By Sheriff Leo P. McGuire (Ret.)
The sky is falling! The sky is falling! Governors have promised to increase revenues by legalizing marijuana, but many questions remain. The law enforcement community has been buzzing with opinions about the prospect of legalization for personal use. The thought of legalization in many states brings images of Jeff Spicoli in “Fast Times at Ridgemont High” driving up to school and getting out of his van through a cloud of marijuana smoke. However, let’s set aside our history in the “War on Drugs” and look at some research and points from both sides of the argument.
Is marijuana a gateway drug? Several studies suggest that users of marijuana were more likely to develop alcohol abuse disorder than those who had not used it. They further show those with alcohol disorder worsened with marijuana use. This and other factors seem to confirm that marijuana is a gateway drug, however, the majority of users do not move on to hard drugs. Other reports indicate that THC, one of the 60 cannabinoids in marijuana, is a relatively safe drug. Still, others point to the dangerous chemicals ingested into the body as well as the negative cognitive effects, some longer-term, caused by heavy smoking.
Our youth are at greater risk if marijuana is legalized. We already know that many of our youth experiment with all sorts of things, which are detrimental to their health. However, legalization may send a message that if it’s OK for you, why is it bad for me? It’s the same argument for alcohol and tobacco. Currently, our youth ARE getting arrested for possession of marijuana. 40% of the 333k treatment admissions in 2011 were under 20 years old–the bulk of which were referrals from the criminal justice system. Alcohol and tobacco are currently the most abused substances by those under 18. Will legalization lead to an advertisement of sorts for our children indicating it’s safe for their abuse? Proponents suggest that the health effects of marijuana use are less than those of alcohol or tobacco; however cannabinoids enter the organs slowly and last much longer in the body. No one suggests marijuana should be legal for those under age. In Colorado and Washington, teen marijuana use did not significantly change once legalized. No matter the statistics, if your child comes home indicating marijuana use to you, is that better or worse than alcohol or tobacco, forgetting about the legality for a moment? That is a decision we all need to explore individually.
What’s the difference between alcohol and marijuana? The Marijuana Tax Act of 1937 began the criminalization of the drug, requiring payment of an import tax. At the time, it was determined that its availability was so widespread in the U.S. that smuggling was of no concern, but the Act outlawed personal use/possession, leaving medicinal marijuana legal but heavily regulated. States then began criminalizing the drug further, until 1970 where it was added as a controlled dangerous substance.
The Cato Institute reported: “Alcohol prohibition was a failure. National prohibition of alcohol (1920-33)—the “noble experiment”—was undertaken to reduce crime and corruption, solve social problems, reduce the tax burden created by prisons and poorhouses, and improve health and hygiene in America.”
While marijuana prohibition may also go the way of the Dodo bird, we must look at the differences between these drugs of choice.
Marijuana use is not without risks. A study in New Zealand found chronic use by youth connected to an average eight-point drop in IQ by age 45. Other studies indicate impairment of cognitive ability at any age, and that may not be good for those driving on our congested roadways!
How will legalization impact DWI prosecutions?
Driving stoned may be less dangerous than drunk! In Colorado and Washington, post-legalization traffic fatalities remained steady with pre-legalization. However, drivers in fatalities are more likely to test positive for THC. The difficulty here is in identifying what an intoxication level of THC is that indicates impairment. Since THC is absorbed slowly and stays in the body for much longer, the impairment may have long passed when the blood is tested. For Colorado, the law specifies that drivers with five nanograms of active THC in their whole blood can be prosecuted for DWI. However, no matter the level of THC, officers base arrests on observed impairment, just like alcohol. Refusal to submit to a blood test results in severe penalties. There is no Intoxilyzer for marijuana at present.
We spend some $3.6B annually enforcing our drug laws, including hours in arrest/booking of low-level offenders. In 2015, 575,000 people were arrested for simple marijuana possession, 90% had no subsequent felony arrests. Not exactly career criminals, but now they have every aspect of their lives affected by that incident, including loss of driver’s license in NJ. Decriminalization may shift the burden of marijuana use from the criminal justice system to the public health sector, where it may be more successful than the cat and mouse games we have played for decades.
A US Army veteran, Leo P. McGuire, MBA served two terms as Bergen County Sheriff and 20 years as a police officer. Now serving as Senior Vice-President of Strategy and Risk Management for iLearn Schools, Inc. Leo P. McGuire provides expert support on behalf of the thousands of students and families. With over 30 years of public safety experience, Leo has remained on the forefront of innovation, technology, and mentoring others to realize their potential.
Leo continues to teach leadership, business and homeland security while sitting on the Boards of several colleges. He supports the community by serving on charity boards and as NJ Vice-Chair of the Employer Support for the Guard and Reserves, a DOD program, while operating a consulting business, LPM Strategies, LLC.