Blog Editor’s Note: Tom McLellan, Ph.D. is a leading researcher in the field of substance abuse treatment. He is founder of the Philadelphia-based Treatment Research Institute and a professor of psychiatry at the University of Pennsylvania. He has served as Deputy Director of the Office of National Drug Control Policy, where he was instrumental in developing the Obama Administration’s National Drug Control Strategy. Last week, we talked to Dr. McLellan about some of the misconceptions about marijuana legalization both at home and abroad.
PH: Many supporters of California’s Prop 19 point to the success of marijuana legalization in the Netherlands. What is your view of the Dutch policy?
TM: The Dutch experience is widely misunderstood. Since about 1960, Amsterdam and Rotterdam have allowed coffee shops to sell small amounts of marijuana. Then, a few years ago, they thought they’d make extra money from taxes by increasing the number of coffee shops [that were licensed to sell the drug] from about 240 to 800. With the increased availability, people from neighboring countries began coming for the sole purpose of using marijuana. And once they were using marijuana, some thought, “Why not try heroin, cocaine, or LSD?” As a result, trade in these harder drugs escalated. What the Dutch experienced was a case of “narco-tourism”—and that’s not my word. That’s the term the Dutch minister of health used when he told me they had a major problem with marijuana and other drugs. They have already begun scaling back toward their new goal of 200 coffee shops.
PH: Do you think the Dutch experience could be instructive for California?
TM: Absolutely. If marijuana were legalized in California, I think we’d see a similar trend of narco-tourism and increased use. It’s basic economics. If you increase the availability of a commodity people want, more people will buy it. And greater access not only increases the number of people who will use it, but also the average amount of use.
PH: Drug law enforcement is a difficult issue. We may not want to increase the availability of a substance, but we do want to reduce the costs of incarcerating nonviolent drug offenders and compromising their ability to find a job or housing in the future.
TM: I agree that imprisoning a nonviolent drug user is a bad use of a jail cell. My opinion is that a marijuana possession should be treated as a misdemeanor offense similar to a traffic violation. And that’s exactly what California has already passed. Effective October 1, 2010, the penalty for marijuana possession is a stiff fine. So, the idea that California prisons are filled with people who were merely in possession of marijuana is totally fallacious. Why do we need to go beyond what has already been done to lessen harsh jail sentences?
PH: One reason might be that legalization could reduce the influence of drug cartels across our borders.
TM: Mexican drug cartels have many sources of money in addition to the drug trade—including human trafficking, gun trafficking, and money laundering. Legalization of marijuana in California would have a negligible effect on their income. And there’s always going to be a black market. Just because we legalize marijuana doesn’t mean these criminals will cease and desist.
PH: What about the tax revenue California could potentially gain?
TM: When you factor in the cost of regulating the drug, making sure it doesn’t get into the hands of kids, treating new problematic users, and dealing with increased drugged driving, it’s likely that California would only see about half of the revenue Prop 19 advocates predict. And considering the potential medical and social side effects, it doesn’t seem worth it.
PH: When you talk about side effects, many people argue that marijuana is no worse than alcohol or tobacco, so why should it be illegal?
TM: That’s about right—marijuana is about as problematic as alcohol and cigarettes. Remember that alcohol produces a wide range of social problems—about half of all car accidents for starters. And would anyone claim that cigarettes are benign? Similarly, marijuana is an addictive substance that can cause extended brain changes in chronic users. It is also found in a disturbing proportion of drivers who have been killed in car crashes. But the other significant part of the equation is that cigarettes and alcohol are legally sold and marketed by very powerful industries—an important reason for the breadth of harm they cause. Who do you think would market legal marijuana—aging hippie farmers? With all of California’s problems, I can’t see how it would help to introduce another legal intoxicant.
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