Chem Tales: A Dream Speech on Cannabis

In March, the Boston Globe published an opinion piece headlined, “Mass. should not legalize marijuana.” It was co-authored by Charlie Baker, the Republican governor of Massachusetts, and by the state’s attorney general and the mayor of Boston, both Democrats.

To my mind, the piece paints an excessively grim picture of the health and safety situation in Colorado and perhaps of the impact of legalization on youth use.

The bigger problem with this line of argument is that the known downsides of legalization, no matter how forcefully described, don’t amount to what most Americans consider justification for prohibiting something. From what we’ve seen in states that have legalized marijuana, the negative impacts of legalization are nowhere near as severe as those of goods such as alcohol, tobacco, guns, or prescription opioids.

The Massachusetts politicians also scare readers about out-of-state profiteers: “Motivated by the profit potential of dominating a new marketplace, proponents know it’s not in their best interest to disclose or address the serious threats to public health and safety, nor to represent accurately the experiences of Colorado and other states.”

The possibility that Big Weed will emerge as a wealthy and powerful special interest is very real. (Many legalization advocates and entrepreneurs are well-informed critics of the prospect.) But again, the threat of Big Weed isn’t a strong argument against legalization. Special interests ­— Wall Street, Silicon Valley, the NRA, the AARP — are already immensely influential. Like the others, Big Weed can be expected to fight for every edge, but there’s no reason to believe its lobbying will be uniquely pernicious.

Still, the Massachusetts politicians offer some fair points, and they have more credibility for coming from a state that has already decriminalized and created a medical marijuana program.

Their counterparts in other states offer even thinner gruel. Arkansas Republican Gov. Asa Hutchinson opposes November’s medical marijuana initiative in his state on the grounds that it would be a “drain” on state resources. In Missouri, prosecutors are trying to prevent a medical initiative from appearing on this year’s ballot. In Oklahoma, it appears Attorney General Scott Pruitt will stall to keep another medical initiative away from voters. (Pruitt, along with Nebraska Attorney General Doug Peterson, unsuccessfully sued Colorado over its marijuana laws, saying among other things that legalization next door is a burden on the state’s law enforcement agencies. The U.S. Supreme Court declined to hear the case.)

Legalization opponents may be able to hold off votes or even sway state elections, but they have no apparent strategy for rolling back legalization. In two years or four, legal weed will be more entrenched, Americans will be more comfortable with it, and barring unforeseen developments, the case against it will be weaker than ever. Legalization’s momentum won’t be stopped by unconvincing arguments or undemocratic measures.

Instead of blocking a vote, probably for two years, it might be more productive for Pruitt to start thinking about what legalization could look like in Oklahoma. He could speak with his peers in other conservative states to try and shape policies that they find more acceptable than the relative free-for-alls in Colorado and California. To recognize reality and try to address it is a form of leadership, it might even be smart politics for an ambitious Republican.

For those politicians who remain committed prohibitionists, or those who remain wary of legalization, there is another option: Talk honestly about marijuana.

The speech I’d like to hear would begin by acknowledging that the War on Drugs began with malicious motives and has taken a vast human toll. It might quote John Ehrlichman, a Richard Nixon aide later convicted for his involvement in Watergate, who said the war on drugs began as an attack on the administration’s enemies. “We knew we couldn’t make it illegal to be either against the war or black, but by getting the public to associate the hippies with marijuana and blacks with heroin, and then criminalizing both heavily, we could disrupt those communities,” he told reporter Dan Baum many years later. “Did we know we were lying about the drugs? Of course we did.”

After condemning the War on Drugs without reservation, the speaker should go on to say that introducing a new legal intoxicant, supercharged by profit-seeking companies, will alter society in ways we don’t yet understand.

The speaker would encourage treating the experiments in Colorado and Washington like experiments. Science suggests that the most serious public health concern surrounding marijuana is its effect on developing minds. Let’s commit to better understanding how legalization alters youth access, especially for those individuals for whom the drug has the most severe consequences.

We can’t learn everything in four years but we can learn a lot, so let’s talk again in 2020.

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