Testimony before the IL General Assembly on Marijuana Legalization, Public Health and the Cannabis Regulation and Taxation Act (SB 316, HB 2353): David L. Nathan, MD, DFAPA

grygielny Decriminalization, Drug Education, IL

January 22, 2018

David L. Nathan, MD, DFAPA President, Board of Directors Doctors for Cannabis Regulation

Good morning, Senator Heather Steans, Representative William Davis and esteemed members of the General Assembly.

My name is David Nathan. Originally from the Philadelphia area, I graduated with high honors from Princeton University. I received my medical degree from the University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine and completed my residency at McLean Hospital of Harvard Medical School.

I am a board-certified psychiatrist, and for the past twenty years I have maintained a private practice in Princeton, New Jersey, where I live with my wife and our two teenage children. I am the Director of Continuing Medical Education for Penn Medicine Princeton Health and the Director of Professional Education for Princeton House Behavioral Health. I am a Clinical Associate Professor at the Rutgers Robert Wood Johnson Medical School. On the topic of cannabis policy, I do not speak for the institutions with whom I have an affiliation. I am a Distinguished Fellow of the American Psychiatric Association, which is the highest membership honor bestowed by the APA. I have published numerous articles in the national psychiatric and lay press about a variety of topics in history and science, one of which is the legal status of marijuana.

I am the founder and board president of Doctors for Cannabis Regulation (or DFCR). With a prestigious roster of physicians, including former Surgeon General Joycelyn Elders and integrative medicine pioneer Andrew Weil, DFCR is the first and only national medical association dedicated to the legalization, taxation and – above all – the effective regulation of marijuana in the United States. DFCR has members in nearly every state and US territory, including right here in Chicago.

DFCR does not promote cannabis use. Rather, we advocate for the legalization of cannabis for adults, because effective regulation requires a legalized environment. We therefore support a core set of common-sense measures – our “Platform of Regulations” – to control the marijuana industry and protect public health.

We believe that the government should oversee all cannabis production, testing, distribution, and sales. Cannabis products should be labeled with significant detail, including (but not limited to) THC and CBD levels, dosing information and ingredients. There should be restrictions on marketing and advertising of cannabis products. Cannabis packaging and advertising that targets or attracts underage users should be completely prohibited. All cannabis products should have child-resistant packaging. There should be harsh penalties for adults who enable diversion of cannabis to minors. Taxation of the cannabis trade should be used to fund research, education, and prevention, including public information for adults on the use and misuse of cannabis and youth programs that emphasize the risks of underage cannabis use.

And since cannabis prohibition has worsened the poverty of the impoverished – particularly in communities of color – DFCR believes that the government has an obligation to rebuild the communities disproportionately affected by the war on marijuana. There are many ways this can be done, but if nothing else, we must expunge the criminal records of individuals convicted of minor cannabis crimes and ensure diversity in the cannabis industry.

Esteemed members of the General Assembly: The time has come to end the failed and harmful prohibition of marijuana in the State of Illinois.

This historic and beloved city of Chicago knows all too well the destruction brought by well-intended but sadly misguided efforts by society to control addiction through prohibitions. From the violence in the streets under Alcohol Prohibition, to the violence in the streets we see today, Chicago has paid a heavy price for the heavy-handed criminal approach to addiction, which is fundamentally a health problem, not a moral one.

Alcohol Prohibition was repealed after just thirteen years because of unintended consequences: organized crime, increased use of hard alcohol, and government waste.

So, what have we gotten from our eighty-year experiment with marijuana prohibition? Organized crime, increased use of stronger marijuana, and government waste.

And yet, Alcohol Prohibition was a success compared to our war on marijuana. Alcohol consumption decreased during the 1920s, but marijuana use has increased drastically since its prohibition. Today, 22,000,000 Americans use cannabis each month, and even more partake on a less frequent basis.

Marijuana prohibition began in the 1930s – over the objections of the American Medical Association – based on scare tactics and fabricated evidence that suggested that the drug was highly addictive, made users violent, and was fatal in overdose. We now know that none of those assertions are true. Cannabis is less addictive than alcohol and tobacco. It doesn’t make users violent, and there are no documented cases of fatal cannabis overdose. In short, from the medical standpoint, marijuana should never have been illegal for consenting adults.

While Doctors for Cannabis Regulation firmly supports the legalization and regulation of marijuana for adult use, it emphatically opposes underage recreational use of marijuana. Evidence suggests that both marijuana and alcohol can adversely affect brain development in minors. Studies of underage users show that health effects are worse when kids start younger and consume more frequently.

But cannabis prohibition for adults does not prevent underage use. For decades, preventive education reduced the rates of alcohol and tobacco use by minors, while underage marijuana use rose steadily despite its prohibition for adults. The government’s own statistics show that 80-90% of eighteen-year-olds have consistently reported easy access to the drug since the 1970s.

Opponents of legalization like to say: “This isn’t your parents’ marijuana.” And they’re right. Cannabis cultivation has led to the development of more potent strains, to the extent that illegal marijuana today is typically about three to five times stronger than it was 30 years ago. In states where marijuana is legal, the government requires potency labeling. Adult users can make informed decisions about their intake based on potency, much as people do with alcohol – say, drinking a small amount of vodka compared with two beers. But in Illinois, where it’s illegal and uncontrolled, marijuana products aren’t labeled and users consume an unknown product of unknown potency. Thus, the opposition’s claim is a medically sound argument… to legalize and regulate marijuana so that products are properly labeled with potency, ingredients and serving sizes.

Opponents of legalization say – again without evidence – that marijuana legalization “sends the wrong message” to kids. In other words, they argue that if a drug or activity is legal for adults, then kids will think it’s safe for them.

If there is an association, it is the opposite of what opponents claim. When cannabis is against the law for everyone, the government is saying that marijuana is dangerous for everyone, and kids know that’s not true. If adults can’t be trusted to tell the truth about responsible adult use of marijuana, why should kids listen to us when we say it’s harmful for them? By making a legal distinction between marijuana use by adults and minors, we demonstrate a respect for scientific evidence – and the sanctity of the law – that we would want our children to emulate.

Whether in sex education or drug education, when kids know we’re being honest with them and trust the information we’re providing, they’re more likely to take that advice seriously. And we know that preventive drug education works—the rates of underage tobacco and alcohol use have been falling for many years, even though it remains legal for adults. During that same time, underage marijuana use – which until recently was illegal in all 50 states – has risen.

Today, teen use has remained level across the nation, including in legalized states. While we cannot predict the future, there are good reasons to believe legalization may actually decrease underage use.

Now I would like to address what may be the biggest misconception about marijuana – namely, that it is a “gateway” to the use of harder drugs. We hear this repeated over and over again, and always without supporting evidence.

A study by the Institute of Medicine, the health branch of the National Academy of Sciences, concluded that marijuana “does not appear to be a gateway drug to the extent that it is the cause or even that it is the most significant predictor of serious drug abuse.”

While it’s true that users of hard drugs often tried marijuana first, they’re even more likely to have tried alcohol and tobacco. And the vast majority of those who try marijuana, alcohol and tobacco don’t go on to use harder drugs. Simply put, the fact that some people who use hard drugs also used marijuana in no way implies that marijuana causes people to use hard drugs. The marijuana “gateway” hypothesis is an archaic, misleading and oversimplified explanation of substance misuse, and it trivializes the serious discussion of how to address one of the greatest public health crises in history: our nation’s deadly opioid epidemic.

Times are changing. In 2018, even physicians who oppose legalization generally believe that marijuana should be decriminalized, reducing penalties for users while keeping the drug illegal. Although decriminalization is certainly a step in the right direction, DFCR physicians believe it to be an inadequate substitute for legalization and regulation for a number of reasons.

First, decriminalization does not empower the government to regulate product labeling and purity, which leaves marijuana vulnerable to contamination and adulteration. This also renders consumers unable to judge the potency of marijuana, which is like drinking alcohol without knowing its strength. Moreover, where marijuana is merely decriminalized, the point-of-sale remains in the hands of drug dealers who will sell marijuana – as well as more dangerous drugs – to children.

Contrary to popular belief, decriminalization doesn’t actually end the arrests of marijuana users. Despite New York State decriminalizing marijuana in the 1970s, New York City makes tens of thousands of marijuana possession arrests every year, with continuing racial disparities in enforcement. Finally, under a decriminalized system the government continues to prosecute and constrict the supply chain. This drives up the price of marijuana, making the untaxed illegal market more lucrative, competitive, and violent.

When we describe the days of Al Capone, we call it “Alcohol Prohibition”, but it was actually more properly called “Alcohol Decriminalization”. It was perfectly legal to obtain and consume alcohol for medical purposes or religious rituals, or if you made it at home for your personal use. So, when opponents tout decriminalization as an answer to prohibition, ask them what they think will happen if we remove penalties for consumers while prosecuting growers and sellers, and how this could be expected to work when Alcohol Prohibition didn’t.

Ladies and gentlemen, I thank you for your time and attention. I would be happy to answer your questions.

Respectfully submitted,
David L. Nathan, MD, DFAPA
dnathan@dfcr.org
609-688-0400 (phone)
609-688-0401 (fax)
601 Ewing Street, Suite C-10
Princeton, New Jersey 08540


Doctors for Cannabis Regulation. “Platform of Regulations.” Updated January 2018. https://dfcr.org/platform-of-regulations/