Saturday, March 18, 2017

Interview: NORML's Paul Armentano says pot criminalization "makes no sense from a public health perspective"

Story by Joseph Ford Cotto

"Unfortunately, it's easy to enforce anti-marijuana laws: just arrest hundreds of thousands of Americans every year, which we do," Paul Kuhn, then serving as the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws's chairman, told me in 2012, when I interviewed him for my column at The Washington Times Communities. "Do these arrests deter pot use?  No.  Marijuana use rates in states which have decriminalized possession, for example, are generally no different than in states with harsh penalties.  We have much higher rates of marijuana use in America than in countries like Holland where use is de facto legalized."

Much has changed across the fruited plains since then. Our discussion, along with virtually all other Communities articles published before January 2014, was pulled down from TWT's website; rendering it -- essentially -- lost to historical record. Marijuana, in both medicinal and recreational contexts, has been legalized in eight states. The idea of ending prohibition against pot now enjoys strong support in both major parties. 

What may account for such a radical shift?

"The health risks of marijuana are far less than those of alcohol and tobacco and more akin to those of caffeine," Kuhn explained later in our discussion. "In fact, thousands of studies show marijuana has potential health benefits in fighting diseases like Alzheimer's, Crohn's, MS and even cancer.  A recent Mayo Clinic report found marijuana offers "potentially head-to-toe therapeutic breakthroughs."

"Most hard drug addicts start with tobacco and alcohol, not marijuana. I have friends who consider marijuana 'the exit drug' because it helped them recover from dependence on alcohol and other addictive, deadly substances."


Lock, stock, and barrel reform of marijuana laws in our country is, at core, not a political issue, but one of personal health. That it has become politicized is a testament to how no shortage of 'civic servants' seek to manipulate a quintessentially private matter for public gain. I do not regard driving the criminalization of marijuana into the back pages of history as anything relative to politics, but rather culture; at both the personal and group levels.

Recently, I spoke with Paul Armentano, deputy director of NORML, about where cannabis stands in the American story. Some of our conversation is listed below.


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Joseph Ford Cotto: Marijuana legalization is a concept with which, by now, virtually all of us are familiar. Looking at it as a social rather than political issue, what is the most compelling argument for a nationwide repeal of anti-pot laws?

Paul Armentano: The ongoing enforcement of marijuana prohibition financially burdens taxpayers, encroaches upon civil liberties, engenders disrespect for the law, and disproportionately impacts young people and communities of color. It makes no sense from a public health perspective, a fiscal perspective, or a moral perspective to perpetuate the prosecution and stigmatization of those adults who choose to responsibly consume a substance that is safer than either alcohol or tobacco.

Cotto: Some Americans, particularly senior citizens, still oppose marijuana legalization full-stop. This seems to stem more from a cultural expectation rather than anything political. Do you agree with this understanding of the situation?


Armentano: Marijuana prohibition was, and still is, an outgrowth of a broader ongoing cultural war engaged in and perpetuated by certain segments of society upon other segments of our society, particularly ethnic minorities and the poor. This policy has never been about marijuana per se; it is about targeting, stigmatizing, prosecuting, and disenfranchising particular social or cultural groups who are stereotypically associated with its use.

If America’s marijuana policies were guided by science and evidence rather than by emotional rhetoric and cultural stereotypes, we would have enacted an entirely different policy long ago.

Cotto: A great deal shun marijuana due to its perceived health risks. What is your opinion on this?

Armentano: Marijuana is a mood-altering substance. It is not all together innocuous -- though its potential risks to both the individual consumer and to society as a whole are far fewer than those associated with the use of alcohol, tobacco, and many prescription drugs.

Most Americans understand that marijuana possesses some abuse potential. That is why they do not desire replacing criminalization with a free-for-all. Rather, they support the enactment of a pragmatic regulatory framework that allows for the licensed commercial production and retail sale of marijuana to adults, but that also restricts and discourages its use among young people. Such a regulated environment already exists for alcohol and tobacco and has proven effective at reducing problematic use, and especially use among young people, to historic lows. These same principles ought to be applied to regulating cannabis. By contrast, advocating for the marijuana’s continued criminalization does nothing to offset the plant’s potential risks to the individual user and to society; it only compounds them.

Despite nearly a century of criminal prohibition, marijuana is here to stay. America’s laws should reflect this reality and govern and they should regulate the marijuana market accordingly.

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