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Marijuana: Miraculous or malevolent?

September 25, 2013
by Dennis Grantham, Contributing Editor
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Sharp debate about cannabis legalization at NCAD shows that the answer is all in your point of view

In an all-too-short, but nevertheless fiery debate involving the legalization of medical marijuana, three nationally prominent activists managed to agree on what was wrong with current state laws and regulations involving cannabis use, yet disagree profoundly on marijuana's past record and prospects as a medication in itself or as a source of pharmaceutical ingredients.

The panelists - Amanda Reiman of the Drug Policy Alliance, Ben Cort of Colorado's Center for Dependency, Addiction, and Rehabilitation (CeDAR), and Kevin Sabet of the Drug Policy Institute and the University of Florida's College of Medicine - started with some agreement. Cort asserted that the national perspective on marijuana use was "about where Colorado was five years ago," with Americans ready to reconsider marijuana's status legally as a common and costly route to jail, and as a medication alternative, or medicine of last resort for everything from PTSD, to cancer, to chronic back pain.

For all three, the marijuana debate is much more than a political issue, since each has had significant experience in everything from research to policy development, criminal justice issues, and treatment approaches.

Cort left Phoenix Multisport in 2012 to lead opposition in Colorado to a state proposition that legalized recreational marijuana use, certain that he might make a difference. Sober since 1996, Cort today is a Coloradan with concerns not only about the impact of cannabis on young people, but on his young children in particular.  Reiman, too, is involved with young people. She serves as a lecturer at the University of California - Berkeley where she teaches drug and alcohol policy, substance abuse treatment, human sexuality, and social work.

Sabet jump started the debate when during his introdution, he asserted that campaigns to legalize marijuana have been driven by "a false dichotomy," the notion that the debate is a choice between harsh and expensive justice for minor cannabis offenses and the perceived benefits of legalization: higher tax revenues, regulated use, and reduced criminal justice costs.

harp debate about cannabis legalization at NCAD shows that the answer is all in your point of view.

Cort agreed, noting that this dichotomy, with the help of a powerful and well financed campaign, led Coloradans to approve cannabis legalization with a 54% plurality. "But," he warned, "the devil has been in the details" of implementing this state constitutional amendment.  Nowhere in its 3000-plus words, he explains, is there any significant guidance on just how the state is to provide the regulation - of producers, dispensaries, marketing and promotions, potency - and the retail sale of the product in for-profit dispensaries starting on January 1.  The details of such regulation, together with the tax dollars to be gained, were simply assumed by voters, who Cort believes will soon be disappointed.

Reiman agreed that regulations were an issue, but saw a brighter picture. "What we haven't seen yet is the impact of regulating marijuana," she said. When Cort and Sabet saw hazards with the wide availability of increasingly potent cannabis and cannabis derived products, Reiman saw the promise of consistency.  Previously, she said "you had no idea of the potency of what you were getting. Now, people will have a much better idea as to the potency and purity of what they're using."  She also asserted that many users aren't just looking for a high.  Many, she said, are looking for cannabis with a consistent potency of 10-12% THC. They aren't looking for the 'everclear' dose."

But Cort and Sabet took no comfort in Reiman's next assertion, that "if we see this law as a trial and we see that a year from now we're having problems, then we can learn and improve on it." Overall, she said, it's a much better law than California's old law.

And that's where agreement gave way to disagreement. Sabet noted that "Colorado has had a de facto legalization since 2009. Dispensaries have exploded. There are over 100,000 [use] certificates - the majority of users are white males with back pain, not cancer or other diseases.  Ten physicians are generating 50 percent of the prescriptions. That demonstrates a lack of control."

And now, he continued, "We're seeing 'big marijuana. We've moved tobacco out and moved marijuana in that we literally have vending machines.  We'll have edibles with much higher dosage, we creative cartoon packaging. The marijuana magazines were supposed to be behind the counter. Now they're out front," he continued. "This isn't about people using 1-2 times per month. It's going to be impossible to put that genie back into the bottle."

Reiman responded, "It's not all white men who are age 32. You see a lot of people with labor-intensive jobs who don't want to use opiates. You can't just look at the demographics - you've got to understand people's stories."

"Marijuana has medical properties. Let's do research on those.  You don't have to smoke it to get those benefits," Sabet shot back.  "Instead of research, this law has created a separate distribution system.  Why don't we treat marijuana like other medicines?  We don't ask people to smoke opium to get opiate pain relief."

While Reiman maintained that marijuana laws like Colorado's constituted a kind of evolving experiment that was bound to improve with time and experience, Cort noted, "This isn't just theory. We can't let the rich who sell this stuff dictate the terms of law and regulation."

Panel moderator Gary Enos, editor of Addiction Professional, then interjected a question: "Is it now true that Colorado sees this more like alcohol than like a drug?"