George Boardman: Claims on both sides of the legal pot issue are just so much smoke
Observations from the center stripe: Reputation edition
WHAT DOES it say about Sacramento, the self-proclaimed farm-to-fork capital of California, when a member of the Blue Angels gets food poisoning? … TEXTING WHILE driving is slightly safer than driving with your eyes closed, but not by much … A REAL estate firm opened its Lake of the Pines office on Highway 49 just north of Dry Creek Road in Auburn, about 10 miles from LOP … IT’S NOT about the Benjamins anymore: Just 14 percent of financial transactions involve cash, according to the Federal Reserve … I DON’T care what the calendar says, it’s not Fall until I have to wear long pants two days in a row. That happened last week … THERE WERE a lot of empty seats at last Thursday’s 49ers game against Arizona, which may explain why they’re asking Santa Clara to reduce their stadium rent by $5 million a year …
If you ever needed proof of the old adage that politics makes strange bedfellows, just check out the individuals and groups on both sides of the fight to legalize recreational marijuana in California.
Supporters of Proposition 64 include the usual liberal and progressive politicians, who also count among their supporters arch conservative Rep. Dana Rohabacher and Libertarian presidential candidate Gary (“Aleppo? What’s Aleppo?”) Johnson.
The effort has been bankrolled by Sean Parker, a founder of Napster and former president of Facebook, along with some second- tier venture capital firms that smell an opportunity to make some big money. Another business supporter is David Bonner, president of Dr. Bonner’s Magic Soup, whatever that entails.
Opposition to legalizing recreational pot includes the usual political conservatives, but also liberal stalwart Senator Dianne Feinstein. Law enforcement organizations are opposed, along with Steve Dodge, CEO of the Humboldt Growers Collective, and Hezekiah Allen, executive director of the California Growers Association. (The collective opposes Proposition 64; the CGA is neutral.)
Each side paints a drastically different picture of how legal pot would impact the Golden State. Proponents would have you believe passage will reduce crime, raise tax revenue, stimulate the economy and shower us with other benefits. Opponents paint a much darker picture: An increase in drug abuse and crime, diminished traffic safety, and harm to public health and our youth.
Residents of Nevada County have heard all of these arguments in the contentious battle over the cultivation of medical marijuana, and will be hearing a lot more between now and election day. There is just one problem: Who are we to believe?
There is little hard evidence to support the arguments on either side of the issue, mainly because we’re plowing new ground here. Colorado and Washington were the first states to legalize recreational pot in 2012, not long enough to accumulate sufficient reliable data on its impact. Most of what you hear on the subject is at best anecdotal.
Thus we have the observations of Sheriff Keith Royal on the negative impact of pot in Colorado: “I see all of the negatives associated with legalization,” he told The Union in July, adding that crime has increased in the areas around recreational dispensaries in Colorado. “I would be opposed to those types of businesses in Nevada County,” he said.
Feinstein, who has supported increased research into the medical benefits of marijuana and reform of our drug sentencing laws, believes recreational pot would make driving more dangerous and further endanger our youth.
“In Washington, deaths in marijuana-related car crashes have more than doubled since legalization. In Colorado, 21 percent of 2015 traffic deaths were marijuana-related, double the rate five years earlier — before marijuana was legalized,” she wrote recently in The Sacramento Bee.
Feinstein is also concerned about increased youth access to pot. “Age restrictions don’t prevent youths from using alcohol; marijuana will not be any different,” she wrote. “Studies show that marijuana may cause damage to developing brains, and one in six adolescents who uses marijuana becomes addicted.”
Feinstein’s arguments are also advanced in a web-only ad from opponents, but do these claims hold much weight? To find out, the Libertarian-leaning Cato Institute examined the claims in a recent study, “Dose of Reality: The Effect of State Marijuana Legalizations.”
Researchers at the institute, which was started by the Koch brothers and is largely supported by them, decided to analyze the relevant statistics before and after pot was legalized in Colorado, Washington, Alaska and Oregon.
“Our analysis compares the pre- and post-policy-change paths of marijuana use, other drug or alcohol use, marijuana prices, crime, traffic accidents, teen educational outcomes, public health, tax revenues, criminal justice expenditures and economic outcomes,” the author wrote.
The authors concede that “the data available for before and after comparisons are … limited, so our assessments of legalization’s effect are tentative,” but the study offers an arms-length analysis of the claims based on the best data available.
The report’s basic conclusion: Not much changes after pot becomes legal. Take car wrecks. “Fatality rates for drug-related crashes were virtually unchanged after legalization” in Colorado and Washington, the authors wrote. The same was true of Oregon and Alaska.
(Statistics on pot-related wrecks should be viewed with suspicion because marijuana can linger in the body long after the last time a person consumes any. Authorities are just guessing at how much is required to impair a driver.)
Crime followed the same pattern in all four states. That means, among other things, that law enforcement costs aren’t likely to decline, one benefit touted by supporters of Proposition 64. But their estimate of $1 billion a year in new tax revenue may be on the low side; marijuana taxes have generated more revenue than expected in Washington, Oregon and Colorado.
The fear of pot’s impact on health declined, but legal pot hasn’t stimulated the economy, decreased the use of alcohol, or made anybody safer in the four states studied, all claims advanced by supporters of legal marijuana.
“Our conclusion is that marijuana legalizations have had minimal effect on marijuana use and related outcomes,” the authors wrote. “On the basis of available data … we find little support for the stronger claims made by either opponents or advocates of legalization. The absence of significant adverse consequences is especially striking given the sometimes dire predictions made by legalization opponents.”
Keep that in mind when you vote Nov. 8.
(Note: I learned about the Cato report from local blogger George Rebane, writing at Rebane’s Ruminations. See this column at TheUnion.com for a link to the full report.)
George Boardman lives at Lake of the Pines. His column is published Mondays by The Union. Write to him at email@example.com.
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