An open letter to marijuana prohibitionists and so-called third-way-ers

Dear sons of SAM and daughters of the American prohibition; to all the treatment industry, drug testing, private prison, and sheriff union lobbyists; and, of course, to our friends who are required by law to lie:

I keep hearing from your side that you have noble motives for your opposition to marijuana legalization. I hear that all you care about is using scientific inquiry to determine what is best for the people.

However, I’m not sure if you’re aware of it, but you keep talking about things in ways that aren’t scientific, or that are meaningless without the proper context.

That kind of thing may have worked once, but in general, people are a little more sophisticated about scientific knowledge — they no longer uncritically accept “Here be dragons” for cartography or “If she floats, she’s a witch” as a judicial system.

Here are just a few of the danger signs that you may be mis-using or underutilizing scientific rigor in your discussions about marijuana legalization.

1. The invisible “user.”

You can’t discuss policy that affects all marijuana users by leaving out the actual category of marijuana users. When you discuss marijuana policy by saying we should treat instead of jail, then you’re completely ignoring the largest population — those who need neither. It’s like discussing whether to jail or require sexual assault treatment for all those who have sex — simply absurd.

2. The marijuana “addict.”

When you toss out the word “addictive” (and you do so very often), realize that the word is meaningless by itself. People talk about being addicted to Facebook, chocolate, and “Doctor Who” (what do you mean I have to wait until November 23?). Not even the top professionals in the mental health field can agree on its definition.

So if you’re going to use it, you need to put it in context, and the best way to do that is to compare with familiar things to the public, such as legal drugs like alcohol, tobacco, and caffeine. How do they compare in terms of likelihood of dependence, severity of dependence and severity of withdrawal effects? Without putting that in perspective, your use of “addictive” has absolutely no science in it at all.

Oh, and if you’re going to claim (or infer) that legalization will result in a percentage increase of “addicts” equal to the percentage increase of use, then you’d better be prepared to show some hard proof, since it’s clear that marijuana prohibition is more likely to deter casual users.

3. Scary “Carcinogens”

Don’t even think about using the word “carcinogens,” unless you’re ready to discuss the science of carcinogens and how much of our ordinary life contains carcinogens, including the air we breathe. Additionally, if you’re going to even inferentially talk about cancer and marijuana, you’d better not leave out the reams of scientific evidence that proves anti-cancer properties of marijuana.

You completely betray your claimed interest in science and the well-being of people when you cherry-pick really bad studies (like that New Zealand one) to try to declare that the outcome is still uncertain about whether marijuana causes cancer. Real scientists have done systematic reviews that include even those flawed studies and still concluded that marijuana doesn’t cause cancer.

The tragedy is that we’re spending time debunking false claims of marijuana causing cancer which distracts us from the important scientific work of learning more about how marijuana could be used to prevent or heal cancer.

4. Health concern du jour

Over the course of my life drinking coffee was good for me, then bad for me, then merely OK, then bad for me, then good for me, and never once during that time was it made illegal.

When you hear about some little health thing about marijuana, you might want to get confirmation. After all, researchers are paid to try to find things wrong with marijuana, and sometimes do, even though the results are not reproducible. This should raise red flags in particular with a substance that has been in popular use for many decades. The key phrase to ask yourself is: “Where are the bodies?”

5. Cannabis behind the wheel

Are there additional dangers due to driving under the influence of marijuana? Sure, probably. But once again here, everything is relative. There are real additional dangers of driving after your girlfriend breaks up with you, or after you get chewed out by your boss at work. You can be less than 100% on the road for a thousand different reasons. So policy should be about real comparable dangers.

Compare the actual risks of driving under the influence of marijuana with the actual risks of driving under the influence of alcohol or fatigue. As part of this, look at a comparison of the actual ways in which driving is affected by marijuana, alcohol, or fatigue.

We never see anything regarding such comparisons from you. In fact, you never even mention fatigue as a significant factor in traffic accidents (even though it’s huge), nor is there any major national effort to arrest tired drivers.

This makes all you say about marijuana and driving very suspect.

6. Correlation and Causation are two different words.

Get this one right. There are millions of people who use and have used marijuana, so there’s bound to be some strong correlations out there. Correlations are interesting, and may be a reason to do further study, but generally, they are not, of themselves, a reason to act.

For example, marijuana use has been linked to Nobel Prizes, the U.S. Presidency, and Olympic Gold Medals. That doesn’t mean that marijuana use is going to cause you to get any of those things.


So, that’s just six items. There are more, I’m sure, but if you’ll work on getting these correct, we’ll have a lot less disagreement.

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