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Another Voice: Science, public opinion drive changes in marijuana policy

By Paul Armentano

Dr. Ed Gogek’s claims in Sept. 12’s Viewpoints section that the passage of medical marijuana laws are adversely associated with increased youth drug use are woefully incorrect. Federal data released just last week by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration reports that the percentage of respondents ages 12 to 17 who engaged in the use of marijuana in the past month has held steady from 7.6 percent in 2004 to 7.4 percent in 2014.

More specifically, authors of a separate federally commissioned study published this summer in the journal Lancet Psychiatry assessed the relationship between state medical marijuana laws and rates of self-reported adolescent marijuana use over a 24-year period in a sampling of over 1 million adolescents in 48 states. Researchers reported no increase in teens’ overall use of the plant that could be attributable to changes in law, and acknowledged a “robust” decrease in use among eighth-graders.

They concluded: “[T]he results of this study showed no evidence for an increase in adolescent marijuana use after the passage of state laws permitting use of marijuana for medical purposes. … [C]oncerns that increased marijuana use is an unintended effect of state marijuana laws seem unfounded.”

By contrast, scientists have identified a positive association between the passage of medical marijuana laws and reduced incidences of opioid abuse. According to the findings of a 2015 National Bureau of Economic Research study, “[S]tates permitting medical marijuana dispensaries experience a relative decrease in both opioid addictions and opioid overdose deaths compared to states that do not.”

Gogek’s claims that changes in marijuana policy are being driven by special interests are equally specious. According to a spring 2015 national Harris poll, 81 percent of Americans, including super-majorities of Democrats, Republicans and independents, expressed support for legalizing marijuana for medical treatment. More than half of voters also favor broader changes in law regulating the plant’s sale for all adults. Self-evidently, legal changes in marijuana’s status are being driven by the views of this growing majority.

Twenty-three states and Washington, D.C., now permit physicians to recommend marijuana therapy. Four states also permit the regulated use and sale of cannabis by adults. Early findings from these states are also largely positive.

At a minimum, we know enough about cannabis, as well as the failures of cannabis prohibition, to allow people the option to consume a botanical product that is objectively safer than the litany of pharmaceutical and recreational substances it could replace.

Paul Armentano is deputy director of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws (NORML) in Washington, D.C.