An open letter to the Charlottesville City Council regarding proposed marijuana decriminalization in the city of Charlottesville
by Charles Winkler
Dear Mayor Huja and Councilors Szakos, Galvin, Norris, and Smith,
At the Council meeting held on Monday May 7th you considered a resolution submitted by Mr. Jordan McNeish – an ex-convict[i], probationer[ii], pro-marijuana activist[iii], activist in the disastrous Occupy Charlottesville encampment at Lee Park[iv], and supporter of anarchism in our area[v] – a “resolution against the war on drugs,” in Mr. McNeish’s own words. In submitting his resolution on April 2, 2012, Mr. McNeish indicated that “most people on this Council were sympathetic to the cause of marijuana decriminalization.”
The issue will soon be revisited by this Council, and I resubmit these facts and observations for your further consideration.
First, I applaud Ms. Galvin for publicly expressing well-founded concerns for the welfare of children in our area if this resolution were passed [vi], and strongly condemn Mr. Norris’s repetition of pro-marijuana propaganda and support for decriminalization.[vii]
I urge you to vote against this resolution for several reasons. Although Mr. Norris quotes Pres. Obama in his, Norris’s, note on the website of the Charlottesville-area National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws (NORML) to the effect that marijuana doesn’t “damage folks,”[viii] the majority of statements below are supported by evidence provided on the White House’s own website and by scientific studies in reputable, peer-reviewed journals:
- Marijuana use poses considerable danger to the health and safety of the users themselves, their families, and our communities, and to educational levels of young users, esp. young females
- Marijuana use, particularly long-term, chronic use or use starting at a young age, can lead to dependence and addiction
- The vast majority of Americans do not use marijuana
- There very few people in state or Federal prison for marijuana-related crimes, despite claims by pro-marijuana activists, including Mr. Norris[ix] and Mr. McNeish[x]
- The existing black market for marijuana will not simply disappear if the drug is legalized and taxed
- Outdoor marijuana cultivation creates a host of negative environmental effects
- Claims that the war on drugs – and on marijuana specifically – “has been particularly tough on minorities” have been made, not by impartial researchers, but by pro-marijuana activists (and repeated to Council by Mr. McNeish himself)[xi]
- Although the resolution claims be unrelated to the use of marijuana while driving, i.e., “drugged driving,” the combination of increased numbers of younger users who are also drivers is potentially fatal
1. White House Office of National Drug Control Policy information.
Information from the current White House’s own Office of National Drug Control Policy website solidly refutes Mr. Norris’s claims that marijuana use and trafficking do no damage, that prisons hold huge numbers of those convicted solely for marijuana use or possession, that decriminalization would save money, that decriminalization would somehow reduce violence, and that marijuana use is equivalent to alcohol use.[xii]
Here are summaries of the White House’s own statements, which clearly contradict Pres. Obama’s claims that marijuana use and trafficking “don’t damage folks.” I urge Mr. Norris and other Councilors to familiarize themselves with the complete information on the White House’s website rather than unsupported pro-decriminalization propaganda:
“Q. Isn’t marijuana generally harmless? (or as Mr. Norris and Pres. Obama imply, “Marijuana doesn’t really damage folks.’)
No. Marijuana places a significant strain on our health care system, and poses considerable danger to the health and safety of the users themselves, their families, and our communities. Marijuana presents a major challenge for health care providers, public safety professionals, and leaders in communities and all levels of government seeking to reduce the drug use and its consequences throughout the country.
Q: Is marijuana addictive?
Yes. We know that marijuana use, particularly long-term, chronic use or use starting at a young age, can lead to dependence and addiction. Long-term marijuana use can lead to compulsive drug seeking and abuse despite the known harmful effects upon functioning in the context of family, school, work, and recreational activities.
The research is clear. Marijuana users can become addicted to the drug. It can lead to abuse and dependence, and serious consequences.
Q: Doesn’t everyone use marijuana?
The vast majority of Americans do not use marijuana. While marijuana is the most commonly used illicit drug in the United States, that does not mean everyone uses it. In 2010, 17.4 million Americans aged 12 and older reported using the drug within the past month. However, this is only 6.9 percent of the entire U.S. population 12 and older.
Common references and media discussions about marijuana issues may create a perception that marijuana use is common, but the data show a very different picture.
Recent Trends in Youth Marijuana Use
While the trend over the last 10 years has been largely positive, there have been some troubling increases in the rates of marijuana use among young Americans in the recent years. After a steady decline and flattening in the prevalence of past month use of marijuana among youth (12 to 17 year olds) from 2002 through 2008, the rate increased from 6.7 percent in 2008 to 7.4 percent in 2010.
Other surveys show us similar trends. The Monitoring the Future study found that there has been an upward trend in use over the past three to five years among 10th and 12th graders. Because most drug users use marijuana either by itself or in combination with other substances, marijuana typically drives the trends in estimates of any illicit drug use. Not surprisingly, then, the trends in past-month use of marijuana mirror the trends for past-month use of any illicit drug:
- Past-month use of marijuana among 10th graders increased from 13.8% in 2008 to 17.6% in 2011.
- Past-month use of marijuana among 12th graders increased from 18.3% in 2006 to 22.6% in 2011.
These data on marijuana use are of particular concern since trends in the perception of harm of smoking marijuana also have been declining over the same period of time. Prior research indicates that declines in these perceptions are predictive of increases in use.
Q. Is the government putting people in prison for marijuana use?
Simply stated, there are very few people in state or Federal prison for marijuana-related crimes.
Many advocates of marijuana legalization point to the significant number of marijuana-related arrests, including for the sale, manufacturing, and possession of the drug, as an unnecessary burden on criminal justice system. While Federal, state, and local laws pertaining to marijuana do lead to criminal justice costs, it is important to understand how decriminalization or legalization might further exacerbate these costs. Alcohol, a legal, carefully regulated substance, provides useful context for this discussion. Arrests for alcohol-related crimes, such as violations of liquor laws and driving under the influence, totaled nearly 2.5 million in 2010—far more than arrests for all illegal drug use, and certainly far more than arrests for marijuana-related crimes. It is therefore fair to suggest that decriminalizing or legalizing marijuana might not reduce the drug’s burden to our justice and public health systems with respect to arrests, but might increase these costs by making the drug more readily available, leading to increase use, and ultimately to more arrests for violations of laws controlling its manufacture, sale, and use.
Q. Wouldn’t legalizing marijuana remove a major source of funding for Mexican drug trafficking organizations?
No, violent Mexican criminal organizations derive revenue from more than just marijuana sales. They also produce and traffic methamphetamine and heroin, continue to move significant amounts of cocaine, and conduct an array of criminal activities including kidnapping, extortion, and human trafficking.
Q: Couldn’t legalizing and taxing marijuana generate significant revenue?
A: While taxing marijuana could generate some revenues for state and local governments, research suggests that the economic costs associated with use of the drug would far outweigh any benefit gained from an increase in tax revenue.
Q. What impact does marijuana cultivation have on the environment?
Outdoor marijuana cultivation creates a host of negative environmental effects. These grow sites affect wildlife, vegetation, water, soil, and other natural resources through the use of chemicals, fertilizers, terracing, and poaching. Marijuana cultivation results in the chemical contamination and alteration of watersheds; diversion of natural water courses; elimination of native vegetation; wildfire hazards; poaching of wildlife; and disposal of garbage, non-biodegradable materials, and human waste.
Marijuana growers apply insecticides directly to plants to protect them from insect damage. Chemical repellants and poisons are applied at the base of the marijuana plants and around the perimeter of the grow site to ward off or kill rats, deer, and other animals that could cause crop damage. Toxic chemicals are applied to irrigation hoses to prevent damage by rodents. According to the National Park Service, “degradation to the landscape includes tree and vegetation clearing, use of various chemicals and fertilizers that pollute the land and contribute to food chain contamination, and construction of ditches and crude dams to divert streams and other water sources with irrigation equipment.”
2. Studies on the effects of decriminalization on early use of marijuana.
Ms. Galvin’s concerns about the effects of decriminalization on young people are quite valid. Here are conclusions from various studies on this topic:
- “Although different patterns of prevalence and age of initiation were observed between participating countries, early cannabis use was almost uniformly associated with higher odds of more frequent use of cannabis and other substances, and with a common set of other problems. Our findings suggest that prevention of drug abuse must commence in preadolescence.”[xiii]
- “Some research suggests that legal sanctions may influence the initial decision to use drugs and that this influence diminishes as drug use by individuals progresses.38 If so, it is the youngest adolescents (those who have not yet tried marijuana or are in the experimentation phase) who would be affected most by changes in marijuana laws. Age at first use is, in turn, a risk factor for problem use in the future.39”[xiv]
- Young people, marijuana and alcohol: “ Some advocates for the legalization of marijuana argue that it is safer than alcohol. They suggest that increased use of marijuana by young people might have a positive effect if some adolescents switched from alcohol to marijuana (a substitution effect). This theory cannot be supported by recent studies on adolescent marijuana and alcohol use that incorporated the price of marijuana into the analysis. These studies conclude that an increase in use of marijuana by adolescents would result in an increased use of alcohol (i.e., that the 2 drugs are economic complements).46[xv]
- Effects of early marijuana use on education, esp. for young females:
- “we find that those initiating into cannabis use early in life are much more likely to dropout of school compared to those who start later on. Moreover, we find that the reduction in years of schooling depends on the age at which initiation occurs, and that it is larger for females than males.”[xvi]
- In an earlier paper also using Australian data, van Ours and Williams (2009) show that starting cannabis use by age 15 leads to a reduction in years of education of 0.8 years for males and 1.3 years for females.[xvii]
- Decriminalization reduces age at first use: “Decriminalization seems to shift the age distribution of uptake of cannabis towards younger age groups while leaving the proportion of those who will start using cannabis unchanged. This suggests that decriminalization effects when individuals start using cannabis, rather than whether or not they start.”[xviii]
- The Netherlands experience with decriminalization of marijuana: “The “nirvana” offered by the Dutch example is extremely dubious; in fact, the Dutch government is now reconsidering its laws and policies regarding drugs. Increased availability of marijuana leads to increased use of this and other drugs, and it creates additional problems as well: After coffee shops started selling marijuana and use of the drug became normalized, marijuana use between 1984 and 1996 nearly tripled—from 15 percent to 44 percent—among 18- to 20-year-old Dutch youth.”[xix]
3. Decriminalization and drugged driving. Pro-marijuana propaganda claims that driving while under the influence of marijuana is safer than driving under the influence of alcohol. While the resolution claims not to impact drugged driving enforcement, lower ages for first use of marijuana and increased use of marijuana under decriminalization, when combined with driving by inexperienced drivers, are potentially fatal, as shown by numerous studies; moreover, how are users going to travel from point to point? I urge Councilors to read the summaries found here: http://stopdruggeddriving.org/research.html
Some key judgments from these studies:
- Conclusions: This population-based case-control study indicates that habitual use of marijuana is strongly associated with car crash injury.
- 2007 National Roadside Survey Shows Drugged Driving is as Widespread as Drunk Driving. Of the 16.3% of drivers positive for drugs, 11.3% were positive for illegal drugs, 3.9% for medications and 1.1% for both illegal drugs and medications. The most common illegal drugs were cannabis (8.6%), cocaine (3.9%) and methamphetamine (1.3%).
- Marijuana May Double the Risk of Motor Vehicle Crashes. The results of this meta-analysis suggest that marijuana use by drivers is associated with a significantly increased risk of being involved in motor vehicle crashes.
- Conclusions. Acute cannabis consumption is associated with an increased risk of a motor vehicle crash, especially for fatal collisions.
- More Than Half of Motor Vehicle Crash Drivers Tested Positive for Drugs Other Than Alcohol in a Level-1 Trauma Center. Toxicology results indicated that 65.7% of drivers tested positive for either commonly abused drugs or alcohol. More than half of the drivers tested positive for drugs (50.9%) other than alcohol, with one in four drivers testing positive for marijuana use.
From other studies cited here http://www.drugabuse.gov/publications/infofacts/drugged-driving :
- Studies conducted in several localities have found that approximately 4 to 14 percent of drivers who sustained injury or died in traffic accidents tested positive for delta-9-tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), the active ingredient in marijuana.7
- In a large study of almost 3,400 fatally injured drivers from three Australian states (Victoria, New South Wales, and Western Australia) between 1990 and 1999, drugs other than alcohol were present in 26.7 percent of the cases.8 These included cannabis (13.5 percent), opioids (4.9 percent), stimulants (4.1 percent), benzodiazepines (4.1 percent), and other psychotropic drugs (2.7 percent). Almost 10 percent of the cases involved both alcohol and other drugs.
Teens and drugged driving, information here: http://www.drugabuse.gov/publications/infofacts/drugged-driving
- According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, vehicle accidents are the leading cause of death among young people aged 16 to 19.9 It is generally accepted that because teens are the least experienced drivers as a group, they have a higher risk of being involved in an accident compared with more experienced drivers. When this lack of experience is combined with the use of marijuana or other substances that impact cognitive and motor abilities, the results can be tragic.
- Results from NIDA’s Monitoring the Future survey indicate that in 2007, more than 12 percent of high school seniors admitted to driving under the influence of marijuana in the 2 weeks prior to the survey.10
- The 2007 State of Maryland Adolescent Survey indicates that 11.1 percent of the State’s licensed adolescent drivers reported driving under the influence of marijuana on three or more occasions, and 10 percent reported driving while using a drug other than marijuana (not including alcohol).11
I hope that, after reviewing the above information, you will decide that approving the resolution submitted by Mr. McNeish would have serious, even fatal, consequences for our community, particularly in the areas of education, health, and traffic fatalities. I strongly urge you to reject it. Rejecting this resolution would also send a message to young potential drug users that the risks of drug use outweigh any perceived benefits claimed in pro-marijuana propaganda, and I note that declines in perceptions or risk or harm of marijuana use are predictive of increases in use, i.e., perceptions of greater risk or harm lead to decreased use.
Is Council really willing to put our community and especially our young people at risk?
[i] Charlottesville resident Jordan McNeish founded the group [Charlottesville Residents for Decriminalization of Marijuana] after spending six months in Albemarle County prison for the possession of marijuana. http://www.cavalierdaily.com/2012/04/04/group-seeks-less-strict-weed-laws/
[ii] Jordan McNeish I happen to be on probation and be an activist. F*ck this. November 28, 2011 at 9:02am http://www.facebook.com/OccupyCharlottesville/posts/285588594812781
[iii] Jordan McNeish, an activist who led a weeks-long push to get councilors to take up the resolution, said three of five councilors have told him they plan to support it. http://www.c-ville.com/Portlet/Print_Friendly.php?Print=Article&z_Article_ID=11102709104002505
[v] Luis Oyola: “I know some of you have come to either identify as anarchists or become more comfortable with that term throughout the occupation. So come! In the name of (A) Shack!” Jordan McNeish: “(A)” [NOTE: The A in parentheses is shorthand for anarchism’s circled A symbol/logo. cw] http://www.facebook.com/OccupyCharlottesville
[vi] However, Councilor Kathy Galvin says she has some concerns surrounding the local resolution. She worries it might send the wrong message to young people. http://www.newsplex.com/home/headlines/148596505.html
[vii] “we need to shift our attention as a society away from imprisoning so many of our citizens….” Norris personally supports marijuana decriminalization, saying it would save money by unclogging jails and help to stabilize violence-plagued communities by bringing the distribution process “above ground.”
[viii] Councilor Norris, writing on the Facebook page of the Jefferson Area Chapter of Virginia National Organization for Reform of Marijuana Laws (NORML) cites President Barack Obama to the effect that law enforcement should “properly prioritize [its] resources to go after things that are really doing folks damage.” The implication in Mr. Norris’s and Pres. Obama’s statements is that marijuana use or trafficking “do no damage.” https://www.facebook.com/jeffersonareanorml
[ix] “They way I see it is the City Council is expressing support for that position and making the argument that we need to shift our attention as a society away from imprisoning so many of our citizens for a use of a substance that a majority of Americans now think should be legal,” Norris said. http://www2.dailyprogress.com/news/2012/apr/21/city-council-vote-resolution-de-emphasize-primary–ar-1859647/
[x] A lot of inmates are here for pot, and it’s not helping the overcrowding problem. It’s so crowded that it took two days of repeatedly asking before the guards could find me a blanket. An inmate who was burned working in the kitchen had to sit in a waiting room for half an hour with me before the nurse could see him.
Needless to say, legalizing pot would save a lot of problems in the Commonwealth’s justice and custodial systems. Personally, I think our rights were violated when pot, alcohol and other psychoactives became punishable by jail.
[xi] Mr. McNeish has also claimed before Council that the “war on drugs,” with reference to marijuana, “has been particularly tough on minorities” (Matters by the Public, Mar. 5, 2012: https://www.charlottesville.org/modules/ShowDocument.aspx?documentid=21769). This claim has been made by Dr. Jon Gettman (see: http://www.examiner.com/article/scholar-jon-gettman-uncovers-racial-disparity-marijuana-arrests-part-i ). What is not reported, nor mentioned by Mr. McNeish, is that Dr. Gettman is a major marijuana reform activist, a leader of the Coalition for Rescheduling Cannabis, a former head of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws, and a longtime contributor to High Times magazine. Gettman filed a petition in 1995 to remove cannabis from Schedule I of the Controlled Substances Act that was eventually denied. A second petition was filed in 2002, with the Coalition for Rescheduling Cannabis, that remains under review by the Department of Health and Human Services. Gettman frequently publishes on the marijuana industry. (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jon_Gettman) Some of his articles in High Times can be viewed here http://hightimes.com/jgettman/
[xvi] Why Parents Worry: Initiation into Cannabis Use by Youth and their Educational Attainment. http://www.cepr.org/pubs/new-dps/dplist.asp?dpno=6449