Tuesday, March 20, 2018

Study Highlights Harm Reduction Achievements By Decriminalizing Cannabis

Science says that decriminalizing cannabis positively benefits youth and stops criminal records from preventing success later in life.

Decriminalization does not mean that cannabis is legal, just that getting caught with it no longer results in jail time or a criminal record. Decriminalization means that a state or city has repealed or amended its laws to make certain acts criminal, but no longer subject to prosecution. In the cannabis context, this means individuals caught with small amounts of cannabis for personal consumption won’t be prosecuted and won’t subsequently receive a criminal record or a jail sentence. In many states, possession of small amounts of cannabis is treated like a minor traffic violation. 

A new paper, published on the Social Science Research Network (SSRN) website, offers new insight into whether cannabis decriminalization leads to an increase in arrests and cannabis use among youth. According to the study, it doesn’t.

The study examines five states—Massachusetts, Connecticut, Rhode Island, Vermont, and Mayland—which all decriminalized cannabis between 2008 and 2014. The arrests and youth cannabis use in these five states were compared to other states that did not pass similar decriminalization policies in those years. The study found a strong association between cannabis decriminalization and a decrease in drug-related youth arrests, while cannabis use among youth either stayed the same or in some cases, declined. The study found similar results for adults.

Twenty-two states and the District of Columbia have decriminalized small amounts of cannabis. This generally means certain small, personal-consumption amounts are a civil or local infraction, not a state crime (or are a lowest misdemeanor with no possibility of jail time). Since 2013, five state legislatures have enacted cannabis decriminalization – Delaware (2015), Illinois (2016), Maryland (2014), Missouri (2014), and Vermont (2013). Also in 2014 and preceding the successful legalization ballot measure, the District of Columbia enacted legislation, which passed congressional review, and made possession or transfer without remuneration of one ounce or less of cannabis a civil violation. Decriminalization measures are written and enforced slightly differently depending on what state you’re in, but generally result in a system where cannabis possession is treated similarly to a speeding ticket.

States that have decriminalized small amounts of cannabis include:
Alaska (also now with legal provisions)
California (also now with legal provisions)
Colorado (also now with legal provisions)
Maine (also now with legal provisions)
Massachusetts (also now with legal provisions)
Nevada (also now with legal provisions)
New Hampshire
New York
North Carolina
Oregon (also now with legal provisions),
Rhode Island
Washington (also now with legal provisions)
District of Columbia (also now with legal provisions).
Of the states above, Minnesota, Missouri, Nevada, North Carolina and Ohio designate it as a low-level misdemeanor, with no possibility of jail for qualifying offenses. The other states with decriminalization policy have specified small amounts of cannabis as a civil infraction, or the like.

In 2017, decriminalization bills were considered in Alabama, Arizona, Hawaii, Iowa, Montana, New Hampshire, New Jersey, Tennessee and Texas, Virginia and Wyoming. The New Hampshire measure was the only bill to be enacted. Bills that would amend certain existing cannabis civil penalties were introduced in Massachusetts, Maryland and New York.

SSRN study claims to only be aware of one study on recent decriminalization efforts, which took place in California in 2015. The study, conducted by the University of Michigan, concluded that there is “empirical evidence” that decriminalizing cannabis could lead to an increase in youth cannabis use. These results run contrary to SSRN’s findings.

SSRN’S research was conducted using 2007 – 2015 data from the Youth Risk Behavior Survey (YRBS), as well as federal crime statistics. The study also reviewed data on US states that adopted more lenient cannabis policies during the 1970s, similarly finding no increase in cannabis use. The researchers for SSRN’s study represent Washington University in St. Louis, Eastern Virginia Medical School, and the University of Illinois at Chicago.

In 2015, the Committee on Substance Abuse and Adolescence of the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) announced its support for cannabis decriminalization, despite opposition to commercialized recreational and medical cannabis legalization.

The American Public Health Association and the American Academy of Family Physicians (AAFP) also support less-punitive measures for youth cannabis use. Additionally, the AAFP supports a reclassification of cannabis under the Controlled Substances Act to ease research efforts, as well as decriminalization.

Americans For Safe Access Supports Reclassifying Medical Cannabis
With the passage of the Controlled Substances Act in 1970, cannabis was categorized as a Schedule I substance indicating no medical value and a high potential for abuse. Several presidential administrations since then have aggressively enforced federal cannabis laws even in states that have adopted laws to permit the use and distribution of cannabis for medical purposes. Despite the growing body of evidence to support therapeutic use of cannabis, the federal government continues to ignore the rescheduling recommendations of its own DEA Administrative Law Judge Francis Young, who ruled in 1988 that, “Marijuana in its natural form is one of the safest therapeutically active substances known to man. By any measure of rational analysis marijuana can be safely used within the supervised routine of medical care.” The current attempt to reclassify cannabis by administrative petition was started in 2002 by the Coalition for Rescheduling Cannabis (the CRC includes groups like the American Alliance for Medical Cannabis, Americans for Safe Access, the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws, and Patients Out of Time). That petition is now pending before the DEA for final approval.

The federal status of cannabis as a dangerous drug with no medical value is at the heart of the conflict between federal and state laws. As long as cannabis remains classified as a Schedule I substance, medical cannabis patients across the country will lack reasonable, fair and equal protection. The refusal by the federal government to recognize the medical efficacy of cannabis has directly impeded efforts to implement various state medical cannabis laws. And, while sufficient evidence exists in the US and elsewhere of the medical value of cannabis, the federal government, under the authority of the National Institute on Drug Abuse, keeps a stranglehold on research efforts, emphasizing harm-based studies over the investigation of medical efficacy.
ASA strongly supports the reclassification of cannabis in order to expand research on this important and promising therapeutic substance and to better establish laws that reasonably, fairly and equally protect patients in the US.