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Punitive marijuana laws disproportionately harm young people of color

The United States incarcerates more of its citizens than any other country in the world. The war on drugs has been a primary driver of this mass criminalization movement. An arrest record for even a minor marijuana offense can have lifelong consequences. It can make it harder for an individual to secure employment, find affordable housing, and receive loans.

Although Massachusetts voters replaced criminal penalties for possession of small amounts of marijuana in 2008 with a civil fine, arrest data compiled by the FBI Uniform Crime Reporting program reveals that there were still more than 1,500 arrests for marijuana offenses in 2014. Even more concerning is the disproportionate enforcement of Massachusetts’ punitive marijuana laws. Although marijuana usage rates are virtually identical among whites and non-whites, young people of color bear the brunt of our current policy. In 2014, people of color were 3.3 times more likely than whites to be arrested for marijuana possession and 7.1 times more likely to be arrested for marijuana sales. Although young people (ages 18-24) make up only 14% of the adult population, they represented 63 percent of those arrested for marijuana in 2014.

Marijuana and opioids

Recent scientific research provides significant evidence that affordable, legal access to marijuana can be an important tool in addressing the crisis of opioid addiction and overdose. Contrary to opponents of Question 4 who claim that marijuana use is a “gateway” to opioid use, multiple studies suggest that legal marijuana may be an effective substitute for opioid medications for patients who struggle with chronic, debilitating health conditions.

A study released in June by the American Pain Society found that therapeutic marijuana use was associated with a 64 percent reduction in opioid use by patients with chronic pain. Patients also reported better quality of life and far fewer side effects. The study involved 244 chronic pain patients using marijuana over a 15-month period.

According to a study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association, “States with medical cannabis laws had a 24.8% lower mean annual opioid overdose mortality rate compared with states without medical cannabis laws.”

Researchers at Columbia University found that the primary active ingredient of marijuana reduces the severity of opioid withdrawal. Their study also concluded that patients who used marijuana while undergoing treatment for opioid dependence were more likely to complete their program than patients who did not use marijuana.

Another recent study from the University of Georgia found that less restrictive marijuana laws were associated with $165 million in savings on Medicare spending for prescription drugs. The authors’ findings suggest that marijuana is often recommended by doctors as a substitute for prescription medications to treat chronic pain, anxiety, and depression.

Unfortunately, despite the existence of Massachusetts’ medical marijuana program, many patients still find it difficult to obtain medical marijuana. There are currently only seven dispensaries in the state, and less than 0.5 percent of the 36,000 physicians in Massachusetts are certified to issue medical marijuana cards.

The cost of medical marijuana can also be a prohibitive barrier for some patients. Passage of Question 4 will make medical marijuana more affordable and accessible and will allow patients and healthcare providers to make important medical decisions without fear of committing a crime. By making marijuana more available to people who need it to treat their serious health conditions, passage of Question 4 will better position us to combat the problem of opioid addiction and overdose.

Marijuana policy reform is not linked to increases in youth marijuana use

Although opponents of Question 4 often claim that marijuana policy reform poses a threat to teenagers, there is no evidence to support this assertion. Data from the Centers for Disease Control’s Youth Risk Behavior Survey show that previous marijuana policy reform efforts in Massachusetts have not resulted in significant changes in teen marijuana use. In 2007, prior to passage of both medical marijuana and decriminalization laws, the MAYRBS study found that 24.6 percent of high school students reported marijuana use within the last month. In 2015, the rate was 24.5 percent.

Similarly, study after study in other states and at the national level has confirmed that marijuana policy reforms do not cause youths’ rates of marijuana use to increase. In June 2016, a study published in the Journal of the American Academy of Child & Adolescent Psychiatry found that the number of teens using marijuana and the number with problematic use is falling as more states legalize or decriminalize cannabis. The findings were based on a survey of more than 200,000 youth in all 50 states.

Data has long shown that medical marijuana protections do not cause teens’ marijuana use to increase. A 2015 national study covering 24 years of data published in The Lancet found that medical marijuana laws do not lead to an increase in teen marijuana use. According to the lead researcher of the study, Dr. Deborah Hasin, the findings “provide the strongest evidence to date that marijuana use by teenagers does not increase after a state legalizes medical marijuana.” Similarly, as the American Academy of Pediatrics noted in its statement supporting decriminalization, “Decriminalization of recreational use of marijuana by adults has also not led to an increase in youth use rates of recreational marijuana.”

As of June 2016, available data suggests that legalizing and regulating marijuana for adult use has not significantly impacted teen marijuana use either. Below are data tables for five youth behavior surveys comparing past 30-day marijuana use for teenagers before and after the passage of legalization laws in Colorado, Washington, Oregon, and Alaska.

The most in-depth state surveys suggest modest decreases in youths’ marijuana use rates in Colorado and Washington, both of which approved initiatives to regulate marijuana like alcohol in 2012. A survey with a much smaller sample size in those states indicates a slight increase. Surveys of students in Alaska and Oregon, both of which approved legal marijuana for adults in 2014, indicate small decreases in teen marijuana use from 2013 to 2015. Nationwide, two surveys with large sample sizes show a modest decrease in teens’ marijuana use rates since states began legalizing marijuana for adults 21 and older.

Washington State Healthy Youth Survey (past 30-day use)

2010 2012 2014
8th grade 9.5% 9.4% 7.3%
10th grade 20.0% 19.3% 18.1%
12th grade 26.3% 26.7% 26.7%

Colorado Healthy Kids Survey (past 30-day use)

2011 2013 2015
9th – 12th grade 22.0% 19.7% 21.2%

National Survey on Drug Use and Health (past 30-day use, small sample size)

‘10-’11 ‘11-’12 ‘12-’13 ‘13-’14
Colo., 12-17 years old 10.7% 10.5% 11.2% 12.6%
Wash, 12-17 years old 9.6% 9.5% 9.8% 10.1%

Oregon Healthy Teens Survey (past 30-day use)

2013 2015
8th grade 9.7% 8.8%
11th grade 20.9% 19.1%

Alaska Youth Risk Behavior Survey (past 30-day use)

2013 2015
9th – 12th grade 19.7% 19.0%

National Survey on Drug Use and Health (past 30-day use)

2011 2012 2013 2014
U.S., 12-17 years old 7.9% 7.2% 7.1% 7.4%

National Survey on Drug Use and Health (past 30-day use, small sample size)

2011 2013 2015
U.S., 9th – 12th grade 23.1% 23.4% 21.7%

Note: In 2015, the Healthy Kids Colorado Survey sampled approximately 15,000 high school students (9th to 12th grade). The 2014 Washington State Healthy Youth Survey obtained data from approximately 25,000 students (8th, 10th, and 12th grades). The National Survey on Drug Use and Health, however, has a sample size of roughly 300 in the 12 to 17 year old age category for both Colorado and Washington. The national sample of 12 to 17 year olds for the NSDUH is approximately 23,000. It is not clear if it controls for age, or if one year oversampling older or younger teenagers could cause skewed results.

Economic benefits of regulating and taxing marijuana

Marijuana is objectively safer than alcohol

  • According to a recent report from researchers at Rice University, “Alcohol causes far more personal and social damage than any other drug.”
  • An often-cited study from 1994 found that alcohol is nearly twice as addictive as marijuana.
  • A 2015 study published in Scientific Reports found that marijuana is 114 times safer than alcohol, based on the concept of “margin of exposure,” which measures the likelihood of an average user accidentally ingesting a toxic dose.
  • According to a 2014 study, marijuana use is correlated with lower rates of domestic violence, while much research has established that alcohol use is correlated with higher rates of intimate partner violence.