Arizona Democrats mostly favor Proposition 207, which would legalize the sale of recreational marijuana. But this year, the Democratic National Committee voted to support decriminalization instead of legalization. As a lifelong Democrat, I think this decision fits our party well.
Decriminalization would take marijuana use completely out of the criminal justice system, which is what Democrats want. Possession would no longer be a crime; it would be an infraction punishable with the equivalent of a traffic ticket. And under Vice-President Joe Biden’s plan, even that record could be expunged.
The main difference is that with decriminalization, selling the drug would still be illegal. This threatens the $17 billion marijuana industry. But for Democrats, with our history of standing up to businesses that make money by harming the public health, there are good reasons to dislike this industry.
Many countries, such as Portugal, decriminalized possession while keeping sales illegal. But in the U.S., several states legalized retail sales. At first there were only small businesses, but marijuana quickly became corporate. Today it has its own private equity firms, venture capitalists, IPOs and lobbyists who cozy up to politicians. In 2018, marijuana companies actually gave more to congressional Republicans than to Democrats. And now the tobacco giants are circling like vultures, ready to buy up marijuana businesses as soon as it’s legalized nationally.
Democrats have fought “big tobacco” for decades, especially for promoting teenage use. But pot companies appeal to teens far more directly. They market THC-infused candy, soda, and cookies that adolescents really go for. They even sell vape cartridges disguised as pens so kids can get high in class.
They also influence teens with advertising. A study published in the journal Psychology of Addictive Behaviors found that adolescents who saw marijuana ads were twice as likely to try the drug.
Despite promises that we could regulate pot like alcohol, marijuana companies use hardball tactics to fight regulations designed to protect kids. When San Diego passed a law forbidding dispensaries within 600 feet of schools, parks and playgrounds, pot companies hired signature-gatherers to force a vote on the regulation. San Diegans wanted the law, but the city rescinded it because the election would have cost $3 million.
In 2016, several Colorado groups tried to put an initiative on the ballot mandating child-resistant packaging, health warnings and limiting THC content to 16%. Knowing they would probably lose the vote, pot companies used their wealth to sign non-compete agreements with every signature-gathering firm in the state. So those kid-friendly groups had no way to get the measure on the ballot.
There’s a reason a for-profit marijuana industry would encourage teenage use. Just like tobacco, nearly 90% of pot sales are to heavy, often addicted, users who almost all started in their teens. People who start in their teens are twice as likely to get addicted and, as adults, use three times as much pot. There’s a mountain of research showing marijuana permanently damages the adolescent brain, lowers IQ and increases the dropout rate, but the industry’s profits depend on getting adolescents started.
Sadly, their appeals to teens are very effective. Of the nine states with the highest rates of teenage marijuana use, seven are states that legalized recreational sales. So if we want to protect kids, we have to take the profit out of marijuana.
Fortunately, there’s now pushback against this industry, even from pot’s biggest boosters. Willie Nelson has smoked weed all his adult life, but he has spoken out against the corporate takeover of his favorite drug.
In 2015, Dan Riffle, marijuana advocate and political director of the pro-legalization Marijuana Policy Project, shocked the marijuana community by quitting his job abruptly, saying the industry was taking over. The industry, he said, would undermine public health because their main concern is profits, and he wanted nothing to do with the for-profit marijuana industry.
Americans don’t want anyone going to jail for smoking a joint, but no one is clamoring for another multi-billion-dollar industry that cares only about profits. So Democrats should be wary of legalization initiatives like Prop. 207. Decriminalization fits much better with the party’s ideals. It would protect people whose only infraction is using marijuana, allowing them to go through life with a clean record. It would also protect teenage kids from an industry whose profits depend on enticing them to use drugs.
Ed Gogek, is an addiction psychiatrist and author of Marijuana Debunked: A handbook for parents, pundits and politicians who want to know the case against legalization.