As Canada legalizes marijuana, advocates in U.S. debate drug's risks

    Bill Semeniuk, 67, smokes cannabis in Kamloops, British Columbia, Wednesday, Oct. 17, 2018. Canada became the largest country with a legal national marijuana marketplace as sales began early Wednesday. (Jonathan Hayward/The Canadian Press via AP)

    As Canadians flood into government-run marijuana dispensaries this week, advocates for recreational cannabis use are hoping America’s northern neighbor legalizing the drug will fuel momentum for more widespread acceptance in the U.S.

    “Canada is setting a strong example for how to end marijuana prohibition at the national level and replace it with a system of regulated production and sales that is largely governed at the local level. The U.S. and other countries grappling with the complexities of such a significant policy shift will have an excellent opportunity to learn from the Canadian experience,” said Steve Hawkins, executive director of the Marijuana Policy Project.

    Canada has allowed some medical marijuana usage for years, but on Wednesday, it became the second country in the world and the first G7 nation to lift prohibitions on recreational use.

    Hannah Hetzer, senior international policy manager at the Drug Policy Alliance, expects this move will create some pressure for the U.S. to reassess its approach, but it probably will not be enough to get Attorney General Jeff Sessions to change his hardline stance.

    “It makes the U.S. position of having some states with legal marijuana while [it is] illegal on the federal level more untenable,” Hetzer said.

    Although several states bordering Canada allow recreational marijuana use—Washington, Vermont, Maine, and Alaska—U.S. Customs and Border Protection has made clear travelers cannot bring the drug into the U.S. because it is still prohibited by federal law.

    "Marijuana is a controlled substance under U.S. federal law and remains illegal," a border patrol spokesperson told the Burlington Free Press. "Crossing the border or arriving at a U.S. port of entry in violation of this law may result in denied admission, seizure, fines, and arrest."

    Some Canadians involved in the marijuana industry fear they could be permanently barred from entry to the U.S. and branded as drug traffickers. U.S. officials say Canadians with cannabis ties will generally be admitted to the country if they are vacationing, but they may not be allowed in if they are traveling for business reasons.

    “At a time when public opinion and the culture surrounding marijuana is rapidly shifting, not just in the United States but around the world, it is inane for US border officials to maintain such a backward-looking policy," Paul Armentano, deputy director of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws, said in a statement.

    Canada’s embrace of cannabis has done nothing to weaken the resolve of those fighting legalization in the U.S.

    “Canada is not only violating international laws by commercializing marijuana, it is letting a new industry – Big Marijuana – grow and prosper,” said Dr. Kevin Sabet, whose organization, Smart Approaches to Marijuana, has launched a website to monitor the consequences in Canada. “As more Canadians feel the negative effects – secondhand smoke, workplace accidents, car crashes, declining school performance, loss of productivity, and other issues – I am confident the policy will be reversed in time.”

    Marijuana-related initiatives will be on the ballot in several states this fall as U.S. access continues to be governed by an elaborate patchwork of state and federal regulations. Recreational use is currently legal to some degree in nine states and the District of Columbia, and medical marijuana is allowed in 21 other states.

    Voters in Michigan and North Dakota will decide in November whether to legalize recreational marijuana use, and parts of Ohio and Wisconsin are considering legalizing or decriminalizing it. Utah and Missouri could decide to permit medicinal use.

    The fact that marijuana is still outlawed at the federal level has created legal and logistical challenges in states that allow it. Dispensaries have struggled to find viable banking options, and anyone involved in the industry runs the risk of facing federal criminal charges.

    Citing negative consequences of commercialization, Colorado U.S. Attorney Bob Troyer said recently his office may turn to targeting licensed cannabis businesses and investors.

    “Now that federal enforcement has shot down marijuana grows on federal lands, the crosshairs may appropriately shift to the public harms caused by licensed businesses and their investors, particularly those who are not complying with state law or trying to use purported state compliance as a shield,” he wrote in a Denver Post op-ed column.

    Highway safety organizations say new data indicates the risk of marijuana-related traffic accidents and deaths is higher than advocates anticipated.

    The Insurance Institute for Highway Safety and Highway Loss Data Institute released a report this week showing insurers are receiving 6 percent more traffic accident claims in Colorado, Nevada, Oregon, and Washington than in neighboring states where recreational marijuana use is not legal.

    A separate IIHS study examining police reports on crashes before and after legalization in Colorado, Oregon, and Washington from 2012 to 2016 found the rate of crashes per million vehicle registrations was 5.2 percent higher than states where marijuana was prohibited. The Washington Traffic Safety Commission has seen an increase in fatal crashes involving the use of multiple drugs in recent years, and the most common combination is alcohol and marijuana.

    “People have this feeling they would rather people use marijuana than alcohol, but in Colorado, alcohol use has actually gone up The cumulative effect of both drugs is often worse than the effect of each drug individually,” said Scott Chipman, co-founder of Citizens Against Legalizing Marijuana.

    Officials acknowledged they have not established a direct link between legalization of marijuana and an increase in traffic accidents. Procedures for testing drivers are inconsistent from one jurisdiction to another, and the effect of cannabis in a driver’s system can be hard to isolate.

    The IIHS urged policy-makers to recognize the possible danger.

    "The new IIHS-HLDI research on marijuana and crashes indicates that legalizing marijuana for all uses is having a negative impact on the safety of our roads," says IIHS-HLDI President David Harkey in a statement. "States exploring legalizing marijuana should consider this effect on highway safety."

    Last summer, the Denver Post conducted an analysis of all fatal crashes involving drivers with marijuana in their system since the state legalized the drug. The number of drivers involved in fatal crashes in Colorado who tested positive for THC doubled between 2013 and 2016, with the drug becoming a factor in 20 percent of all fatal crashes in 2016.

    “We went from zero to 100, and we’ve been chasing it ever since. Nobody understands it and people are dying,” Greenwood Village Police Chief John Jackson told the Denver Post. “That’s a huge public safety problem.”

    Legal marijuana advocates say much more data is needed before concluding recreational use of the drug has put more lives at risk, and a person testing positive for THC does not necessarily mean the crash was caused by its presence.

    “Our opinion of that data so far is that it’s not conclusive because obviously THC in the blood doesn’t equate with impairment,” said Tamar Todd, senior director of the office of legal affairs at the Drug Policy Alliance, adding that a general increase in crashes is consistent with national trends.

    Supporters of legalization also point to potential savings for law enforcement agencies and a boost in tax revenues and tourism dollars for states that permit recreational use. In 2012, 300 economists signed a petition to President Obama, Congress, and state legislatures estimating that enforcing the prohibition on marijuana was costing the nation $7.7 billion a year, while regulating and taxing marijuana on a national level could bring in up to $6 billion per year in taxes.

    Reports released by the Colorado Department of Revenue this week show the industry is continuing to grow in the state, with more than $1 billion in sales so far this year and more than $200 million in taxes collected. Nationwide, analysts estimate marijuana businesses will owe $2.8 billion in federal taxes this year.

    Proponents of the legalization initiative in Michigan are promoting an analysis by the non-partisan Michigan Senate Fiscal Agency that estimated the state could collect up to $730 million in cannabis sales and excise taxes in the first five years after the measure is implemented.

    As Michigan officials eye hundreds of millions of dollars in potential revenue, though, critics say some of the economic benefits promised by pro-cannabis activists elsewhere have had little impact.

    “That’s what’s amazing, is the tax benefits haven’t been materializing and yet additional jurisdictions are considering legalizing for tax reasons,” Chipman said.

    According to The Associated Press, Colorado teachers staged protests earlier this year seeking higher salaries and more resources because the percentage of marijuana tax dollars going to education does not come close to meeting their needs.

    In 2017, the state budgeted $5.6 billion for the education department, with about $90 million of that coming from marijuana taxes. Colorado schools are underfunded by more than $800 million annually, and schools need about $18 billion worth of construction and maintenance work throughout the state.

    “The reality is the taxes will never even come close to covering the social costs,” Chipman said. “How much does it cost when a kid drops out of high school or college or has a psychotic break or commits suicide or gets killed by a marijuana-impaired driver?”

    Whether marijuana taxes can plug the massive holes in state budgets or not, Todd observed Colorado, Washington, and Oregon are still bringing in far more tax revenue from marijuana sales than predicted. Other states that lifted prohibitions more recently have not met projections yet, but she expects they soon will.

    “It takes a while to ramp up, so it doesn’t meet the initial projections the first year or so,” she said.

    Public support for legalizing marijuana in the U.S. remains high. A Pew Research Center poll conducted last month found 62 percent of Americans say use of the drug should be legal, about the same as it was last year but twice as high as it was in 2000. Support skews younger and Democratic, but even 45 percent of Republicans backed legalization.

    “As states and localities move toward ending arrests and criminal punishment for marijuana use, we must address the devastation that marijuana prohibition has wrought, particularly among communities of color. With such strong public support, including majorities among young liberals and conservatives alike, there’s only so long that the federal government can continue to hold out against reform,” said Maria McFarland Sánchez-Moreno, executive director of the Drug Policy Alliance, in a statement.

    However, Chipman believes much of that support is based on misconceptions about how marijuana is used and the effects it can have.

    “People know very little actual information about marijuana and what they know is often wrong. We need a national reeducation program on cannabis,” he said.

    A recent report in the Annals of Internal Medicine showed many Americans believe marijuana use has health benefits that do not exist. More than one-third of respondents to an online survey believed marijuana edibles could prevent health problems, while 29 percent said smoking or vaping the drug had the same effect.

    About 7 percent of Americans believe using marijuana while pregnant is somewhat or completely safe, according to the survey. More than a quarter said driving under the influence of marijuana is safer than driving while drunk.

    “It’s virtually medieval the way the general public thinks of medical marijuana,” Chipman said, “that just if it makes you feel good, it’s medicine. If I drink a glass of bourbon, it makes me feel good. That doesn’t mean it’s medicine.”

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