By Mitch Earleywine, Ph.D
State University of New York at Albany
Chair, NORML board of directors
A new study claims to show small deficits on neuropsychological tests in college students who started smoking marijuana early in life. It might get a lot of press. Prohibitionists love to bang the drum of marijuana-related cognitive deficits, so I’d like NORMLites to know how to make sense of this sort of research. The recurring themes in this literature involve several alternative explanations that never seem to dawn on journalists. These results often arise from artifacts of the study rather than physiological effects of the plant. I’d like to focus on a few: other drug use, dozens of statistical tests, the incentives for performance, and the demands communicated by the experimenters.
The latest paper of this type is actually pretty good. Researchers studied over 30 people aged 18-20 who started using before age 17 (their average starting age was around 15) and who smoked at least 5 days per week for at least a year. They compared them to a comparable bunch of non-users. I hate to see 15-year-olds using anything psychoactive, even caffeine. Spending full days in high school with less than optimal memory functioning is no way to lay the groundwork for a superb life. I admit that I want these same people to grow up and be the next generation of activists, so feel free to call me selfish when I emphasize NORML’s consistent message: THE PLANT IS NOT FOR KIDS WHO LACK MEDICAL NECESSITY.
OTHER DRUG USE?
First, we have to keep other drug use in mind. Unfortunately, the marijuana group in this study got drunk more than 4 times as much in the last six months as the controls. Given what we know about binge drinking and neuropsychological functioning, it’s going to be hard to attribute any differences between these groups to the plant. It’s just as likely that any deficits stem from pounding beers. Studying cannabis users who aren’t so involved with alcohol would help address neuropsychological functioning much better.
HOW MANY TESTS?
In addition, we should always consider the number of measures in any study. Many of these neuropsychological tasks have multiple trials that can be scored multiple ways. The more statistical tests you run, the more likely it is that you’ll find a statistically significant difference by chance. It’s kind of like flipping coins. It’s rare to flip four heads in a row. But if you flip a coin a thousand times, odds are high that somewhere in the list of a thousand results will be four heads in a row. These investigators got 48 different test scores out of the participants. You’d expect at least 2 of them to be significant just by chance. They found differences on 14 different scores, suggesting that something’s going on, but we’re not sure which results are the “real” differences and which ones arose by accident. (That’s why we replicate studies like this.) And, as I mentioned, it might all be because of the booze.
WHY WOULD ANYONE DO ALL THESE TESTS?
We also have to consider incentives for performance. Most researchers bring participants to the lab for a fixed fee and ask them to crank out a bunch of crazy puzzles and memory assessments. It’s unclear why people would feel compelled to strain their brains. The authors of this study were kind enough to mention some relevant work by my friend (and former student) Dr. Rayna Macher. Dr. Macher showed that cannabis users respond best when you make the effort worth their while. She focused on people who used the plant at least four times per week for a year or more. She read one group some standard instructions for a memory test. The other group got the regular instructions plus an additional sentence: “It is important that you try your very best on these tasks, because this research will be used to support legislation on marijuana policy.”
As you’d guess, this simple sentence fired them up. Compared to cannabis users who didn’t hear that sentence, they performed better on 3 out of 10 measures. (You’d expect less than one difference by chance.) And compared to the non-users, the folks who got the incentive sentence did just as well on all the tests. For those who didn’t hear the incentive sentence, users did less well than non-users on 1 of the 10.
I know that prohibitionists are going to try to call this amotivation. (See my rant on that when you get a chance) I call it putting effort where it pays. But given what we know about how these studies can hamper the reform of marijuana laws, users everywhere should do their best on all tests whenever they get the chance.
WE OFTEN DO WHAT EXPERIMENTERS EXPECT OF US
Last but not least, we have to consider the demands communicated by the experimenter. Decades of data now support the idea that people often do what others expect them to do, especially if they believe the expectation, too. Another friend and former student, Dr. Alison Looby De Young, showed that these expectations are critical in studies of neuropsychological performance and cannabis. She gave a neuropsychological battery to men who had used cannabis at least three times per week for the last two years. One group of men read instructions that said that cannabis had no impact on their performance on these tests. Another group read instructions that said that cannabis was going to make them perform poorly. You guessed it, those men who heard they were going to flub the tests performed worse on 2 of the 4 tests. (You’d expect less than one difference by chance). As you might imagine, some laboratories communicate their expectations about cannabis and cognitive function subtly or not so subtly. Some participants are bound to behave accordingly. So what looks like a cognitive deficit is just an artifact of the laboratory environment where experimenters stare daggers at cannabis users.
In the end, I’m glad that researchers do this work, but these effects are too small and fleeting to justify prohibition. We already know that cannabis isn’t for healthy kids. People who get heavily involved with the plant early in life might not perform as well as those who never touch cannabis even if investigators control for other drug use, AND use a sensible number of tests, AND provide appropriate incentives, AND communicate a reasonable expectation.
But how many people should go to jail for that?
If you said, “None,” you’ve done an excellent job on an important cognitive test.
Our nation’s marijuana laws are being held hostage by a prohibition industrial complex.
The latest Wall St. Journal/NBC poll shows, yet again, that the majority of Americans support legalizing the recreational use of marijuana for adults age 21 and over. But despite this surge in support (several other national polls have seen similar results), there are a few well financed, politically powerful groups that remain staunchly against reform – and will likely serve as the biggest hinderance to widespread change. These folks have made a lot of money off of marijuana’s current legal status, and those individuals (as well as their businesses/shareholders) are deeply invested in making sure things stay the way they are. The wide range of direct and auxiliary enforcement mechanisms, as well as the increase in drug testing laws are driven by companies and businesses who provide the services necessary to support this disastrous and wasteful policy.
One such industry that has a financial interest in maintaining the status quo is law enforcement, especially drug officers and private prisons. Drug officers benefit from forfeiture and federal grants. Private prisons keep their jails full and multi-million dollar state contracts in place. The Office of National Drug Control Policy requested $9.4 billion in funding for 2013, the majority of which went to enforcement and incarceration. More specifically, California police – one of the most vocal opponents to legalization in the state made $181.4 million by seizing and selling the homes and cars of Californians involved in marijuana cases from 2002 to 2012. Police in Washington are already taking budget hits as a result of the passage of I-502, the state’s marijuana legalization initiative that passed in 2012. It was reported that some police drug task forces lost 15 percent of funding due to decreased revenue from marijuana forfeiture cases. On a national level, marijuana cases netted $1 billion in assets forfeited between 2002 and 2012. Assets can be seized under federal or state law, depending on the situation. The Wall St. Journal recently reported that marijuana law reform would cut into a significant percentage of drug task forces’ revenue. Most cash generated from drug-related property forfeitures goes to the law enforcement agency that made the bust. The Journal reports that “Nationally, assets forfeited in marijuana cases from 2002 through 2012 accounted for $1 billion of the $6.5 billion from all drug busts.” Task forces also rely heavily on federal grants.
One example of a federal grant relied heavily upon by drug task forces is Edward Byrne Memorial Justice Assistance Grant Program. The amount of money distributed is based on the number of drug arrests made for that year, among other components. The more drug arrests made, the more grant money provided, and 50% of all drug arrests are marijuana related. No drug will be able to fill the void of marijuana arrests. Marijuana is easier to spot and smell, and is consumed by more people than any other illegal drug, making marijuana arrest rates a significant percentage of overall revenue. Then you have state contracts with private prisons, which mandate that facilities be filled at 90% capacity at all times. If 50% inmates are there as a result of drug-related crimes, and half of that is for marijuana – legalization would be a serious threat to new contracts and increased profits.
Another industry tied into the prohibition industrial complex is the drug testing market. It’s a multi-billion dollar a year industry with its own, built in legislative advocacy machine. Take DATIA , the Drug & Alcohol Testing Industry Association for example. This industry organization represents more than 1,200 companies and employs a DC-based lobbying firm, Washington Policy Associates. Their mission statement includes, among other things, creating “new opportunities for the drug testing industry.”
In 2002, a representative from the influential drug-testing management firm Besinger, DuPont & Associates (Robert DuPont, Nixon’s first drug czar is a high profile opponent to legalization) heralded schools as “potentially a much bigger market than the workplace.” Workplace drug testing is a declining market due to the fact that employees see minimal return on investment. In fact, a DATIA newsletter dubbed school children “the next frontier.” Unsurprisingly, this industry advocates testing in all grades and for all extracurricular activities. It should be noted that several reports have concluded that drug testing minors is not only ineffective but can be emotionally and psychologically damaging. Lucky, many schools have been reluctant to embrace testing.
Year after year, the drug testing industry gears up for another legislative push, ghostwriting bills for local and national lawmakers demanding testing for people who receive public assistance. Many of these elected officials are either financially investment in these companies, or received significant financial contributions from industry organizations. For example, in February 2012, Congress amended federal rules to allow states to drug-test select unemployment applicants. Among the lawmakers advocating for the change was Congressman Dave Camp, who owns at least $81,000 in assets in companies that are major players in the drug-testing industry, such as LabCorp and Abbott Laboratories. He has also received $5,000 in federal campaign contributions from LabCorp over the past three years. Abbott Laboratories spent $133,500 on campaign donations to Ohio and Texas state politician promoting drug testing to welfare recipients, in the lead-up to the 2010 and 2012 elections, in addition to more than $500,000 spent by the company on state lobbying contracts since 2010.
The industry is once again flexing its political arm pushing for policies that mandate drug testing for welfare recipients. Legislation has already been introduced in Virginia, New York, Arizona, Ohio, Iowa, Illinois and Mississippi, for the 2014 legislative session.
Two of the most outspoken opponents of marijuana legalization are David Evans and Robert DuPont. DuPont, Founder of Besinger, DuPont & Associates served as the nation’s first drug policy director under Presidents Richard Nixon and Gerald Ford. During that time he had advocated decriminalizing marijuana and its use a “minor problem.” Once he left public office however, he became a “drug-testing management” consultant. David Evans worked for Hoffmann-La Roche, a multi-billion dollar drug testing group encouraging workplace drug testing policies. He now runs his own lobby firm and has ghostwritten several state laws to expand drug testing. Drug testing overall detects marijuana more than any other drug, which stays in the body for up to a month — as opposed to other harder drugs like cocaine and heroin, which are metabolized within one to three days. That is why they have such significant stake in keeping the plant illegal.
The total income for all of these industries combined adds up to hundreds of billions of dollars annually, a significant amount derived from taxpayer dollars. An industrial complex is when there is a policy and monetary relationship between legislators, the public sector and an industrial base that supports them. Just like the military industrial complex, the prohibition industrial complex, and its cycle of laws, enforcement and contracts will pose a major challenge to reform efforts. This will be especially true in states that don’t have ballot initiatives, which is why it is so important for everyone to get active on a local level, and hold lawmakers accountable. Though difficult, this will not be an impossible challenge to overcome, as long as we remain diligent and active in the political process.
Please take a minute of your time today to utilize NORML’s Take Action Center to contact your representatives and urge them to support or sponsor marijuana law reform legislation. Click here to see if there is a bill pending in your state, and here to find contact information for your elected officials.
Atlanta, GA – A newly released poll found that over half of Georgia voters support a marijuana legalization policy similar to that of Colorado and Washington (54%), however that same report found that even larger majority supports decriminalization. 62% of respondents believe that the state should remove criminal penalties for possession of less than one ounce of pot, and replace it with a $100 civil fine, without the possibility of jail time. Only 32% were opposed. Interestingly, 56% of seniors, and republicans respectively, were among that nearly two-thirds majority.
The poll, conducted by Public Policy Polling (PPP) was commissioned by state affiliates of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws, Georgia NORML, and Peachtree NORML. Said Peachtree NORML’s Executive Director Sharon Ravert, “The citizens of Georgia agree, marijuana prohibition is a wasteful and destructive policy. It is time for our state to catch up with public opinion and find a more sensible solution to the status quo.” Peachtree NORML and other advocacy groups are working with lawmakers and various state coalition groups to amend Georgia’s criminal marijuana laws. In 2010, some 32,500 Georgians were arrested for violating marijuana laws, according to the FBI. That is the sixth highest total of any state in America.
Also of note, only 9% of respondents were millennials. This demographic is known to be overwhelmingly supportive of this issue, but their limited representation highlights the fact that there is significant support among other age groups. 71% of those questioned were between the ages of 30 and 65 which suggests that older generations, who are more likely to vote, are also strongly in favor of decriminalization. It’s clear that the widespread support for marijuana law reform in the traditionally conservative state of Georgia has grown to such an extent that it now reaches across all party lines, age groups and races.
“Though it may be surprising to some, these numbers are consistent with a growing trend of support for reform in the southern region of the country,” said Sabrina Fendrick NORML’s Outreach Coordinator for the southeastern region. Recent polls conducted in Louisiana and Oklahoma both show a majority of support (56% and 53% respectively) for a change in the law providing for a $100 fine without jail time for those who possess an ounce or less of marijuana. Said Fendrick, “Everywhere you look you will see more and more people dissatisfied with the strict penalties associated with current marijuana laws, and an ever increasing number of southerners are ready for a sensible alternative to existing failed policies, including decriminalization.”
On December 5th 1933 at exactly 5:32pm eastern standard time, Utah signed on as the last of the 36 states needed to ratify the 21st amendment, repealing the nation’s failed 13-year prohibition policy experiment banning the sale and use of alcohol nationwide. At 6:55 p.m., President Roosevelt signed an official proclamation announcing the nation’s new alcohol policy.
It was clear to the public, and politicians of the day that alcohol prohibition had failed in everything it was trying to achieve. The 18th amendment led to widespread disrespect for the law, black market violence, serious loss of tax revenue, and a drain on police resources.
Here we are again, eighty years later fighting another, equally damaging policy of marijuana prohibition. Unlike the short lived 18th amendment however, our nation’s punitive and disastrous marijuana laws have been in effect for more than 75 years. The longevity of this current prohibition has resulted in exponentially more damage to our society than that caused by the alcohol laws of the 1920’s and early 30’s. Today’s laws have ruined millions of lives and wasted hundreds of billions of taxpayer dollars. It has fueled the black market, contributes to the erosion of civil liberties and continues to line the pockets of criminals and cartels.
Eighty years ago today, our President and 36 states came to the same conclusion: That making something a majority of people perceive as harmless and fun illegal will not make it go away, or solve any problems perceived to be associated with its use. It is about managing public safety by containing the market and managing the user experience. The majority of alcohol drinkers and marijuana users are responsible people who consume in moderation. It is time for our lawmakers to recognize what their predecessors did so many years ago, legalization and regulation is the only sensible solution. Colorado and Washington are pioneering a new policy allowing for the legal, taxable sale of marijuana to adults 21+, and it is only a matter of time before more states follow suit. Through an environment of control, standardization and accountability, both for the individual and the industry, our nation can begin to undo the generations of damage brought on by marijuana prohibition.
The days of marijuana prohibition are numbered and one day, marijuana will take its rightful place alongside alcohol as a legal recreational alternative. One day, we too will be celebrating our very own day of repeal.
One’s eyes rarely lie or distort reality. So when walking by my favorite newspaper stand in downtown Washington, D.C. last night another clear political tea leaf revealed itself about the increasing acceptance in America for ending cannabis prohibition when I spied the competing covers for the most recent editions of The Nation and Reason Magazine.
Both magazines are populated with interesting and though-provoking pieces about ending cannabis prohibition, the coming commerce in cannabis post-prohibition and ‘liberal guilt’ for supporting the war on some drugs.