Chem Tales: Arguments Against Legalizing

There may be negative consequences that we don’t yet foresee, so it's legitimate that some states may choose to wait a little longer.

Pity the modern prohibitionist.

For almost a century, a pot prohibitionist could say anything. The 1936 movie Reefer Madness was so exaggerated in its propagandizing against marijuana that the film’s title itself became a synonym for over-the-top alarmism.

Decades later, a new phase of prohibition began. As Nancy Reagan would later recall, she was touring an Oakland elementary school in 1982 when a girl asked what to do if a friend offers her drugs.

“Just say no,” Nancy Reagan answered. The phrase, which evidence suggests was devised in a New York advertising agency, set the tone for global drug policy for more than a decade and has since contributed to the quadrupling of the country’s prison population, now 2 million.

Today, prohibitionists have lost a lot of ground. Pot is now widely considered safer than alcohol, and banning it appears to have caused far more problems than it has solved. Today’s prohibitionists also have to account for the plant’s important medical properties.

Thus, opponents of legalization are forced into narrower arguments about why a substance banned and discredited for largely racist reasons should continue to be outlawed. Further weakening their talking points, the states that have legalized weed seem to be doing well.

At the same time, there are still cases to be made against legalization. For example, as I’ve argued before here, there may be negative consequences that we don’t yet foresee, so it’s understandable that some states may want to wait a little longer before diving in.

With California voting on recreational marijuana in a few weeks, and eight more states voting on recreational or medical, we may be witnessing the prohibitionists’ last stand. Opposition groups in most states are poorly funded compared to supporters, but they have put together a few videos that capture their arguments.

A California ad, titled “Smoke,” touches on several common themes sounded by legalization opponents. The first and most compelling point is that kids will be exposed to advertisements for weed and might inadvertently eat THC-infused candy.

“Children could be exposed to ads promoting marijuana gummy candy and brownies,” a feminine announcer says before pointing out that edibles have led to a spike in emergency room visits and deadly car crashes.

The ad’s arguments are weak: Emergency room visits from overdoses on edibles have climbed, but the apparent recovery rate remains 100 percent. Also, the data are nowhere near conclusive that legalization makes roads more dangerous. “Smoke,” in short, is a scare part of a scare campaign aimed at low-information voters.

The ads opposing medical marijuana in Florida touch on points like these but are nastier. One opposition video, titled “Search,” opens with screenshots of online research, while an oily voiced male announcer says the initiative would be “basically pot for anyone, anytime, anywhere.” It goes on to emphasize that it would create an overwhelming number of dispensaries — a threat typically expressed in comparison to the number of Wal-Marts and other chains — before mocking the use of marijuana as medicine.

“Actual pharmacies can’t sell pot,” the announcer proclaims amid pictures of shady-looking stoners. Medical use is “a scam to legalize pot,” the voice concludes. When 90 percent of the population already supports medical marijuana, it’s probably too late for a slash-and-burn attack like this.

To my mind, a video from Massachusetts does a better job discussing the concerns ordinary people have. It begins with Boston’s Democratic Mayor Marty Walsh saying, “I’m not sure exactly sure what the benefits of creating a marijuana industry here in Massachusetts are. … Our young people already have enough challenges.”

It then cycles through a series of politicians expressing concerns. Some will already be familiar to you — edibles, dispensaries as ubiquitous as Starbucks — but the feelings of worry, and to some extent mystification, come across as genuine.

The state’s Republican Gov. Charlie Baker says, “We already allow access for medical purposes, and we’ve already decriminalized possession so that today folks aren’t being arrested for using or possessing small amounts of marijuana.”

It is easy to see how to Baker, Walsh, and some of their peers across the country see the industry as a malevolent force. The cannabis community has been very effective at making the case against prohibition. Next, it needs to justify itself.

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