7 big myths about marijuana and legalization

Just days after President Obama told the press through his spokesman that he was not prepared to change federal marijuana laws, the Justice Department announced last week that it would defer its right to challenge state laws legalizing marijuana in Washington and Colorado. Its decision not to enforce federal anti-marijuana laws in those states mark a significant change for the administration, and Americans can now expect the creation of large, for-profit commercial marijuana enterprises that will threaten public health and safety.

As a former drug-policy adviser in the Obama administration, I’m often asked why anyone would oppose marijuana legalization. The answer is found in my new book, “Reefer Sanity: Seven Great Myths About Marijuana.” In short, my work has shown that marijuana legalization would pose too many risks to public health and safety. Based on almost two decades of research, community-based work, and policy practice across three presidential administrations in which I have worked, here are seven widely held myths about marijuana that Americans need to know.

1. Myth: Marijuana is harmless and non-addictive

Brennan Linsley/AP
Marijuana activist Brian Vicente speaks in Denver Sept. 4, advocating for Proposition AA, which would enact a 15 percent excise tax on the wholesale distribution of marijuana as well as a 10 percent sales tax at the retail level. Op-ed contributor Keven A. Sabet writes: 'Legalization will cost America. For every $1 in state and federal revenue from alcohol and tobacco taxes, America spends more than $10 in social costs.'

Admittedly, marijuana is not as dangerous as cocaine or heroin, but to say it is harmless or nonaddictive is to deny science. The National Institutes of Health reports that 1 out of every 6 adolescents who try the drug will develop an addiction. This may not amount to the experience of the Woodstock generation, but scientists now know that the average strength of today’s marijuana is some five to six times what it was in the 1960s and 1970s (and some strains are upward of 10 times stronger than in the past). This translated to almost 400,000 marijuana-related emergency room visits in 2008 due to things like acute psychotic episodes and car crashes. 

In fact, according to the British Medical Journal, marijuana intoxication doubles your risk of a car crash. Mental health researchers are also noting a  significant marijuana connection with schizophrenia. And educators are seeing how persistent marijuana use can blunt academic motivation and significantly reduce IQ – by up to eight points according to a very large recent study in New Zealand. Regular marijuana use hurts America’s ability to learn and compete in a global marketplace.

Kevin A. Sabet is the author of “Reefer Sanity: Seven Great Myths About Marijuana” and the director of Project SAM (Smart Approaches to Marijuana), which he founded with former Congressman Patrick J. Kennedy. He was a senior adviser in the Office of National Drug Control Policy from 2009-2011.

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