The devastating costs of criminalizing cannabis

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In the 1930s, parents across the U.S. were panicked. A new documentary, Reefer Madness, suggested that evil marijuana dealers lurked in public schools, waiting to entice their children into a life of crime and degeneracy.

The documentary captured the essence of the anti-marijuana campaign started by Harry Anslinger, a government employee eager to make a name for himself after Prohibition ended. Ansligner’s campaign demonized marijuana as a dangerous drug, playing on the racist attitudes of white Americans in the early 20th century and stoking fears of marijuana as an “assassin of youth.”

Over the decades, there’s been a general trend toward greater social acceptance of marijuana by a more educated society, seeing the harm caused by the prohibition of marijuana. But then, on Jan. 4, Attorney General Jeff Sessions rescinded an Obama-era memorandum suggesting federal agents should let states regulate control of marijuana and focus their efforts on other drugs.

Re-criminalizing marijuana in light of current research findings, including my own research of more than 15 years, makes Sessions’ proposed crackdown on legal marijuana look worse than reefer madness.

Researchers like myself, who regularly talk with people who are actively using hard drugs, know that legal cannabis can actually reduce the harmful effects of other drugs.

Reefer madness

Re-criminalizing marijuana is a decision that makes little sense unless we consider the motives. History can shed some light here.

Media mogul William Randolph Hearst supported the criminalization of marijuana, in part because Hearst’s paper-producing companies were being replaced by hemp. Likewise, DuPont’s investment in nylon was threatened by hemp products.

Anslinger’s tactics included racist accusations linking marijuana to Mexican immigrants. His campaign included stories of urban black men who enticed young white women to become sex-crazed and instantly addicted to marijuana.

Anslinger’s campaign succeeded beyond his aims. His fearmongering was based more on fiction than on facts, but it made him head of the Bureau of Narcotics for 30 years. The social construction of cannabis as one of the most dangerous drugs was completed in 1970, when marijuana was classified as a Schedule I drug under the Controlled Substances Act, meaning it had high potential for abuse and no acceptable medical use.

Almost 50 years later, the classification remains and Anslinger’s views endure among many policymakers and Americans.

Spurious relationships

Today, marijuana critics often cite studies that show a connection between marijuana use and a host of negative outcomes, like use of harder drugs, criminality and lower IQ. Anslinger used the same tactics to incite fear.

But a correlation does not mean a causation. Some of these studies used flawed scientific methods or relied on false assumptions.

One popular myth, which started in Ansligner’s campaign and continues today, is that marijuana is a gateway to heroin and other opioids. Despite research dispelling this as a causal connection, opponents of marijuana legalization continue to call marijuana a “gateway drug.”

Studies on the brains of long-term marijuana users suggested a link between marijuana use and lower IQ. But later investigation showed that low IQ might actually be caused by smaller orbitofrontal cortices in the brains of children. Children with smaller prefrontal cortices are significantly more likely to start using marijuana early in life than those with larger prefrontal cortices.

One well-designed study that looked at marijuana use and brain development on adolescent twins over 10 years found no measurable link between marijuana use and lower IQ.

In a review of 60 studies on medical marijuana, over 63 percent found positive effects for debilitating diseases – such as multiple sclerosis, bipolar disorder, Parkinson’s disease and pain – while less than 8 percent found negative health effects.

The most harmful effect of criminalizing marijuana may not be its restriction on medical uses, but its devastating cost to American society, which experienced a 500 percent increase in incarceration due to the war on drugs.

The Portugal experiment

The tragedy in this policy is that decriminalizing drugs has shown to lower drug use – not increase it.

In 2000, Portugal had one of the worst drug problems in Europe. Then, in 2001, a new drug policy decriminalized all drugs. Drug control was taken out of the criminal justice system and put under the Ministry of Health.

Five years after Portugal’s decriminalization, drug use by young people was down. Teenagers between the ages of 16 and 18, for example, were 27.6 percent less likely to use drugs. What’s more, the number of people going to treatment went up, while drug-related deaths decreased.

Fifteen years later, Portugal still had lower rates of heroin and cocaine seizures, and lower rates of drug-related deaths, compared to the rest of Europe. Cannabis use in Portugal is now the lowest among all European countries. Moreover, Portugal’s policy change contributed to a reduced number of drug addicts with HIV.

The “Portugal Experiment” shows what happens when we take an honest look at a serious societal drug issue. Taking a tactic used by Anslinger, opponents of marijuana legalization claim it will lead to more use by young people. However, in states that legalized medical marijuana, use by young people did not increase or even went down. Recent data show that use of marijuana by teens decreased even in states that legalized marijuana for recreational use.

As the U.S. battles an opioid epidemic, states where marijuana is legal have seen fewer deaths from opioid overdose.

More studies are finding medical marijuana patients were using marijuana as a substitute for pain pills. After a medical marijuana law was passed, use of prescription medication for which marijuana could serve as a clinical alternative fell significantly.

Faced with a deadly opioid epidemic, more of the medical establishment is beginning to acknowledge the potential of marijuana as a safer therapy for pain than opioids.

Listening to those who are suffering

In my own field research, I’ve conducted hundreds of interviews with people who used heroin, cocaine, methamphetamine and other really dangerous drugs. Most of them used drugs to address social isolation, and emotional or physical pain, which led to addiction. They often told me that they used marijuana to help them stop using more problematic drugs or to reduce the side effects of withdrawing.

“In a lot of ways, that was my sanity,” said a young man who had stopped all drugs but cannabis.

Marijuana became a gateway out of heroin, cocaine, crack and other more deadly drugs.

While the Institute of Medicine released a report in 1999 suggesting the development of medically useful cannabinoid-based drugs, the American Medical Association has largely ignored or dismissed subsequent studies on the benefits of cannabis.

Today, in many states, people can use marijuana to treat illnesses and pain, reduce withdrawal symptoms, and combat cravings for more addictive drugs. They can also choose to use cannabis oil or a variety of healthier ways than smoking for consuming cannabis. This freedom may be jeopardized by a return to criminal marijuana.

Worse than ‘Reefer Madness’

Almost a century after Anslinger’s campaign, Reefer Madness is mocked in the media for its flagrant propaganda, and Anslinger’s influence on drug policy is shown as an example of government corruption. The ignorance and naiveté of “Reefer Madness” is seen as a bygone era.

The ConversationSo we have to ask, what kind of people want to re-criminalize cannabis today? What are their motives? Who profits from continuing to incarcerate people for using marijuana? Whose power will be diminished when a drug that has so many health benefits is provided without a prescription?

Miriam Boeri, is an associate professor of Sociology at Bentley University.

This article was originally published on The Conversation.

Sessions doubles down on argument that drugs cause violence

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“We know drugs and crime go hand in hand,” said attorney general Jeff Sessions on Thursday, when he spoke at the Drug Enforcement Administration’s Heroin and Opioid Response Summit in Charleston, W.Va. He continued to draw a link between drugs and violent crime, saying, “people try to suggest otherwise, but those of us in the business know drugs and crime go hand in hand.”

“Drug trafficking is an inherently violent business,” explained the attorney general. “If you want to collect a drug debt, you don’t file a lawsuit in district court. I mean, it’s strong-arm tactics or you can’t stay in business — in the drug business.”

Sessions is right. Those in the illicit drug business don’t file a lawsuit in district court. But many advocates for drug policy reform continue to point out that violence is associated with the drug trade precisely because dealers can’t take their grievances to court.

While the attorney general didn’t mention cannabis at the opioid summit, he’s made the same argument before: “Experts are telling me there’s more violence around marijuana than one would think. You can’t sue somebody for a drug debt. The only way to get your money is through strong-arm tactics, and violence tends to follow that,” said Sessions in a briefing with reporters in February.

At the time, advocates were quick to point out that states with legal recreational marijuana have not seen an uptick in violent crime.

“The attorney general is inadvertently articulating the strongest argument that exists for legalization, which that it allows regulated markets in a way that prohibition does not,” cannabis advocate Tom Angell said in a statement.

Indeed, after Portugal decriminalized all drugs (including heroin) in 2001, “decriminalization does not appear to have caused an increase in crimes typically associated with drugs,” according Transform, a British drug policy think tank and advocacy group.

Besides the fact that the country did not see a huge jump in violent crime, the country has seen numerous public health benefits post-decriminalization: drug use has fallen, the rate of HIV rates have fallen, and overdose deaths have fallen. “Portugal’s current drug-induced death rate, three per million residents, is more than five times lower than the European Union’s average of 17.3,” reports Vice News.

Attorney general Sessions also praised Nancy Reagan’s ‘Just Say No’ campaign and the D.A.R.E. programs that started in the ’80s.

“Many of these programs may not have been the most sophisticated. But it helped, and over time we developed more and more sophisticated prevention programs,” he said. “Messaging programs that have been proven scientifically to work. That research and that data is out there.”

In reality, scientific evidence suggests otherwise. A meta-analysis of 20 controlled studies on the efficacy of D.A.R.E. found that young people who were enrolled in the program were just as likely to use drugs as those who were not.

Of course, Sessions couldn’t resist taking a dig at “drug abusers” in his speech.

“Drug abusers also have an economic impact — they miss work. And when they do work, they don’t work well.”

How the war on drugs entrenches patterns of drug addiction

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Since Richard Nixon famously called for an ‘all-out offensive’ on the war on drugs in 1971, the US government has funneled a trillion dollars into the effort. What does the nation have to show for the spoils of this war? Addiction rates have remained stable for the past decade, while over half the population in its federal prisons are entered for drug-related offenses. Perhaps the US war on drugs has failed because it fundamentally fails to understand addiction itself. Rethinking our approach requires that we understand the experience of drug reward – the stimulus that gives one the appetite for the drug, and the role that context plays in the cycle of use.

What exactly does context have to do with drug reward? The incredible high experienced in the use of drugs is boosted by the entire series of events and places that accompany such use: it is the feel and texture of the environment; it is the people who gave you the drugs; it is the feeling of ecstasy and jubilation that runs through you in their company.

The drugs and the context merge in the brain. Opioids, alcohol and stimulants cause decidedly distinct patterns in the brain – except for one thing: they all activate the dopaminergic midbrain, a structure that plays a vital role in enhanced learning through reward. It is from here – when the alcohol hits, when the stimulant lands, when the opioid kicks in – that dopamine floods neural terminals into several key structures of the brain, signalling that whatever has just happened merits incredible importance. This reinforces that our previous actions must be repeated.

Research in modern neuroscience and psychology supports this view. The cues and contexts associated with drugs of abuse can trigger relapse in abstinent animals. And it all happens in the brain. The prefrontal cortex converts our internal goals into dynamic plans of action. From the moment the dopamine is released, the goal and the plan are rewarded. Addicts are addicted not just to the drug, but to the people they got it from and interacted with when taking it; they are addicted to the sensations provided by the environment, addicted to the plan.

Indeed, studies show that among young people, interactions with peers who encourage use constitute a substantial risk factor for relapse, a problem made all the more difficult in the age of ubiquitous online sociality.

One region of the brain to receive that flood of dopamine is the amygdala, a center for the experience of emotional valence and arousal. The moment dopamine pours in, the emotional state present when taking the drug is reinforced, and the memory of the amazing high persists. Worse, research indicates that cells in the amygdala become even more active during abstinence and withdrawal, causing pangs of longing and distress for the pathological reward. What was initially the desire to get high can rapidly devolve into compulsive desperation – into a habitual state of behaviour to avoid the misery of abstinence.

New insights into drug cravings illuminate just how profound the sensation is. The most susceptible animals will go through numerous shocks to obtain the drug. The pain that deters most of us from ruining our lives translates into an entirely suitable context for drug abuse to the particularly susceptible individual.

What this finding, and others like it, make clear is that lawmakers are not neuroscientists. By way of proof, they have designed a war on drugs that fundamentally neglects our new insights into how the brain orchestrates addiction at its very core. Since addicts will go to incredible lengths to reinforce the contexts in which they consume drugs, we literally could not have devised a worse system, which reliably produces awful contexts to become addicted to. Taken together, what our new findings make clear is that the war on drugs reinforces the very criminal context it nominally aims to prevent.

When we criminalize drugs and drug users, we ensure that the context of drug use habitually turns the brain toward shame, illegality, secrecy and depravity. Do you know what else drives relapse to drugs of abuse? Stress and social isolation. We reinforce jails. We reinforce drug dealers. We reinforce violence. We reinforce the associated contexts of every other criminal enterprise that accommodates drug use. We habitually recreate a tragedy where the so-called solution causes the problem.

Yet we can’t seem to kick the habit, no matter how much evidence of harm science reveals. It is time for us to take the first step and admit we need help, admit we have a problem. We are addicted to the war on drugs.

It could be that the best solutions come from countries like Portugal and the Netherlands, which have decriminalized drugs and legally administer them in treatment centers. From diminished drug abuse levels to fewer jail sentences and reduction in HIV transmission, such programs, in combination with humane treatment centers, have proven effective. But why? Perhaps because they accord with the psychological and neurological basis of context learning in addiction.

While the US declares a war on drugs to prevent an environment of addiction, these countries instead cleverly seek to use the context of addiction to wage their fight. In a form of social and scientific ju-jitsu, decriminalization and humane treatment create a context of addiction that maximizes the chances of breaking that addiction. The plan that got you there becomes the treatment center’s plan to monitor drug use for your transition to a drug-free life. If you use drugs in such a context, then this has a chance of becoming the new plan that the dopamine will reinforce.

The power of a humane, enriched and highly social environment stands out as one of the most proven preventatives for drug abuse in scientific literature. Animals in enriched social environments refrain from drug-seeking and drug relapse with astonishing consistency. Treatment based on these insights aligns most closely with our modern understanding of addiction.

Aeon counter – do not removeThis article was originally published at Aeon and has been republished under Creative Commons.