‘Experts’ disappoint, part 2
Surprised and disappointed by the marijuana misinformation in circulation, we set part of the record straight in part one of our commentary (“Marijuana ‘experts’ disappoint,” April 10): Despite what Vermont’s health experts are telling us, science has not shown that marijuana causes laziness or lung cancer or that it lowers IQ. Although marijuana can be used to counter these conditions, we wouldn’t hear about that from Vermont’s vocal health “experts,” who carefully ignore the relevant scientifically established benefits of marijuana.
We are surprised, too, by a similar pattern of misinformation coming from the law enforcement community. So we write to set more of the record straight. Fasten your seat belts.
Myth: Marijuana makes people dangerous.
Dr. Paul Parker tells Vermonters that “science has shown… marijuana… will lead to even more motor vehicle accidents and deaths” (Feb. 4 in the Herald and Jan. 20 in The Times Argus). Some law enforcement organizations recently echoed this claim (“Chiefs say no to legal pot,” March 6), as did the Vermont Department of Health in “Marijuana regulation in Vermont,” which purports to referee relevant data so that we will know which policies may be supported with “scientific rigor.” Even though the report notes a lack of proof that marijuana causes fatalities (page 35), as Josh O’Gorman reported, it claims “very strong evidence to indicate marijuana use leads to more motor vehicle crashes” (January 16). When we checked the source of the “very strong evidence,” we were startled: It comes, not from unbiased scientific research, but from a well-known anti-drug task force, the Rocky Mountain High Intensity Drug Trafficking Area, whose output has long been seen as politically motivated and scientifically suspect. Its report has been criticized for obscuring the fact that what it refers to as “marijuana-related traffic deaths” do not necessarily have anything to do with marijuana. It groups together all fatalities from accidents in which a driver “tested positive for marijuana,” while it ignores (a) that inactive metabolites cause people who are not high to test positive; (b) that the upward trend in adult marijuana use made an increase in false-positive tests likely; and (c) that the tripling of cannabinoid screens by law enforcement agencies between 2009 and 2014 itself guarantees a significant bump in the numbers. These are serious omissions. And yet the Department of Health passes this on to Vermonters as “very strong evidence” — the “evidence” which the chiefs and others are now citing too, including Julia Purdy, who in her opposition to legalization relies entirely on Rocky Mountain misinformation (“Checking the facts on pot”, March 31). As for Dr. Parker, he provides no evidence at all.
But there is evidence; in fact, to the contrary. In Colorado, where recreational marijuana was legalized in 2012, traffic fatalities went down in 2014, according to data released by the Colorado Department of Transportation. But we are especially disappointed that our experts ignored one of the most important recent sources on the issue at hand, a February 2015 drug-and-alcohol crash risk study from the Department of Transportation which found that, when adjusted for age, gender, and alcohol use, there was no significant increase in the level of crash risk associated with marijuana. Vermonters deserve to know these facts, because they bear directly on our legitimate questions about traffic safety.
Myth: Marijuana as a “gateway.”
Dr. Parker also plays the well-worn “gateway drug” card, asking, “Why would we legalize something that has the potential to promote even more drug abuse?” It is disturbing that Dr. Parker ignores the data most relevant to people concerned about youth: Not only did incidence of drug use not increase among teens after legalization in Colorado, it actually dropped. “Where do legalization proponents stop?” Dr. Parker asks. “Do we move on to legalizing heroin? Cocaine? Methamphetamine?” His candidates for legalization are interesting because pharmaceutical versions of drugs like these are in fact among the most prominent gateway drugs. They feature labels signaling the establishment’s approval and are prescribed by medical doctors at a startling rate: For pain, there are opioids under names like OxyContin and Vicodin, SSRIs like Prozac for depression, and Adderall (an amphetamine), Ritalin (methylphenidate) and even Desoxyn (methamphetamine) for ADHD. Despite the marijuana death count holding at zero, fervent prohibitionists bemoan the “risks,” ignoring the real peril of the pharmaceutico-medical complex cranking out fatal prescriptions with impunity. Marijuana is not a gateway drug. Even D.A.R.E., the largest drug education organization in the world, recently removed marijuana from its list of gateway drugs.
Dr. Parker warns that the mere existence of legal cannabis will cause abuse. Parker’s claim here, too, conflicts with the science. A Brandeis/Johns Hopkins study published in the Annual Review of Public Health explains that addiction caused by prescription medication fuels the current heroin epidemic, not recreational use. The back story: In the 1990s, pharmaceutical companies prevailed upon doctors to dramatically increase opioid prescriptions. It’s no wonder that the Centers for Disease Control recently reported that we Vermonters have 67 painkiller prescriptions per 100 residents.
Now compare addiction — and death — rates in marijuana and opioid use. At worst, marijuana “addiction” affects a tiny segment of the population who are predisposed to dependency and is a problem better addressed by counseling than by law. Still, the Vermont Public Health Association, claims an alarming number of teens are addicted: “Marijuana use already represents over 60 percent of adolescent abuse treatment admissions…” (Jan. 24). The association provides no evidence, so one is left to wonder what these statistics mean. Do they all represent those predisposed to dependency on marijuana? Or are they rather those who were caught with pot and assigned to treatment on the bogus principle that “use equals abuse” — so teens caught with cannabis, even for the first time, are classified as abusers in need of treatment.
Turning to death rates, the number of people who died from opioid overdose quadrupled between 1999 and 2007, and there were close to 15,000 deaths in 2008 alone. There were 72 deaths in Vermont between 2013 and 2014 due to doctor-prescribed medications, mostly opiates (March 14). Deaths from marijuana use during the same periods: zero. And according to the Journal of the American Medical Association, access to cannabis is associated with lower opioid overdose mortality rates and even reduces the severity of symptoms of opiate withdrawal. Marijuana is good news for those wishing to drop opioids, because it is much safer than the standard withdrawal medications approved by the pharmaceutico-medical establishment, which often create physical dependence themselves.
From the standpoint of public health, it is safer for many Vermonters to purchase their dealers’ marijuana illegally than it is to accept their doctors’ prescriptions for legal OxyContin, Desoxyn or Adderall. The most common gateway to heroin is the pharmaceutico-medical complex, not marijuana. As long as marijuana prohibition lasts, the law actually helps set up an additional gateway to more dangerous drugs: Drug dealers also pushing heroin will continue to reach youth merely seeking access to marijuana. Kimberly Cheney is right: “Marijuana prohibition is [a] true gateway to other drugs, not marijuana itself” (February 14).
“Grass” roots Vermont
Although many of the experts are failing us, if we’re willing to do a little digging, Vermonters can base public policy on information, which is readily available via the Internet. Further, if we aim to regain the trust of millennials, our “drug education” programs had better reflect the facts. Let’s make marijuana legal, and let’s start telling ourselves and our children the truth about it.
Brendan Lalor of Rutland is a professor of philosophy at Castleton University. Philip Lamy of Castleton is a professor of sociology at Castleton University. The views expressed are theirs alone.