A Muslim perspective on striving for justice in American drug policy

Marijuana Legalization: Interpreting the Evidence

Rev. Alexander E. Sharp IL, Tax and Regulate

Two Illinois legislators, Rep. Kelly Cassidy (D-14) and Sen. Heather Steans (D-7), have recently filed bills that would legalize marijuana for recreational use in Illinois. They are gathering the widest possible public comment. Two weeks ago they held a joint House-Senate committee hearing to elicit the views of law enforcement.

We heard from police chiefs and state’s attorneys from across Illinois. Not surprisingly, they oppose reform. Why not? They’ve spent their entire careers enforcing the status quo. They had a full opportunity to present their views. However, it was the testimony of two individuals from outside Illinois that provided the most useful comments.

Lewis Koski is from Colorado, one of the first two states, along with Washington, to legalize marijuana in 2012. He had designed and enforced regulations for marijuana legalization in Colorado. “Data gets waterboarded to make it say what you want it to say,” he observed. Data is continuing to develop. You need to identify what data points you want.” He warned against anecdotal evidence and finding correlations where they may not exist.

Neill Franklin, who for served with the Maryland and Baltimore police forces for 34 years, also testified. He is now executive director of Law Enforcement Action Partnership (LEAP), which seeks public safety solutions and includes a speakers’ bureau of retired law enforcement officers opposing marijuana prohibition based on their own field experience.

Franklin’s comments are compelling: “We are funding organized crime syndicates and other criminals with billions every year. As with alcohol prohibition, we have driven a very large profit-generating industry underground and into the shadows, where marijuana peddlers battle each other in the streets of Chicago and other cities for market share.

Press Release from the MPP reports data from a federal government survey showing teen marijuana use declined in 2016.(click above to view report)

“Neighborhoods under siege, cops at war, tens of thousands of arrests (most for mere possession), disparity issues where in this state (Illinois) blacks are 7 times more likely to be arrested than their Caucasian counterparts, and this leads to very poor police-community relations…

“Unfortunately in policing we have become obsessed with numbers and too many of my law enforcement comrades believe that more arrests translate into good policing. That may be true when arresting violent offenders, but not in this case and marijuana possession arrests are the easiest to make. Fact – police-community relations improve when we move away from mass arrests enforcement and focus on violent crime.”
(Click to see full transcript)

Why is this outside testimony so valuable? Because it offers what only someone from the outside can provide. Few of us are very good at questioning the basic assumptions that guide our lives. Police chiefs and state’s attorneys are no less exempt than the rest of us.
The Illinois law enforcement officials asserted three things above all else: marijuana is a gateway drug, that is, using it leads to more dangerous drug use; marijuana causes juvenile criminal activity; and legalization will lead to an increase in teen use. The first two points are based on correlation, not cause. At best, they are misleading. They are not convincing arguments for marijuana prohibition.

Concerning increased teen use, evidence is mounting that just the opposite is the case. One week after the hearing, the federal Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) released findings that marijuana use nationally by teens is declining, and that no teen increase has occurred in states where legalization has been enacted. As Lewis Koski told us, no single survey should be taken as definitive, but this evidence is promising indeed.

May the hearings continue.

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