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A Look Back: 10 Years of Legalization

Did the Sky Fall? A Look at the Data After 10 Years of Legalization

By Matt Weeks

In 2014, Sean Azzariti, a U.S. Marine who did two tours during the Iraq War, took three $20 bills out of his wallet to pay for an eighth of Bubba Kush. As he handed over the cash to 3D Cannabis Center in Denver, Azzariti smiled for the cameras. He had just become the first American to legally buy recreational cannabis in more than a century.

Ten years later, his flower sits unused. Azzariti never opened the white paper bag he received that day. It was more important as a physical representation of a larger movement. But when he tried to donate the parcel, both the Smithsonian Institution and the Denver Museum of Nature & Science refused his offer. After all, it’s illegal.

Though the flower may not ever make it behind display glass, its function as a symbol of the American legalization movement couldn’t be clearer: A decade after our first experiments with recreational cannabis, we’re still afraid to let it out of the bag.

Even as the pro-legalization movement has dominated ballot boxes and brought forth a new industry, why does it still feel so stigmatized, so niche? Do we not have the stomach to open up that paper sack and peek inside? What would a sober accounting of the data tell us about what’s changed since that fateful day when a combat veteran with PTSD bought America’s first legal dime bag?

Let’s find out.

 

What We Know: A Gut Check

Admittedly, parsing the data on cannabis is difficult. Even our best polls are murky. What is certain is that a clear majority of Americans support expanding cannabis legalization, both recreationally and medicinally. But exactly how many—and why—is up for debate.

According to a 2022 Gallup poll, 68 percent of Americans support recreational legalization, but only 53 percent believe that cannabis has a positive effect on users (and just half of Americans think the substance has a positive effect on society). Those statistics are a little more promising than what a similar poll put out by the Pew Research Center found the same year. It reported that a mere 59 percent of Americans support recreational cannabis laws.

Why the disconnect? For most respondents, it came down to personal history. Those who copped to trying cannabis were twice as likely to say it should be legalized. Fifty percent of respondents to the Gallup poll reported past usage; only 46 percent of those talking to Pew admitted the same.

If those numbers sound low, consider where they started. In 1968, only 12 percent of Americans were pro-legalization and a mere 4 percent claimed to have tried cannabis. Those numbers crept higher through the 70s, then crashed again in the Just-Say-No ‘80s. However, starting in 1989, attitudes have continued to trend more positively, even as alcohol’s scores worsen. The message is winning, but it’s far from non-controversial.

 

Will Someone Please Think of the Children?

One of the greatest hits of the cannabis critics concerns kids. This year, people who were 11 when Colorado and Oregon legalized can buy the drug legally. Did growing up with cannabis as a legitimate product affect their habits?

Though it’s impossible to know with certainty whether teens in legalized states use cannabis more than their peers, the data indicates that’s not the case. The Journal of the American Medical Association published a massive report in 2021 finding no statistical link between legalization and high school cannabis consumption. That study is consistent with a 2018 survey of 55 other published papers. In fact, cannabis use has trended down among teens—even in the years before the Covid lockdowns. 

A more localized study, done by Healthy Kids Colorado, found that substance use among all youths has decreased between 2013 and 2021, with alcohol down to 24 percent from 30 percent and cannabis down to 17.7 percent from 27.7 percent.

If legalized cannabis really is affecting kids, they’re hiding it well.

 

. . . substance use among all youths has decreased between 2013 and 2021, with alcohol down to 24 percent from 30 percent and cannabis down to 17.7 percent from 27.7 percent.

But Does it Help?

One of the greatest promises of the legalization movement is the chance to improve cannabis research. And it looks like it’s coming to pass. After being stifled for years by asinine regulations, researchers have finally persuaded government agencies to loosen the rope. Removing the substance from the Schedule I tier would help even more, but the 2022 law providing increased access to medical cannabis might help—if the government rolls everything out properly.

Luckily, that’s not our only hope. For years, the American public had to piece together its understanding of cannabis’ effects on the body from research that relied on less-than-ideal inputs. Scientists were restricted to using poorly grown, often moldy cannabis samples that bore little resemblance to what was sold on the black market or in dispensaries. But thanks to legalization, some researchers have found creative ways around restrictions.

For example, Angela Bryan, a professor of psychology and neuroscience at Colorado University, Boulder, and her team came up with a workaround to regulations that prevents scientists from administering cannabis to patients. The researchers tell patients which products to purchase from a local dispensary, then drive to their subjects’ home to perform research. The team arrives with a mobile lab, takes samples from the patients before they dose, then takes a new set of samples. The team’s first study showed conclusively that cannabis products containing specific amounts of both CBD and THC could fight inflammation and pain without delivering cognitive impairment. They’re currently working on more research—and using crowdfunding sources to ensure they can reach a larger population.

 

The Media Dilemma

Bryan’s conditions may not be ideal, but they’re undeniably an improvement. Yet, even if every forthcoming paper had flawless research designs, every potential new discovery would still face sensationalized, overblown coverage. The field of cannabis research is simply too new. A true scientific consensus has yet to form, which has given rise to the kind of medical promises the substance may not be able to deliver.

Take for example, the breathless coverage a study published in the August 2022 edition of the journal, Addiction received. Media outlets reported that it showed definitively that residents of legalized states use cannabis 24 percent more frequently than do others. But that’s not exactly true.

What the scientists actually found was subtler. The study surveyed sets of twins who lived in separate states. It found those in legalized states claimed to consume more cannabis. Its underlying premise was that, because the pairs were genetically similar, the only difference in their usage habits would be laws of their home states. However, like all great researchers, the authors were clear about the limitations of their work.

While news coverage made it sound like recreational laws cause usage—the researchers found that such legislation only spurs those who already used cannabis to use it more often. “Our analyses suggest that among individuals who have used in their life-time, cannabis legalization may cause increased likelihood of recent use, but cannabis legalization is unlikely to cause initiation in individuals who were life-time abstainers prior to legalizations [sic, emphasis ours],” they wrote. “One potential alternative explanation for increases in use associated with legalization could be that it instead reflects an increased openness to report activities that are no longer illegal. We cannot determine whether this is the case, but we note that we also saw increases in reported cannabis use by residents of illegal states.”

That’s not an outlier, either. Luckily, several universities have established cannabis research centers that should accelerate our understanding and, hopefully, provide a voice of authority that can keep overblown headlines in check.

 

What We Know We Don’t Know

In November, Ohio became the 24th state to legalize recreational usage. Voters approved the initiative by a healthy margin, but the polls were hardly closed before lawmakers from both parties announced plans to change the law before it went into effect. Republicans sought to remove stipulations that would have prioritized granting licenses to those who were harmed by past cannabis laws, while Democrats sought to amend the law to ensure some of the tax revenue went to schools.

The point here is not to bring up left-versus-right, but rather to illuminate something that continues to befuddle policymakers: there’s simply no great way to implement legality. Although Americans continue to vote for legalization, it’s not all that clear what they actually support.

The big tent of legalization advocates contains a spectrum that runs from free market-inspired libertarians to social justice-seeking social democrats. Some want to benefit from moving the market out of the shadows, while others want the freedom to use cannabis as medicine, and still others believe that legalization corrects sins of the past that have been perpetrated primarily against minorities. That leaves a great bit of space to bicker about policy execution.

Do high taxes keep the black market in business? Do social justice requirements slow down the free market and lead to inferior goods? Do zoning regulations ensure the stigma sticks around? It’s all arguable.

Where Are We Now?

U.S. Marines are famous for being the first into the fray. It’s no different with cannabis. In the decade since Sean Azzariti bought $60 worth of bud, some progress has been made. Today, more than half the population lives in a state that has legalized recreational cannabis.

But not everything has changed.

In the upcoming presidential election, neither of the two front-runners supports a nation-wide legalization agenda. In many legalized states, people are still sitting in jail for offenses that are no longer criminal—and were never truly harmful. And we still don’t know just how much it helps with pain, PTSD, anxiety, sleep, hunger, etc.

Two years ago, the Cato Institute, that bastion of Koch-funded libertarianism, released a policy analysis on marijuana legalization to help legislators. Its advice was simple: ignore both sides.

Cato scholars found that recreational legalization has led to only the smallest changes. Both the advocates and the critics overstated their cases. Instead, Cato found clear evidence that, aside from higher tax collections, most things stayed the same. Crime rates stay steady. Kids aren’t more likely to get high. Justice doesn’t become more even-handed. Rates of harder drug consumption don’t rise. Public health outcomes are largely the same. While individuals may see great benefits or harms, there’s no great shift on the ground beneath our feet.

So, what has changed, 10 years in? Our attitudes. In a decade’s time, our ideas about cannabis have grown closer together. As a nation, we’re less divided today than we were yesterday. Maybe that’s enough for one plant.

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