truly determined teen user, there will remain the black market.” Well, sure, just like before, but how much of that black market opportunity remains? Much of what is “the black market” is teens selling to teens. Legalization is reducing the prices, and therefore, the profitability of that black market. What would be Dr. Huffman’s alternative to the shrunken black market under legalization … reinstating the full black market under prohibition?

“The argument is not between alcohol and marijuana. Teens aren’t deciding between the two,” Dr. Huffman hypothesizes. But according to the National Survey on Drug Use & Health, teen use of alcohol has plummeted from 9-in-10 who tried it when I was in high school (1980s) to 7-in-10 who try it now. Teen use of marijuana has dropped from 5-in-10 who tried it when I was in high school to 4-in-10 who try it now. If teens aren’t deciding between the two now, were they in the past? In other words, was prohibition forcing kids who wanted to get high to make a more dangerous choice?

Dr. Huffman then trots out the oft-repeated scare that “1 in six U.S. kids who try marijuana will become addicted to it.” “Addicted” is defined in this statistic as someone who uses marijuana four or more times per month. So telling us 1-in-6 teens who tries marijuana becomes an adult who smokes pot on the weekend is hardly the scare he thinks it is.

Dr. Huffman warns us that “more kids enter treatment for marijuana dependence than for all other drugs combined.” Indeed, this is true, because getting caught with marijuana means being sentenced to drug treatment. That hardly means the kids were “dependent”; they were just unlucky.

Next, Dr. Huffman jumps on the edible scare bandwagon, intoning that “calls to poison-control centers and visits to emergency departments for marijuana-related physical and mental illness have skyrocketed.” Well, yes, calls are up, but does that mean overdoses are up?  When marijuana is illegal, who wants to go to the ER or call poison control when that could get you busted? Calls may be up simply because people don’t fear reporting a legal marijuana overdose as much as an illegal marijuana overdose.

As the op-ed continues, Dr. Huffman delves further into the reefer madness, explaining that “today’s marijuana can be so much more potent than the marijuana of yesteryear.” There has always been potent marijuana and more potent hashish. High is high, whether you get there smoking two whole Woodstock joints or taking one modern hash oil dab. Marijuana is non-toxic; using too much will not kill you.

Then Dr. Huffman accepts the latest media misreporting that “marijuana use shrinks not only the brain, but also the number of future opportunities.” What kills opportunity is when a young person has a criminal record obstructing housing, employment, and education or is forced to piss for a job or a scholarship. If they were alive, you could ask Steve Jobs and Carl Sagan how much their regular pot smoking shrank their brains and limited their opportunity.

But what about the children? “Getting high also impairs judgment, which can lead to risky decision making,” according to Dr. Huffman. Look, nobody thinks teens should get high, but really, does he want to compare marijuana and alcohol on the risky decision making scale?

Dr. Huffman brings it all home with the confident pronouncement that “marijuana is unquestionably a gateway drug.”  C’mon, doc, the Institute of Medicine in 1999 and many peer-reviewed studies since show no “gateway” phenomenon that makes marijuana users move on to harder drugs. Most marijuana users ONLY use marijuana. There are 108 million Americans who tried marijuana out there, there may be 3 million total regular drug users — not even addicts, just all regular users – of all other drugs out there combined. Yes, ask a heroin addict what was the first drug he tried and he may tell you “marijuana” (while forgetting he tried cigarettes or alcohol first), just as if you ask a Hell’s Angel what was the first wheeled vehicle he rode he may tell you “a tricycle.” That doesn’t mean getting your kid a tricycle leads inexorably to his becoming a Hell’s Angel.  In fact, some of those heroin, cocaine, meth, Oxycontin, and Vicodin addicts find marijuana is the exit drug from their addictions.

Legalization is just the first step in a long journey to freedom and equality. So long as people like Dr. Todd Huffman still believe the reefer madness lies, we have a lot of work to do.

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