Sarah Grippa is a high school teacher in Colorado, a state that legalized marijuana in 2012. In 2015, seeing the need for better ways to educate teens about the risks of marijuana use, she and educator Molly Lutz co-founded the Marijuana Education Initiative to “put the most current, research-based information in the hands of parents, mentors, and educators.” You may assume I am talking about money—specifically, marijuana excise taxes to fund education—but I am not. I am talking about actual education, the kind that takes place between teachers and students, youth-serving organizations and participants, and parents and children. That kind of education is changing—in a good way—as a result of legalized marijuana. Here’s why. During the 1980s and early 1990s, the Drug Abuse Resistance Education (D.A.R.E). a program, a product of the ill-fated War on Drugs whose educational philosophy was “Just Say No,” was the drug education curriculum offered to schools and youth programs. It typically sent uniformed police officers into schools to talk about the dangers of doing drugs. D.A.R.E was accompanied by mandated zero tolerance policies, contributing to a “school to prison pipeline.” A 1998 report from the National Criminal Justice Reference Service stated, “D.A.R.E. does not work to reduce substance use. The program’s content, teaching methods, and use of uniformed police officers rather than teachers might each explain its weak evaluations.” In all fairness, those who created D.A.R.E in the 80s lacked the information about effective teaching that we have today. Educators and curriculum writers had not yet learned that students need to hear prevention information from a trusted adult, that it’s better to keep nonviolent offenders in school than to suspend them, and that protective factors play a large part in preventing drug use. Earlier educators also lacked the technical understanding of how adolescent brains develop that we have today. Though some employed “abstinence-only” programs like D.A.R.E. out of complacency, more often it was because they lacked better options. The legalization of recreational marijuana has forced educators to rethink their approaches to preventing young people from using marijuana. Schools and youth-serving organizations now realize that they can’t talk about marijuana in the same breath as heroin, methamphetamine, or cocaine. There is a clear and concise call for a change in dialogue and approach. Prevention programs like D.A.R.E. are not only ineffective, they are an insult to young people’s intelligence. Youth are fully capable of understanding how their brains are developing, the functioning of the endocannabinoid system, and the differences between recreational and medicinal marijuana use. Today’s youth endure countless standardized tests in their academic career, can navigate the complexities of social media, and can even teach adults how to use SnapChat. They deserve to be told how recreational marijuana use during adolescence can affect their still-developing brain, rather than being told to “Just Say No.” They have the right to develop a compassionate understanding of the differences between medicinal needs—for example, of youth for whom medical marijuana can help manage childhood epilepsy—and recreational use. One of the unexpected outcomes of recreational marijuana legalization has been a positive change in educational practices. Across the US, educators are seeking programs that use reality-based education to empower youth to make informed decisions. Educators, including me, have reinvented, upgraded, expanded, and collaborated to devise new and improved approaches. This would likely not be happening if not for legalized marijuana Regardless of how one might feel about marijuana legalization, we can all agree that best practices in adolescent prevention, intervention, and diversion programs are in the best interest of youth. Unexpected outcomes are not always negative outcomes. Sometimes they can turn our thinking on its head and transform complacency into action.
Our November 17, newsletter argued that marijuana legalization makes possible “Drug Education That Students Will Believe.” While Rick Steves did not address drug education explicitly, his comments confirmed this critical point – as these excerpts make clear: We need credibility for teachers, cops, and parents when it comes to the dangers of hard drugs. When we get the ‘reefer madness’ out of the system we have credibility. When we take the crime out of marijuana, then we can address the serious problems of hard drugs, and we can do that effectively. This isn’t an issue of soft or hard on drugs. This is an issue of how can we be pragmatic? How can we be smart about a problem that we can’t just wish away? Marijuana is here. People who are opponents talk like, “If you legalize marijuana, it’s going to mess up kid’s brains.” Well, the kids are smoking marijuana. They’re going to smoke after legalization. The question is how can we gain credibility. In Europe, they talk about pragmatic harm reduction. For eight years during the Bush administration, if you proposed pragmatic harm reduction that would not even have been considered because that would have been code for “Let’s legalize it.” But what is wrong with pragmatic harm reduction when it comes to a moral issue? We are suffering from decades and billions of dollars of misinformation from the federal government on the need to make marijuana criminal. When they finally legalized alcohol, there wasn’t a celebration. There was recognition that the laws against alcohol were causing more harm to society than the alcohol itself. We can gain credibility by talking truth to our young people and to me it’s a huge issue. I was a parent of two kids and we had to navigate all those challenges. I want teachers and parents, and cops to have credibility with kids. They will when they speak the truth rather than mouthing government talking points. Let’s regulate instead of criminalizing it. We’re learning that right now. Marijuana use is going down among adolescents, because now we have credibility, just like we’ve had success with tobacco and kids. You can advertise, you can educate, and you can make progress.
On Monday evening, Nov. 27, Rick Steves spoke at a private reception. On Tuesday morning, he held a press conference and then testified before a joint hearing of state legislative committees on marijuana legalization and economic development. Here are excerpts from these events. Transcripts of the complete remarks are available upon request. In Washington State marijuana is legal and the sky is not falling. I’m a friend of our Governor, Jay Inslee, who wanted nothing to do with this. He was elected the same day we legalized marijuana and now he understands what it is. He’s so thankful we are not arresting 10,000 people a year. He so pleased that we’ve taken out much of the black market. And he’s getting to used to $300 million in additional revenue. The black-market industry rivaled apples in my state, and if you know how big apples are in Washington, that’s a big industry. It was empowering and enriching organized crime and gangs, and we dismantled it. We’ve turned it into a highly regulated, highly taxed legal market employing 26,000 people, especially in rural areas where we can use the employment. We’ve been able to redirect precious law enforcement resources away from petty pot issues to serious crime. In 2013, James Cole of the U.S. Justice Department made this memo with very clear points: we’re going let you try this, but if you break our rules, you can expect to be busted by the federal government: keep it away from children, keep the criminals out of the business, keep out leakage from neighboring states, be very strict about safety on the roads, no pot in federal property and so on, and don’t let it be a cover for other illegal drug use. In Washington State, we have been very shipshape about making sure the Cole Memo is satisfied. Consequently, we actually have banking now in our state. About 95% of our money is not cash. EUROPEAN VIEWS OF U.S. I spend a third of my whole life hanging out in Europe. They cannot imagine how in the United States 70,000 people are in jail today for non-violent marijuana crimes. “How can you arrest 700,000 people?” they ask. “You Americans lock up 10 times as many people per capita as we do here in Europe. Either you have inherently more criminal people or there’s something screwy about the laws.” They look at us and they say, “You guys are just crazy about legislating morality.” IMPACT OF LEGALIZATION ON MARIJUANA USE The exciting news today is that we have a track record. There’s never been a correlation with how strict the laws are and how much is consumed. That was our hunch when we started in Washington State. Now we know that because we have the statistics. We’ve been at this for four years in Washington State and in Colorado. The numbers are in. Use does not go up. Adolescent use does not go up. DUI’s don’t go up. Crime does not go up. What goes up is civil liberties and tax revenues. I’ve been at this, as I mentioned, for 15 or 20 years and it’s always difficult to get statistics because people who generate statistics have an agenda. We have a thing called the Healthy Youth Survey that our government does in our state. It interviews 200,000 students between sixth and 12th grades every year on their lifestyle choices and their challenges and drug use and all those kinds of things. Since 2012, teen use has stayed the same in our state. You drive into town and you see the marijuana signs. It seems like it’s less forbidden. Perhaps that makes it less sexy for the kids. Also, remember of that $300 million we’ve generated in tax revenue, a good portion of it is earmarked for education and drug prevention programs. Most of those who oppose legalizing marijuana are assuming use will go up. People who oppose legalizing marijuana act like nobody smokes it now. A lot of people assume a whole reservoir of decent people who would love to ruin their lives smoking pot if only it was legal. But what we’ve learned is that anybody who wants to smoke pot, generally does now, already. IMPACT ON RACE A big issue for me is the racism embedded in our prohibition. When I was doing this in Washington State an individual from law enforcement was assigned to trail me when I gave my talks. We became friends. We went to dinner one night. He said, “I disagree with everything you say except for the civil liberties thing.” Later he asked, “Why are you so passionate about this? Rick, you’re comfortable here in suburban Seattle, you can smoke pot for the rest of your life and never get in trouble.” I said, “That’s exactly it! A rich white guy won’t get arrested. It’s poor kids, it’s black kids.” It is just pathetic – the racism behind this law, and now people are starting to stand up. In the first 57 years of my life I had never been hugged by a big, black, Baptist minister. After we legalized, I’ve been hugged by lots of big, beautiful, Baptist ministers. Now leaders in the black community know how drugs have ravaged their communities. What they’re learning is it’s not the drugs that are so devastating, it’s the fact that it is criminal to use those drugs. The NAACP endorsed our law in Washington. They know that the most costly thing about marijuana is the fact that if you smoke it, you can ruin the rest of your life because you have a record, you can’t get into school, and you can’t get a loan, and you can’t get a job. MARIJUANA AS GATEWAY DRUG People are going to say that marijuana is a gateway drug. Europeans have taught me that the only thing ‘gateway’ about marijuana is when it’s illegal, you got to buy it on the street from some criminal who is not going card you, and who is going to offer you something that’s more addictive and more profitable. IMPACT ON DUI’S DUIs are a very important concern. In Washington state, we were not a pro-pot law, we were a public safety law. That’s why we got the endorsement of law enforcement. We had very, very strict DUI considerations in our law. It was so strict that our main opposition was from the left, not from the right. I don’t know anybody who believes that if somebody is driving intoxicated by anything – pills, marijuana, alcohol – we shouldn’t throw the book at them. But I don’t think there’s any real evidence that shows in any state — medical, legal, or no marijuana — a correlation between those states and safety on the roads. There are all sorts of people looking for an excuse to discredit this legalization movement, whose job is to be in the opposition. They can spin examples and say, statistically, “Look it, there were two more accidents in this county than before, fatalities have doubled.” But if you look at the broad picture, there’s no indication that medical or legal marijuana states show any difference from states that have not taken these steps. IMPACT ON OPIOID CRISIS Portugal and the Netherlands initiated their liberal policies on marijuana in order to deal with a serious opioid problem. After they got rid of their dictators, it was just a free for all. They had a horrible problem with hard drug addicts. They decided to take the marijuana out of the equation and focus on hard drug addiction. Their marijuana use has stayed the same, they do not have any drug tourism, and their hard drug addiction populace has been cut by 50%. If you’ve been to Amsterdam to see that neighborhood, it was a no-go zone when I was a kid traveling in the Netherlands. It was just completely owned by the hard drug dealers. Now, it’s gentrified, there are beautiful restaurants and cafes and there is a coffee shop on the corner. They’ve taken the marijuana off of the streets, they’ve turned it into legitimate businesses and they have targeted their hard drug-addicted population very successfully. IMPACT ON LAW ENFORCEMENT You can learn about our prohibition against marijuana when you look at how we struggled with the prohibition against alcohol back in the ’20’s and ’30’s. Mayor LaGuardia of New York said, “When a society has a law on the books that it does not intend to enforce consistently across the board, the very existence of that law erodes respect for law enforcement in general.” Take away the black market and generate tax revenue, then you can get your police to focus on serious problems instead of running down petty pot smokers and you can save a lot of money in law enforcement on top of the tax revenue. MARIJUANA AS HEALTH NOT A CRIMINAL ISSUE In Europe the word for addicted is “enslaved.” People who are drug addicts are not criminals. They don’t need cops, they don’t need lawyers, they don’t need judges, they need counselors and they need nurses and they need compassion. They need support. When you can take the crime out of the equation, you can see this is a health and education challenge, whether it’s hard drugs or a soft drug use and abuse.
CNDP has been working with St. Chrysostom’s Episcopal Church in Chicago to develop a series of Sunday forums throughout the fall on Mass Incarceration and Criminal Justice Reform. Here is Rev. Al Sharp’s presentation at the opening forum on September 10. We urge you to attend future sessions. To see other messages and learn more, visit the St. Chrysostom’s Adult Forum website.
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. “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.