Editor’s note: This commentary is by Bob Orleck, who is a retired pharmacist and lawyer. He served as an assistant attorney general under Vermont Attorney General Jerome Diamond.
If there was ever a subject where neither side of the issue seemed capable of hearing what the other side was saying, it is over the legalization of marijuana. Instead of relying on old clichés that will never convincingly carry the day, like “the war on drugs is a failure,” “prohibition doesn’t work,” alcohol is worse than pot,” the proponents of marijuana legalization would be better served if there was new and solid information based upon reliable clinical studies to support their position that marijuana is not bad for humans. Working together, those that propose to legalize marijuana for recreational use and those who oppose it for many reasons, could bring to the fore the need to change how the federal government views marijuana and, as a result, allow proper clinical studies to be done that will decide the issue of safety and efficacy for medical and recreational use, once and for all.
Here are some of the arguments proponents of legalized marijuana use, some cliché, some wishful thinking and some facts: Prohibition just does not work! It didn’t work for alcohol and it won’t work for marijuana. Marijuana is safer than alcohol or cigarettes. People who oppose legalization have bought into the lie of “reefer madness” that it causes. People want it legalized. Enforcement has unnecessary large costs and takes police away from more important enforcement jobs. There are many medicinal applications of marijuana. Teen use has not increased under legalization. Commercialization of marijuana can bring in large amounts of revenue that can be used for education, prevention of use programs and more and will create thousands of jobs. Legalization might get rid of the black market. Vermonters want it legalized and government has no business telling people what they can and can’t put into their bodies. The war on drugs is a big failure. It is a matter of personal freedom. This should not be a federal issue but should be left to the states to decide. If the drug is legalized it will be of a standardized quality and thus safer than street drugs.
Now here are some of the arguments anti-marijuana people use: That use damages developing brains and increased availability will increase children and youth use. Marijuana worsens mental health diseases. Increased use will increase the incidence of drugged driving and lead to more mayhem and deaths on the highways. If Vermont approves commercialization, it will not reduce the black market since street dealers can sell it with little overhead and without having to add the tax revenue that is to be generated in the stores. The costs to society in lost productivity and the need for more services to deal with the abuses is unacceptable. It is a gateway drug. The revenue to be gained is illusory and will be short lived. Drug use is already epidemic in Vermont and this only worsens the problem. Drug use rips at the fabric of our society. Legalization will create work-related use problems. Legalization will create more drug users and will send the message to our youth that drug use is acceptable. Parents’ personal drug stash will be more readily available to their children. Workplace problems with legalization will be unique and immense. Marijuana smoke is even worse than cigarettes and more people will be affected by secondhand smoke. Finally, marijuana is a violation of federal law and will remain that way until and if the federal administration changes that. The Obama administration did not attempt to enforce the law against users and looked the other way when it came to the action of states like Colorado, but there is a good possibility that the federal position will be changing under the Trump administration.
Depending on where you stand, both sides bring up pretty good arguments that, if true, should be the ones that carry the day. My background in pharmacy and knowledge of drugs causes me to see more factual basis in those arguing against legalization but if the approach I am advocating is followed, I and others, I am sure, would be open to the studies that would flow from it and if they support the pro-marijuana position, so be it. It is better to come from a point of scientific fact than to be driven by emotion and desire that it be a certain way. In the highly charged atmosphere where this is discussed, however, it is hard to find that truth, especially where there is a lack of needed controlled studies. The reason that such studies are not available is that researchers cannot legally possess marijuana in order to do proper clinical studies. Marijuana is a Schedule I drug, has, according to the law, no legitimate use and is illegal to possess by anyone.
Vermont legislators could be very forward thinkers by passing a resolution asking the federal government to consider rescheduling marijuana to a Schedule II classification.
As things stand now, we are pretty much left with waiting and watching for data from the test tube states of Colorado, Washington and others that have some degree of legalization for recreational use and that will never provide adequate, trustworthy information. There are many states that have legalized its use for certain medical reasons and that has been done without the aid of proper studies done in controlled settings. This lack of clinical information is the basis for my suggestion in dealing with the matter as a whole so reasonable people on both sides can agree to or at least understand it.
My thoughts on this came together when I heard President Trump’s press secretary, Sean Spicer, reflect that there is a big difference between medical marijuana and recreational marijuana. In some ways, that opinion might be valid, but what it said to me is that the whole issue seems to be coming down to one person’s or another’s opinion more so than if based on verifiable facts or the law. Marijuana simply is a mind-altering drug and in order to determine if it is safe and effective for medical use and is safe for recreational use, there has to be more than just opinion.
There is a lot of anecdotal information medically, but states are making decisions on what conditions are helped by use without having any real proof of the fact. It is being driven by emotion and wishful thinking. And when it comes to the federal law, possession is illegal and there are no exceptions to that for medical or recreational use. So we have a choice to go down an illegal road or do something to change our direction.
There is a reasonable approach our state lawmakers could take that could help to resolve this matter in the best interests of all involved. First of all, we must stop what we are doing and pass no further legalization laws until the matter of federal action is resolved. This is consistent with the stated position of our new state Attorney General TJ Donovan who believes we need to take a wait and see until the feds make it clear how they are going to act. Vermont is not that far into this legalization process and will not have too much egg on its face if U.S. Attorney General Jeffrey Sessions is true to his beliefs, words and understanding that he is there to enforce the marijuana law that was passed by Congress. It seems also that he has the power to change the classification of marijuana if he chooses to do so. Taking the legal and deliberate responsible approach of making the case for a change of classification is more likely to be successful than thumbing our noses at his authority. This is akin to getting more bees with honey than vinegar.
Vermont legislators could be very forward thinkers by passing a resolution asking the federal government to consider rescheduling marijuana to a Schedule II classification. If that idea would catch hold and the Trump administration or the Congress would do that, then marijuana could be possessed legally by researchers to do clinical studies and even could be prescribed legally by state medical marijuana clinics for legitimate medical uses.
In summary, we need to take the path that will bring advocates from both sides together to get the information that would trump emotions and fact poor conclusions. Taking the step of making marijuana a Schedule II drug, makes it legal for the proper people to possess and to do scientific studies of its uses and effects and to prescribe it when appropriate. This way the real risk/benefits will be known and then our state Legislature can take action in a legal and logical way to do what is best for the citizens it serves. They would be acting legally then instead of illegally as they are now. This is a sound and logical way that provides a path for working together to accomplish a consensus that involves treating marijuana like any other drug being evaluated for medical use. If the studies reveal that the drug is safe for recreational use through these studies, then that avenue could also be pursued in due course.
To proceed without knowledge when there is real potential harm is irresponsible and it doesn’t have to be that way. The path to answers is available to us. We need to stop arguing, think about what we need to do in order to prove our point and work together to get real, fact-based answers in a legal way.