Chem Tales: Let’s Gamble on Legalization

A few years into the state legalization experiment, we know one big thing: A legal marijuana industry can function more or less like any other kind of business.

What don’t we know? Pretty much everything else. We don’t know what legalization will mean for youth marijuana use, or which medical conditions marijuana can treat. With less than three full years of legalization in Colorado and Washington state, there’s still very little data.

There are, of course, statistics that can be wielded for partisan advantage. Take road safety, a favorite issue for legalization opponents. Project SAM, the most prominent U.S. anti-pot group, said in a February report that in Colorado, the number of driving fatalities in which the driver tested positive for THC climbed from 6.9 percent in 2006 to 19.3 percent in 2014, the first full year of legalization.

With some added perspective, the alarming figure loses some of its oomph. Across the same time period, in Colorado and Washington, where marijuana use is above national rates, the total number of traffic fatalities fell, and both states are safer for driving than the country at large, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, based on fatalities per 100,000 population. (Both states saw a significant jump in fatalities in 2015.)

The available science strongly suggests that drunken driving is far more hazardous than stoned driving. The most dangerous states for driving tend to be deep red and have not legalized medical or recreational marijuana.

As with all things weed, there are further complications: Unlike alcohol, there’s no accepted way to measure how high someone is. Drivers can test positive for THC days or weeks after they last used.

In short, it’s way too early to draw conclusions about the relationship between legalization and road safety. So far, the results have not been catastrophic. The same can be said for just about every aspect of legalization’s impact.

One reason cannabis opponents have struggled to win support is they haven’t found a compelling argument for why legalization is more problematic than prohibition. No one has done this before, so there aren’t any disastrous precedents. They have to convince the public that the largely unknown risks of legalization are worse than the known risks of the status quo.

There are plenty of cautionary tales. Every adult in America knows someone they think would be better off if they hadn’t smoked so much pot. Opponents are forced to argue that legalization will exacerbate problem use, though, as with driving, the available data doesn’t necessarily support their case.

With something so new, it’s impossible to predict where the risks are most severe, but you can take some reasonable guesses. In the same February report, Project SAM lists a few variables that demand “more sophisticated data … on both the consequences of legalization and the economic costs of such a policy.” It includes “potency and price trends,” “mental health effects of marijuana,” “emergency room and hospital admissions,” “worker productivity,” and “the effect on the market for alcohol and other drugs.”

A legalization supporter might ask to know more about the industry’s economic impact: jobs created, GDP growth, that kind of stuff.

The statistics will accumulate over time, but they’re a poor substitute for what we actually want to know about legalization, which is how it will alter daily life, and what it means for life at home and on the job. How will it change the way Americans raise their children and care for their elderly parents?

A few things are known about marijuana: It doesn’t cause fatal overdoses. It has never caused problems comparable to efforts to prohibit it, and it may have important medical uses. That’s not a bad beginning for a big social experiment, but it’s important to remember that it is an experiment; mass-market legalization may create or illuminate problems with weed that have not previously been apparent. So far, the closest brush the industry has had with a crisis involves the use of pesticides, something that was not widely anticipated but appears manageable.

So far, legalization’s haphazard rollout has largely vindicated supporters who maintain that marijuana should never have been banned in the first place. This leaves opponents no choice but to scare us with misused statistics. Perhaps in the future, the roles will reverse and put the industry on the defensive.

The truth is that crises are impossible to predict. A plant contaminant could sicken people or wipe out crops and jobs. Perhaps in a few years, kindergarten teachers will start to notice an increase in a specific learning disability.

We know the problems created by prohibition. Will legalization be any better? There’s only one way to find out.

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