Saturday, June 1, 2019

Interview: NORML's Paul Armentano says most "who experiment with cannabis never go on to try another illicit substance"

Editor's note: This interview was originally published in March 2017.

This is the second part of my discussion with Paul Armentano. The first article is available here. 
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.


Joseph Ford Cotto: Many claim that marijuana should be castigated because they believe it functions as a gateway to hard drugs. Where do you stand on this?

Paul Armentano: Proponents of prohibition have long alleged that marijuana experimentation acts as a ‘gateway’ to the use and eventual abuse of other illicit substances. But the available evidence does not support this claim. Statistically, the overwhelming majority of subjects who experiment with cannabis never go on to try another illicit substance and by middle age no longer indulge in the use of marijuana either. Moreover, use data collected from jurisdictions where marijuana use by adults is legal finds that many people reduce their use of other psychotropic substances, especially opioids, when they have legal access to cannabis. In reality, permitting marijuana sales to be regulated by licensed, state-authorized distributors rather than by criminal entrepreneurs and pushers of various other illicit drugs results in fewer, not more, Americans abusing other, potentially more dangerous substances.

Cotto: The prohibition of marijuana is comparable to that of alcoholic beverages during the early twentieth century. Are there any lessons from this earlier form of prohibition which folks should keep in mind today? 

Armentano: Alcohol prohibition took the production and sale of booze out of the hands of licensed businesses and placed it into the hands of organized crime. It also gave rise to more potent, dangerous products, like bathtub gin.

The parallels between the American experience with alcohol prohibition and today’s experience with cannabis prohibition are predictable and striking. Pot prohibition takes the retail cannabis market away from licensed entrepreneurs and places it into the hands of black market criminals and cartels that often settle their business disputes with violence rather than through courts of law. Prohibition has led to an inflated price tag for the product itself, resulting in exorbinent profits for those willing to engage in this underground economy. It’s also led to the creation, proliferation, and availability of more potent and more dangerous knock-offs, such as so-called ‘synthetic pot’ products like Spice and K2 – products that would have zero appeal or market share in an environment where whole-plant cannabis were legally regulated and available.