By Samara Ferris
Thinking back to when the current US Attorney General, Jeff Sessions, said, “Good people don’t smoke marijuana,” it is easy to imagine upon what the Department of Justice will be focusing its attentions and financial allotments this year. But, it’s not all about Nancy Reagan-esque “Just Say No” slogans firing off against a haze of stoners and pot-infused birthday cake…it’s a lucrative industry for federal, state, and local governments. There is also evidence that the legalization of marijuana can uninten-tionally drive down opioid overdose deaths, as it has in Colorado. Pondering its potential legality in New York State one day, what do we have to gain?
Currently, marijuana is classified as a Schedule 1 controlled substance, and has remained under this umbrella of classification since it was voted in during the 1970’s. Schedule 1 is the nomenclature and category reserved for the most dangerous drugs with a high potential for abuse and no accepted medical use, a bit of a conundrum considering the masses of studies attesting to the properties of certain strains of marijuana as anti-seizure for epilepsy sufferers and the ability of marijuana to provide effective pain relief without the addictive quality or danger of opioids. In almost flat refusal of these findings, however, marijuana remains a Schedule 1 substance under Federal Law, running in direct opposition to the states that have voted to legalize medical, recreational, or both forms of marijuana.
Despite the current risks operating against federal law pose, there is great benefit from the legalization of marijuana that should interest voters and government officials alike. In Colorado, for example, where recreational marijuana was legalized in 2014, the tax revenue from legal marijuana sales were a relatively-modest $67 million. With word spreading in 2015 of the ease and safety of legal marijuana purchases, the market increase led to $130 million in tax revenues. In 2016, the tax revenues were over $193 million. Given the poor standing of taxes with its citizens, these statistics might inspire anger over pride, but consider that in Colorado the state uses the first $40 million of each year’s worth of marijuana tax revenues on school construction and improvement. Isn’t education and access to it the worthiest of investments?
At a comparable 25% tax upon recreational marijuana, over the course of one year, New York State would accrue a projected $544 million in revenue, based upon the demand in Colorado & Washington. That bears repetition: we stand to gain, as a state, a projected $544 million a year that we could use to re-build roads, to create green jobs, to send our kids to trade schools and state colleges for tuition-free. We could increase the benefits of the New York State of Health medical care system. We could give low-interest loans to farmers who need a bit more time to learn to compete in this new digital era. We could better train our state workers and make the police force stronger and safer with less violent reactionary tales by intensifying and varying training pertaining to drug use, mental illness, and more. We could protect our forests and our threatened wildlife. We could use those dollars to improve our roads with UV-glow-in-the-dark road paint to make driving at night easier and safer, saving lives. We could improve the quality and safety of life by utilizing this revenue stream, many states already have.
For anyone wondering about this notion of marijuana as a gateway drug, I offer some interesting evidence to support just the opposite: according to “The Effects of Marijuana Liberalizations: Evidence from Monitoring the Future,” (by Angela K. Dills, Sietse Goffard, Jeffrey Miron) funded by the National Bureau of Economic Research, looser marijuana laws reduce the use of cocaine and heroin among teens. In Colorado, the date of legalization coincided with an immediate drop in opioid-related overdose deaths to the tune of about 23% or one less death per month, every month, since legalization. This is not a negligible finding. Though the study also found that marijuana was associated with an increased ease of procuring psychedelic drugs, the authors did not find this to result in deaths, as opioid procurement and addiction often do. The reasoning behind the association of marijuana with a lessening of opioid deaths is currently unclear though a common reasoning offers the assumption that opioid addiction often occurs after being introduced to opioid drugs through injury and legal acquirement. While treating pain from injury with legal opioid pain killers, people become addicted and often need increased dosages to feel the same effects. And when they can no longer acquire the drugs legally, they turn to black market pills, or when those become too expensive - heroin. But marijuana’s effects as a pain killer are scientifically proven. The assumption is that as marijuana becomes legal and easy to obtain, some people swap opioid use with marijuana, thus avoiding addiction and lessening the death toll of overdose. Adding to this good news, a National Academies report notes that they have yet to discover any evidence leading to the possibility of fatal cannabis overdose. As marijuana becomes legal, it may use its trading cards of blueberry lollipops and green Madagascar Vanilla cupcakes to thwart opioid addiction in some people and have a lasting effect on society by offering an alternative to treat pain.
Marijuana does have its downside, though: according to The Denver Post between 2013-2016 in Colorado there was a 40% increase of drivers in fatal crashes. In 2015 for example, there were 99 people involved in fatal crashes who tested positive for THC, the “high chemical” in marijuana. That same year, however, alcohol still proved the more deadly drug with 187 fatal traffic deaths with the driver being tested positive for alcohol over the legal limit. Alcohol proves its dangers in Colorado with a growth from 129 alcohol-related traffic fatalities in 2013 to 151 deaths in 2015. Yet the toll from marijuana-related fatalities were recorded at 47 in 2013 to 115 in 2016, still less than alcohol. The difficulties with collecting evidence about traffic fatalities is the disparity present between how long a drug stays present in the system. If one were to have five drinks on a Friday during a five-hour window, stay at a friend’s home, and then drive home Saturday evening and be the driver in a fatal car crash, he would test negative for alcohol since alcohol leaves the body at .015 of blood alcohol concentration (BAC) per hour. So, this fatal car crash would not be regarded as alcohol-related. If the same situation were to occur, trading in the five drinks in five hours for one joint, a few pulls from a bowl, or a couple of hits from a bong (oh, the choices!), that same incident would be regarded as marijuana-related because the metabolites of THC can remain present in your body for up to 77 days (with daily use) or even 48 days (if using about 5 times/week), creating a positive outcome on a urine test, even when you have not used marijuana in days or even weeks. A popular magazine, High Times, specializing in cannabis research explains: “But the by-products of THC, which are evidence of prior use, are fat-soluble. In other words, THC metabolites bond to fatty tissues, and this causes the body to take some time expelling them. So technically speaking, ‘weed’ doesn’t stay in your urine, THC-COOH [the metabolic by-product of THC] does. And it’s totally inactive, meaning you’re not still under the influence of cannabis despite the presence of this chemical in your system.” With that in mind, all we can truly assume from the statistics of marijuana-related vehicular fatalities is that more people who ingest or smoke marijuana are at some point also driving a car.
“So, why is it still illegal?” remains the question. Making another drug legal rests on the assumption that lawmakers will look at facts, will put away their own opinions, and will make a choice benefitting all of society based on facts alone. Yet, we all know this is not nearly the case. Charged with emotion, anecdotal stories, and the prescribes of religion, law makers are imperfect decision-makers skewed by the tides of politics, lobbying, and opinion. Introducing a new element into society requires money and effort: new licenses must be created, taxed, controlled, reviewed. New bureaus must be created. New people hired. New restrictions and requirements made, researched, and alternatives set. Police and EMS must be trained for understanding the effects of marijuana, just as they have been trained to understand those impaired by alcohol, psychedelics, cocaine, mental illness, and opioids. Laws must be passed that require opposing sides to work together, and, not many are convinced despite the evidence. We may be a relatively liberal state, but outside of NYC, we’re a state of farmers, churchgoers, and right-leaners, which have historically been the strongest opponents of legalization.
As facts recover from the libel of “fake news” and begin to take prominence in the decision-making processes again, and as we see the benefits to society marijuana can offer as a non-addictive pain killer, as a multi-million-dollar revenue-maker, as a job creator from the growers to the harvesters to the bakers and the “pottenders,” to helping to minimize opioid-overdose-related deaths, we can at least begin to see the landscape with clarity, without the fulminating invective from lobbyists, well-meaning parents, and fact-absolving politicians. I challenge you: do the research. Ask the questions. Look at the facts. Decide for yourself. And maybe one day, book that trip to see your college roommate in Colorado, buy one of those pot-infused “Thin Mint” cookies, throw on Pink Floyd’s “Dark Side of the Moon” and see where it takes you.