The debate about the dangers of marijuana has a new sense of urgency: Dayton residents will vote in the next month for or against decriminalizing small amounts of the drug.
Marijuana advocates contend that pot is not as bad as alcohol or tobacco, say it isn’t a gateway drug and believe enforcement of pot laws has disproportionately harmed communities of color.
Falsehoods and misinformation were used to scare people into thinking pot is dangerous when it’s not, according to Justin Strekal, political director with the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws (NORML).
“After a decades-long propaganda campaign, many of the reefer-madness era baseless talking points still persist to this day,” Strekal said.
But some medical and substance abuse experts say getting high definitely is not harmless and decriminalizing pot likely will lead to increased use of the drug.
“We like to say that marijuana is safer than alcohol or safer than tobacco, but that doesn’t mean it’s safe,” said Glen Solomon, professor and chair of the Department of Internal Medicine with the Wright State University Boonshoft School of Medicine. “There are health risks and risks to society, and we need to weigh that as we should weigh any decisions that we make about putting things in our bodies.”
On Nov. 6, voters will tell city leaders if Dayton should decriminalize misdemeanor marijuana and hashish offenses.
If the majority of voters favor decriminalization, Dayton leaders have promised to amend the city’s code of general ordinances to eliminate or reduce some penalties for minor pot possession and other offenses, such as getting rid of a $150 fine.
Minor marijuana possession is one of the more common criminal offenses charged in Dayton Municipal Court.
About 1,725 people faced misdemeanor pot possession charges in Dayton between Jan. 1, 2017, and Sept. 9, 2018, according to court data obtained by this newspaper.
Mayor: It’s a civil rights issue
Marijuana laws are outdated and unevenly enforced, and decriminalization is a civil rights issue, said Dayton Mayor Nan Whaley during an interview on WHIO Reports that airs today.
The mayor said most people who smoke pot don’t go on to use “harder” drugs. She also said that marijuana is less of a gateway drug than alcohol.
Unlike alcohol, users of marijuana cannot overdose on the drug and getting high does not lead to some of the problems associated with heavy drinking and drunkenness, like violent behavior, aggression, domestic violence and sexual assault, said Mike Uth, a board member with the ACLU of Ohio.
“Alcohol is more likely to make people violent and mean. Weed might make you stupid, and if you are a bag of Doritos, you’d better look out,” Uth said.
Excessive alcohol use kills about 88,000 people each year in the United States, shortening the lives of those who died by an average of 30 years, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Certainly, many people who use harder drugs like amphetamines, cocaine and heroin tried or used marijuana previously in their lives, Uth said.
But, Uth said, there’s no causal relationship there. He said it’s also very likely true that hard-drug users previously used alcohol, cigarettes and — for that matter — ate M&Ms.
“The notion that marijuana is a gateway drug is a myth that’s been dispelled,” Uth said.
More impaired drivers?
Marijuana has risks, just not necessarily the same ones as alcohol, Solomon, with the Boonshoft School of Medicine, said.
Research suggests that about 15 percent of people who drink have an alcohol abuse problem, while about 9 to 10 percent of marijuana users develop problems with abuse and dependence, Solomon said.
There may be increased risk of vascular disease with pot because it increases blood pressure, and marijuana carries the risk of impaired driving, Solomon said.
“From a personal standpoint, I am in no big hurry to have more impaired drivers on the road,” he said.
Adults can’t overdose on marijuana, but children can die from consuming too much of the drug.
And marijuana use among teens is associated with memory problems, decreased IQ and lowered ambitions and motivation, Solomon said.
Marijuana is a bad drug for young people to use on a frequent or chronic basis, which Solomon said he’s concerned about decriminalization because he believes it will result in increased use of the drug.
“Decriminalization, while it’s not legalization, in many people’s minds it is,” he said.
Would no fines mean more users?
Another myth is that decriminalization and legalization of marijuana results in increased use of the drug, Uth said.
Research published in the September issue of the International Journal of Drug Policy found that decriminalization of cannabis in Massachusetts, Connecticut, Rhode Island, Vermont and Maryland did not result in increased use of the drug.
“This finding is not surprising. Even under decriminalization, there is still a penalty of a fine, just not an arrest,” said Michael Vuolo, an associate professor of sociology at The Ohio State University, who was one of the study’s authors.
But Vuolo said it’s hard to say whether the type of decriminalization Dayton might pursue — eliminating fines — would lead to increased use, because it seems more akin to legalization.
He said it’s really commercialization of marijuana in other countries that seems to result in higher rates of use.
Some studies show a correlation between increased pot use in states that legalized medical marijuana.
Some substance abuse experts say marijuana may be a gateway drug for some people.
A report released in early 2017 by the National Academies of Sciences found “limited evidence” that cannabis use increases the rate that people try other drugs, primarily tobacco.
The report also found “moderate evidence” suggesting a link between using cannabis and developing a dependence or abuse disorder for substances including alcohol, tobacco and other illicit drugs.
“I don’t think it’s a huge issue, but it’s real,” said Solomon. “I think there are people who will start out with marijuana but who then move on to things like cocaine, methamphetamine, heroin or other drugs.”
Opponents of decriminalizing weed in Dayton include Montgomery County Sheriff Phil Plummer, who is also the head of the Montgomery County Republican Party and running for an Ohio Statehouse seat.
Plummer previously told this newspaper that decriminalization supports irresponsible substance abuse and will put children and the motoring public at risk.
Plummer also warned that decriminalization would be “terrible” for the business community because it would shrink the pool of qualified workers. Many jobs require applicants and workers to take drug tests.
The Dayton Unit NAACP endorsed the measure last week, with President Derrick Foward joining Mayor Whaley at a press conference in support.
Decriminalization is the right and fair thing to do because even a minor pot possession conviction can ruin someone’s life, because it can jeopardize their eligibility for financial aid, public housing and other benefits, said Tasha Rountree, a Dayton resident and medicinal marijuana patient and advocate.
And a $150 fine is a lot of money for some people, and the penalties escalate quickly for nonpayment, she said.
“I think absolutely this is going to pass,” she said.
Dayton leaders have credited Rountree — who says cannabis products and CBD oil help with pain management — for drawing their attention to issues surrounding cannabis and urging them to consider decriminalization.
The punishment for getting busted with marijuana is more damaging than actually using the drug, said Jolene Forman, staff attorney with the New York-based Drug Policy Alliance, which calls for reforming drugs laws and policies.
A misdemeanor pot arrest or conviction on a person’s record carries a stigma and endangers their ability to get a job and accessing important services, she said.
Following marijuana decriminalization, jurisdictions tend to see a decrease in arrests for pot offenses, Forman said.
However, she said, racial disparities in the arrests may persist and perhaps even worsen.
“Done well, (decriminalization) is very beneficial and can lead to future reforms,” she said.