The failed promises of marijuana legalization, cautionary tales for Maine

If you’ve been following this column, and my comment section and page visits makes clear many of you are, you know I’ve written extensively about the failure of marijuana legalization in Colorado and Washington.  Well, this week has seen multiple stories highlighting yet more negative consequences from legalization along with failed promises from legalization advocates.

One of the sales pitches from marijuana legalization advocates has been that we need to legalize marijuana to solve social justice issues related to marijuana enforcement.  Namely, to address the disproportionate amount of arrests of minority populations for marijuana crimes.  If we legalize marijuana, they say, we will solve this social justice issue.  It may then come as a surprise to learn that this problem has actually gotten worse since marijuana was legalized in Colorado.  I will let the headline speak for itself: “Marijuana Related Arrests Skyrocket In Colorado For Black And Latino Minors”  The report shows that there has been a decrease in the rate of marijuana arrests for white youth, while the rate increased 58 percent for black juveniles and the arrest rate of Latinos increased by 29 percent.

So just to recap, the Marijuana Policy Project promised Coloradans that legalization would reduce minority arrest rates for marijuana violations, and the exact opposite happened.  When the Marijuana Policy Project, I’m sorry, the Campaign to Regulate Marijuana Like Alcohol, gives Maine voters the same pitch in November, they should be very skeptical.  The reality of course is that minority populations experience disproportionate rates of arrest for crimes related to drugs, including legal drugs like alcohol.  This is certainly a social justice issue and one that needs to be addressed, but it isn’t limited to any one substance, and the evidence clearly shows legalization doesn’t help.

From the state of Washington, we learned this week from AAA that marijuana-impaired traffic fatalities have skyrocketed since marijuana was legalized in 2012.  Data from AAA research indicated that those marijuana caused traffic fatalities more than doubled between 2013 and 2014.  In Colorado, traffic fatalities involving marijuana-impaired drivers rose 32% from 2013 to 2014, which is the period in which recreational dispensaries opened for business in Colorado.  NBC News covered the new data from Washington, along with the story of Mary Gaston and her 23-year-old son Blake Gaston who was killed by a marijuana-impaired driver.

I think Mary Gaston would rightly quibble with a legalization advocate claiming there are no deaths linked to marijuana.

Finally, this week The Atlantic’s Tom James documents the failed promise of legalized marijuana delivering a death-blow to the black market.  James’ article details that the black market is alive and well, and doesn’t appear to be going anywhere.  Why? There are many reasons, but one key reason is price and the structure of medical and recreational marijuana markets.

One thing that is happening is that because medical marijuana in Colorado is taxed at a much lower rate, people are simply buying medical marijuana and reselling it on the street.  And because there is such a gap between the medical and recreational tax rates, those reselling are still able to undercut the recreational price and make a profit.  Beyond this dilemma, where Colorado has seen any actual decreases in the black market for marijuana, those organizations are simply switching to selling heroin to make up, and in most cases surpass, the difference.

These are just three more examples of how the sales pitches from marijuana legalization advocates just don’t pan out.  Whether the legalization advocates are purposefully misleading voters or simply uninformed on how drug policy and public health policy actually works I will leave to the reader to decide.  Either way, Mainers will do well to seriously question (and research) any claims that come forth from those trying to sell marijuana legalization in Maine.

Scott M. Gagnon, MPP, PS-C

About Scott M. Gagnon, MPP, PS-C

Scott M. Gagnon, MPP, PS-C is a Certified Prevention Specialist and is the Director of Operations at AdCare Educational Institute of Maine, Inc. He currently serves on the Maine Substance Abuse Services Commission as well as the U.S. Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services, Center for Substance Abuse Prevention National Advisory Council. Scott volunteers as the Chair of the marijuana policy education and advocacy group, Smart Approaches to Marijuana Maine and is the current Board President of the Maine Council on Problem Gambling. Scott also serves as a Co-chair of the Prevention & Harm Reduction task force of the Maine Opiate Collaborative, the effort convened by U.S. Attorney Thomas E Delahanty, II to address Maine's growing opiate and addiction crisis. Scott is the recipient of the 2015 Maine Public Health Association's Ruth S. Shaper Memorial Award and 2015 Healthy Androscoggin Will Bartlett Award and is also the 2013 recipient of the Maine Alliance to Prevent Substance Abuse Prevention Award.