Tag: Marijuana

Early Results From Canada’s Recreational Cannabis Legalization

Statistics Canada released the National Cannabis Survey results for the fourth quarter of 2018 yesterday. Despite comedic predictions that Canada will become “the stoner living in America’s attic” after it legalized cannabis for recreational use, the early results suggest nothing much has changed. The survey found: 

“About 4.6 million or 15% of Canadians aged 15 and older reported using cannabis in the last three months. That was a similar percentage to what was reported before legalization. In addition, nearly one in five Canadians think they will use cannabis in the next three months.”

Survey respondents stated that quality and safety were the primary factors influencing their decision as to where to purchase the cannabis, with price and accessibility secondary factors. Slightly over half the respondents stated they used cannabis for medical as opposed to recreational purposes. The overwhelming majority of documented medical users were daily users. A large majority of medical users preferred methods other than smoking as their means of consumption.

Recreational marijuana legalization took effect only recently, in October 2018, so this report represents an early snap shot. But based upon what we have seen so far, those who fear that Canada’s economy will collapse as it transformed into a nation of non-working stoners can “mellow out.”

The Return of Reefer Madness

Alex Berenson’s recent attempt to generate panic at the prospect that marijuana use may become legalized and normalized, with his book Tell Your Children: The Truth About Marijuana, Mental Illness, and Violence, even borrows its title from the camp 1930s propaganda film Reefer Madness. While not nearly as over-the-top as the film, Berenson certainly exaggerates suggestions that marijuana can cause psychosis.

Drawing on the 2017 report of the National Academy of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine on “Health Effects of Cannabis and Cannabinoids: The Current State of Evidence and Recommendations for Research,” he directs attention to its conclusion, in Chapter 12:  “There is substantial evidence of a statistical association between cannabis use and the development of schizophrenia or other psychoses, with the highest risk among the most frequent users.” Berenson admits in a January 4 Wall Street Journal column based upon his book, “None of these studies prove that rising cannabis use has caused population-wide increases in psychosis or other mental illness, although they do offer suggestive evidence of a link.” Indeed. But correlation is not causation. And there is always the question of “which came first–the chicken or the egg?” Some schizophrenics might be using cannabis as a form of self-medication.

The NASEM report also notes, “There are a number of proposed explanations for why the comorbidity of substance abuse and mental health disorders exists.” One suggested explanation is “an overlap in predisposing risk factors (e.g., genetic vulnerability, environment) may contribute to the development of both substance abuse and a mental health disorder,” and indeed there are studies suggesting a genetic predisposition exists for some cannabis users to develop schizophrenia. There is also research showing an increased risk for the development of schizophrenia associated with heavy marijuana use where a family history of schizophrenia exists.

But it is also important to note that many countries saw stable or declining rates of psychosis between the 1960s and 1980s, a time when marijuana use in those countries increased dramatically. A 2003 Australian study found “no causal relationship” between cannabis use and schizophrenia, and a 2012 British study found rates of schizophrenia stable from 1950 to 2009, a time of greatly increased marijuana use.

And while there may be a correlation between schizophrenia and heavy marijuana use, the NASEM report stated, “cannabis use does not appear to increase the likelihood of developing depression, anxiety, and posttraumatic stress disorder.” Yet these are the most commonly cited “serious mental illnesses” that were found to be associated with heavy cannabis use among 18 to 25 year-olds in the National Survey on Drug Use and Health on which Berenson also relies to make his case. 

Psychiatrists have long known that the majority of patients with substance abuse disorders have psychiatric comorbidities, which need to be addressed in concert with the treatment of the substance abuse disorder. What is not yet known is how much the substance abuse disorders are actually driven by the comorbidities. 

No one is arguing here that heavy use of cannabis cannot be associated with a form of psychosis. The same can also be said regarding the heavy use of alcohol. In fact, heavy use of alcohol has been shown to cause organic psychosis and dementia

But just as the risks associated with heavy alcohol use don’t argue for completely avoiding alcohol consumption in those without preexisting vulnerabilities, any risks that may correlate with heavy marijuana consumption don’t argue for completely avoiding marijuana in those who likewise lack preexisting vulnerabilities. 

Perhaps Berenson could have considered a different title for his book, such as “Everything in Moderation.”

Senate Appropriations Committee Report Criticizes Barriers to Marijuana Research

Last week, the Senate Appropriations Committee filed a report along with the appropriations bill for the Departments of Labor, Health and Human Services, and Education. The report mostly consists of broad policy recommendations and guidance for how to spend the appropriated money. On page 108 of the 273 page report, however, is a discussion of “barriers to research,” specifically, how the “Committee is concerned that restrictions associated with Schedule 1 of the Controlled Substance Act effectively limit the amount and type of research that can be conducted on certain Schedule 1 drugs, especially marijuana or its component chemicals and certain synthetic drugs.”

While the report is not law, it signals a welcome change in attitude. For decades, marijuana’s Schedule 1 status has made it very difficult for researchers and scientists to investigate the plant’s medicinal and harmful properties. In order to research marijuana legally for clinical purposes, even if you’re in Colorado and could just purchase some, you must first get a license from the DEA, then get approval from the FDA, and finally get access to the one federally authorized marijuana supply, which is grown at the University of Mississippi and run by the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA). On top of that, the federally sourced marijuana is often moldy and of unpredictable quality. And then there’s funding, which has often not been forthcoming to those trying to research the possible beneficial uses of cannabis.

Taken together, all of those steps make researching marijuana more difficult than researching almost any other drug on the planet, including other Schedule 1 substances such as heroin and LSD. As the Appropriations Committee report says, “At a time when we need as much information as possible about these drugs, we should be lowering regulatory and other barriers to conducting this research.” The report thus directs NIDA to “provide a short report on the barriers to research that result from the classification of drugs and compounds as Schedule 1 substances.”

The report comes at a time when Attorney General Jeff Sessions is blocking an Obama administration attempt to make marijuana more easily available to researchers. In August 2016, the DEA began accepting applications to become an authorized marijuana supplier. Twenty-six applications were submitted but, after the administration changed over, Attorney General Sessions stalled the approval process. In response, Senators Orrin Hatch (R-UT) and Kamala Harris (D-CA) sent a letter to Sessions asking him to stop blocking research. Hatch has also introduced the MEDS Act, which is a more permanent legislative fix to the problems around marijuana research.

Federal marijuana prohibition, at least as a Schedule 1 drug, is on its last legs. Nine states and the District of Columbia have legalized recreational cannabis and 30 states have legalized medical marijuana. No one is putting that genie back in the bottle. Federal law is so antiquated, in fact, that it makes no distinction between medical and recreational use. Schedule 1 drugs have no accepted medical uses, and the difficulty of carrying out medical research is one reason marijuana still has that status. The Senate Appropriations report is just another step toward the inevitable revision of federal marijuana laws.

Will Regulations Create Big Marijuana?

I wrote last month that new regulations and taxes in California’s legalized marijuana regime are likely to result in a situation in which

a few people are going to get rich in the California marijuana industry, and fewer small growers are going to earn a modest but comfortable income. Just one of the many ways that regulation contributes to inequality.

Now the East Bay Express in Oakland offers a further look at the problem:

East Bay ExpressAsk the people who grow, manufacture, and sell cannabis about the end of prohibition and you’ll hear two stories. One is that legalization is ushering a multibillion-dollar industry into the light. Opportunities are boundless and green-friendly cities like Oakland are going to benefit enormously. There will be thousands of new jobs, millions in new tax revenue, and a drop in crime and incarceration.

But increasingly you’ll hear another story. The state of California and the city of Oakland blew it. The new state and city cannabis regulations are too complicated, permits are too difficult and time consuming to obtain, taxes are too high, and commercial real estate is scarce and expensive. As a result, many longtime cannabis entrepreneurs are either giving up or they’re burrowing back into the underground economy, out of the taxman’s reach, and unfortunately, further away from the social benefits legal pot was supposed to deliver….

Some longtime farmers, daunted by the regulated market’s heavy expenses, taxes, and low-profit predictions, have shrugged and gone back to the black market where they can continue to grow as they always have: illegally but free of hassle from the state’s new pot bureaucrats armed with pocket protectors and clipboards.

Not all the complaints in the two-part investigation are about taxes and overregulation. Some, especially in part 1, are about “loopholes” in the regulations that allow large corporations to get into the marijuana business and about “dramatic changes to Humboldt County’s cannabis culture, which had an almost pagan worship of a plant that created an alternative lifestyle in the misty hills north of the ‘Redwood Curtain.’”

WSJ on RegulationBut there’s plenty of evidence that regulations are more burdensome on newer and smaller companies than on large, established companies. Indeed, regulatory processes are oftencaptured” by the affected interest groups. The Wall Street Journal confirmed this just yesterday, reporting that “some of the restrictions [in Europe’s GDPR online privacy regulations] are having an unintended consequence: reinforcing the duopoly of Facebook Inc. and Alphabet Inc.’s Google.”

The Beginning of the End for Cannabis Prohibition?

The Boston Globe reports Colorado Senator Cory Gardner is crafting a bill that would prevent the federal government from interfering with states that have voted to legalize cannabis for recreational or medicinal purposes. The Senator is busy recruiting several co-sponsors for the bill, and he has received assurances from President Trump that he would sign such a bill into law.

This would be a step in the right direction and would alleviate concerns in many states that the Department of Justice, under new guidance from Attorney General Sessions, might enforce federal marijuana prohibition.

Unfortunately, as long as the Drug Enforcement Administration continues to classify cannabis as a Schedule 1 drug, quality clinical research on the potential medical applications of cannabis will remain significantly inhibited. By definition, a Schedule 1 drug has “no currently accepted medical treatment use.” Recent studies have shown that chronic pain patients have been able to reduce their opioid dosage and consumption by adding cannabis to their pain management regimen. A study of Medicare Part D patients from the University of Georgia published in JAMA earlier this month demonstrated this effect in states where medicinal marijuana has been legal. Another study published the same week from the University of Kentucky showed this effect was even greater in states where marijuana is legal for recreational use. And another recent study from the Minnesota Department of Health earlier this year found 63 percent of patients taking medical marijuana for their chronic pain were able to reduce or eliminate their opioid use within 6 months.

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Small Marijuana Growers Squeezed Out by Legalization and Regulation

It’s often been noted that regulations can impose larger relative costs on small businesses and can serve to protect incumbent firms from new competitors. Goldman Sachs CEO Lloyd Blankfein noted that new regulations created a “moat” around his firm:

That all industries are being disrupted to some extent by new entrants coming in from technology. We, again, being, you know, technology-oriented ourselves, try to disrupt ourselves and try to figure out what’s the new thing, and come up with new platforms, new forms of distribution, new products. But in some ways, and there are some parts of our business, where it’s very hard for outside entrants to come in, disrupt our business, simply because we’re so regulated. You’ll hear people in our industry talk about the regulation. And they talk about it, you know, with a sigh: Look at the burdens of regulation. But in some cases, the burdensome regulation acts as a bit of a moat around our business.

The Washington Post reports on a new example: the legalized marijuana market in California. Libertarians have long urged the legalization of marijuana and other drugs. Certainly I expect better results from a legal regime where people are not arrested for buying, selling, or using marijuana. But governments can’t just repeal laws and stop arresting people; instead, they prefer to set up a regime of taxes and regulation. And that’s having an effect on the small marijuana growers in the state’s “Emerald Triangle.” As Scott Wilson reports in the Post:

Humboldt County, traditionally shorthand for outlaw culture and the great dope it produces, is facing a harsh reckoning. Every trait that made this strip along California’s wild northwest coast the best place in the world to grow pot is now working against its future as a producer in the state’s $7 billion-a-year marijuana market.

A massive industry never before regulated is being tamed by laws and taxation, characteristically extensive in this state. Nowhere is this process upending a culture and economy more than here in Humboldt, where tens of thousands of people who have been breaking the law for years are being asked to hire accountants, tax lawyers and declare themselves to a government they have famously distrusted. 

Wilson estimates that “Fewer than 1 in 10 of the county’s estimated 12,500 marijuana farmers are likely to make it in the legal trade….Less than 1 percent of the estimated 69,000 growers statewide have received a permit to farm marijuana since the beginning of the year.”

Border Patrol Checkpoints Do Not Work—End Them

Data from a new Government Accountability Office (GAO) report shows that interior checkpoints manned by Border Patrol agents are a poor use of resources, at least from an enforcement perspective. Border Patrol checkpoints would have to have apprehended about 100,000 to 120,000 more illegal immigrants from FY2013-2016 than they actually did to justify the man-hours spent occupying them by agents. Even those who support expanding immigration enforcement along the border should recognize that checkpoints are a waste of scarce border security resources. 

Border Patrol agents man checkpoints within 100 miles of the U.S. border where they can stop motorists, inquire about immigration status, and enforce other laws. Checkpoints are a significant risk to civil liberties and are expensive to run. Supporters argue that checkpoints are effective at enforcing federal laws against illegal immigration and drugs, although Border Patrol officials state that they are more concerned about the former. However, the number of illegal immigrant apprehensions, drug seizures by weight, and the deployment of Border Patrol man-hours to checkpoints show that they are not a good use of resources if the goal is to enforce immigration and drug laws.

Figure 1 comes from data reported by the GAO for FY2013-2016. About 9.4 percent of all man-hours worked by Border Patrol were at checkpoints but they only apprehended 3.1 percent of all illegal immigrants apprehended and 5.4 percent of all marijuana seized by weight, at best. At worst, Border Patrol apprehended only 1.9 percent of all illegal immigrants at checkpoints (this same number estimate is not reported for marijuana seizures). This means that Border Patrol agents would have to have apprehended 101,219 to 120,978 more illegal immigrants from FY2013-2016 at checkpoints than they actually did in order for their expenditure of man-hours to be proportional to their apprehensions. 

Border Patrol would have had to seize about 410,952 more pounds of marijuana at checkpoints from FY2013-2016 for their man-hours expenditure there to be proportional to the amount of the drug that they seized. Each unit of time that a Border Patrol agent spends at checkpoints results in fewer apprehensions and marijuana seizures than the same unit of time does spend enforcing those laws outside of checkpoints.

Figure 1

Border Patrol Man-Hours, Marijuana Seized by Weight, and Immigrant Apprehensions by Location, FY2013-2016

 

Source: Author’s Calculations from GAO.

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