Co-authors of a report on the local effects of marijuana legalization delivered some buzz kill to the Loudoun County Board of Supervisors on July 19.
They said the report by the county Community Criminal Justice Board/Community Services Board reached few conclusions. The lack of consensus was due to often contradictory studies in some of the 19 states and the District of Columbia that have legalized pot that the CCJB and CSB analyzed.
“We concluded the totality of the studies needs to be considered, not just a single study,” said CCJB Chairman At-Large Guy B. Potucek. “The use of the data to predict impacts is constrained by a very nuanced, targeted focus of a study.”
For example, a Colorado study by medicalmarijuana.com said violent crime was up in the state in the first five years since legalization in 2012. But in Washington, where weed was legalized in 2013, crime decreased in the 2019-20 fiscal year from the previous year, according to an annual report by the Washington Association of Sheriffs and Police Chiefs.
There were also conflicting findings on marijuana and driving. A Colorado Division of Justice study from last year found an overall decrease in traffic deaths in which drivers tested positive for marijuana. But a Department of Justice Office of Justice Programs study in 2020 found drivers in Washington in fatal crashes with marijuana in their system increased 120%.
However, just because a driver has marijuana in their system doesn’t mean they were driving while high. While alcohol only stays in the system for about 24 hours, marijuana stays in the system for a few weeks.
“Although laboratory studies have shown that marijuana consumption can affect a person’s response times and motor performance, studies of the impact of marijuana consumption on a driver’s risk of being involved in a crash have produced conflicting results, with some studies finding little or no increased risk of a crash from marijuana usage,” said the summary of Marijuana Use and Highway Safety, a 2019 report by the Congressional Research Service. “Levels of impairment that can be identified in laboratory settings may not have a significant impact in real world settings, where many variables affect the likelihood of a crash occurring. Research studies have been unable to consistently correlate levels of marijuana consumption, or THC (tetrahydrocannabinol, the ingredient in marijuana responsible for its psychological effects) in a person’s body, and levels of impairment.”
The CRS report also cited a a 2017 study by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. It found alcohol was far more dangerous for drivers than pot.
“Marijuana-dosed subjects driving in a simulator or in an instrumented vehicle on a closed course tended to drive below the speed limit, to allow a greater distance between themselves and vehicles ahead of them, and to take fewer risks than when they were not under the influence of marijuana,” the CRS report said. “The study authors hypothesized that the subjects felt effects of the marijuana and were consciously altering their driving behavior to compensate. By contrast, subjects who were dosed with alcohol tended to drive faster than the speed limit, to follow leading cars more closely, and to generally drive in a riskier fashion than when they were not under the influence of alcohol.”
Conclusions were also difficult to make regarding marijuana’s mental health effect. Neil McNerney, a CSB member and professional counselor who’s worked with children and parents for 20 years, said the mental health studies were sometimes contradictory.
“It’s also important to note that association is not causation, especially when it comes to mental health,” he said. “Mental health conditions might drive some people to use marijuana rather than the marijuana use causing the mental health condition.”
While many studies were contradictory, none found legalization was increasing underage marijuana use. And results of the 2019 National Survey on Drug Use and Health by the federal Substance Abuse and Mental Health Administration were encouraging. The survey found youth marijuana use dropped despite increasing in young adults between 18-25.
The percentage of people 18-25 who said they used marijuana in the past year increased from nearly 30%, or 9.2 million in 2002, to 35.4%, or 12 million, in 2019. But the percentage of youths between 12-17 who said they’d used marijuana in the past year decreased from 15.8%, or 3.9 million, in 2002, to 13.2%, or 3.3 million, in 2019.
McNerney said no studies the boards looked at indicated legalization increased underage use.
“My own personal experience with the youth clients I work with is that those that are interested in using marijuana are using marijuana whether it is legal or not,” he said. “Those that are not interested are not interested.”
Virginia decriminalized recreational pot use last year. It’s legal to possess less than an ounce, but illegal to use marijuana in public or drive under the influence of weed. Despite decriminalization, it’s still illegal to sell marijuana in Virginia. The earliest the legislature could legalize sales is next year.
In the question and answer session after the presentation, Supervisor Caleb A. Kershner, R-Catoctin, invoked the myth that marijuana is a gateway drug. Numerous studies have debunked the theory noting that while many users of harder drugs like heroin began their drug use with marijuana, most marijuana users don’t go on to use heroin. Rather than marijuana being a gateway, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said family background, mental health and socioeconomic status were the most likely triggers for addiction to hard drugs.
“Most people who use marijuana do not go on to use other, ‘harder’ drugs,” the CDC website said about the issue in 2020, citing a 2017 National Academies of Sciences report. “People who use marijuana and do go on to use other drugs (including alcohol and tobacco) may have a higher risk of dependence or addiction to those drugs, especially if they started using marijuana at an early age and use it frequently.”
The local report also analyzed race and marijuana. Despite Black people comprising 20% of Virginia’s 8.6 million population, the report cited research in 2020 from the Virginia General Assembly’s Joint Legislative Audit and Review Commission, and it found Blacks were 3.5 times more likely than whites to be arrested for marijuana possession and 3.9 times more likely to be convicted. BOS Chairwoman Phyllis J. Randall noted statistics were similar in Colorado.
“The whole notion that that this will help people of color not be arrested if its legalized is right out the window,” said Randall, adding that marijuana is far more potent than it was 50 years ago. “We should stop putting people in jail for using marijuana. Secondly, can we stop politicizing everything? This is a medical discussion and a treatment discussion much more than it is a criminal discussion.”