According to the FBI’s Uniform Crime Report, police made 643,122 arrests for marijuana-related offenses in 2015. Of those arrested, 574,641 (89 percent of all marijuana-related arrests) were charged with marijuana possession only, not cultivation or trafficking.
The annual arrest total represents more than a 25 percent decline since 2007, when police arrested a record 872,721 Americans for violating marijuana laws.
Since 2012, four states and the District of Columbia have legalized the adult use and possession of personal quantities of cannabis, leading to a dramatic decline in marijuana-related arrests in those jurisdictions.
As in previous years, marijuana possession arrests were least likely to occur in the western region of the United States, where possessing the plant has largely been either legalized or decriminalized.
According to 2016 nationwide survey data compiled by the Associated Press, some six out of ten Americans now say that the adult use of marijuana should be legally regulated.
Those of us involved in the marijuana legalization movement have long assumed that those companies that produce and sell competing products — especially alcohol and tobacco — were working behind the scenes to try to maintain marijuana prohibition and to protect their duopoly for legal recreational drugs. These industries have lobbyists who regularly work with state and federal elected officials to keep legal marijuana off the market.
But we now see the pharmaceutical companies are also getting directly involved in political efforts to maintain marijuana prohibition, worried that legal marijuana will undermine their bottom line.
Pharmaceutical company joins the war on marijuana smokers.
Recently, we saw the first direct evidence that pharmaceutical companies are now working to defeat marijuana legalization efforts, acknowledging that their intent is to protect their market in synthetic opioid drugs.
Earlier this month, Insys Therapeutics Inc., an Arizona-based company, donated $500,000 to a group calling itself Arizonans for Responsible Drug Policy, a newly formed organization established to try to defeat Proposition 205, the marijuana legalization voter initiative that will appear on the ballot this November in that state.
Insys currently markets just one product, Subsys, a sublingual fentanyl spray, a synthetic opioid far more potent than heroin (fentanyl is the drug found in Prince’s system following his death in April). “Insys Therapeutics made $62 million in net revenue on Subsys fentanyl sales in the first quarter of this year, representing 100 percent of the company’s earnings,” according to The Washington Post. “The CDC has implicated the drug in a ‘surge’ of overdose deaths in several states in recent years.”
Survey data compiled from medical marijuana patients show that subjects often reduce their use of prescription drug therapies — particularly opioids — when they have legal access to cannabis. According to a 2015 RAND Corp. study, opiate-related abuse and mortality is lower in jurisdictions that permit medical cannabis access, compared to those that outlaw the plant.
Insys has come under scrutiny of law enforcement. According to The Washington Post, a number of states are currently investigating Insys for illegally paying physicians to prescribe their drug in situations in which it was inappropriate. Illinois Attorney General Lisa Madigan filed a lawsuit against the company, claiming the company’s “desire for increased profits led it to disregard patients’ health and pushed addictive opioids for non-FDA approved purposes.”
The smoking gun.
When the company first made its half-million dollar contribution to the group opposing the Arizona legalization initiative — the largest single contribution to the group by a factor of four — the company claimed that its reason for opposing the voter initiative was “because it fails to protect the safety of Arizona’s citizens and particularly its children.”
But when the company filed a legally required disclosure statement with the Securities and Exchange Commission, it acknowledged to shareholders that it was making the donation because it feared a decline in the sales of its powerful opioid product and that of a second drug it is developing: Dranabinol, a synthetic cannabinoid. Synthetic cannibinoid is a blanket term for an artificial version of tetrahydrocannabinol, or THC — the active compound in the marijuana plant — intended to alleviate chemotherapy-caused nausea and vomiting. The company concedes that the scientific literature has confirmed the benefits of natural marijuana over synthetic THC:
“Legalization of marijuana or non-synthetic cannabinoids in the United States could significantly limit the commercial success of any dronabinol product candidate. … If marijuana or non-synthetic cannabinoids were legalized in the United States, the market for dronabinol product sales would likely be significantly reduced, and our ability to generate revenue and our business prospects would be materially adversely affected.”
The Arizona Republic reported that the company, while publicly claiming to have kids’ best interests in mind, is clearly more concerned with ways to “protect its own bottom line.”
And the company has good reason for that fear. Recently published studies have found that states that provide for the legal use of medical marijuana had a 25 percent decline in opioid prescriptions. Another recent study from Columbia University found the implementation of medical marijuana programs is associated with a decrease in the prevalence of opioids detected among fatally injured drivers, based on a review of 69,000 fatalities in 18 states, according to data published in the American Journal of Public Health. Where legal marijuana is available, people use far fewer opioid drugs.
So we now have direct evidence that this pharmaceutical company in Arizona is spending large amounts of money to avoid having to compete with legal marijuana, in order to protect its market share for an addictive and dangerous synthetic opioid and a synthetic form of THC, at the expense of public health.
This is not the first instance of pharmaceutical companies pouring money into the “war on drugs.” In 2014, The Nation published an article revealing that the makers of Oxycontin and Vicodin were two of the largest contributors to The Partnership for Drug Free Kids and the Community Anti-Drug Coalition of America, two groups that oppose marijuana legalization and support continued prohibition.
Insys will certainly not be the last pharmaceutical company caught putting company profits ahead of concern for public health, but it is the first instance we have seen where a company was caught with its hands in the cookie jar, opposing a marijuana legalization initiative purely for reasons of corporate greed.
Tobacco and alcohol companies have long opposed legal marijuana.
It is understandable that recreational and pharmaceutical industries would not wish to compete with legal marijuana. By any measure, their products are far more dangerous and far more addictive.
For comparison purposes, according to the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, excessive alcohol use results in approximately 88,000 deaths per year in this country. And, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, tobacco smoking results in more than 480,000 deaths each year in this country, about 1,300 people each day.
A 2014 study by Johns Hopkins University found that states that legalized medical marijuana saw a 25 percent decline in overdose deaths from prescription drugs.
Marijuana has never caused an overdose death in the history of mankind. According to a recent report from the World Health Organization, one would have to smoke “between 238 and 1,113 joints a day – or at least 10 joints an hour, for 24 hours straight – before overdose would become a realistic concern” for marijuana.
While one can develop a dependence on marijuana smoking, the threat of dependence with marijuana is far less than with either alcohol or tobacco. Here is what the National Academy of Sciences Institute of Medicine concluded in regard to cannabis’ potential dependence liability, in the context of other controlled substances:
“In summary, although few marijuana users develop dependence, some do. But they appear to be less likely to do so than users of other drugs (including alcohol and nicotine), and marijuana drug dependence appears to be less severe than dependence on other drugs.”
Here are their dependence ratings:
Tobacco: 32 percent (proportion of users who ever become dependent)
Heroin: 23 percent
Cocaine: 17 percent
Alcohol: 15 percent
Anxiolytics/sedatives: 9 percent
Marijuana/hashish: 9 percent
So if one is electing to use a recreational drug, marijuana is clearly the safest alternative. And if one is using an opioid drug for pain, they should experiment with marijuana as a substitute for the more dangerous and addictive opioids. For many, it is an effective and far less dangerous alternative.
Keith Stroup is a Washington, D.C. public-interest attorney who founded NORML in 1970.
This column was first published in ATTN.com.
Next Tuesday is National Voter Registration Day and NORML will be releasing an updated and revised 2016 Congressional Scorecard. The Scorecard is an all-encompassing database that assigns a letter grade ‘A’ through ‘F’ to members of Congress based on their marijuana-related comments and voting records.
With the 2016 presidential election drawing closer and statewide marijuana initiatives qualified for the ballot in nine states, we need YOU to make it out to the polls to support ending cannabis prohibition. Join us in celebrating National Voter Registration Day next Tuesday by double-checking your status as a voter and encouraging your friends and family to do the same. Take a look at how we graded your members of Congress and bring that information with you to the polls on Election Day!
California: Sixty percent of likely voters say they would vote for Proposition 64: the Adult Use of Marijuana Act according to the latest poll out of the Public Policy Institute of California (PPIC). Only 36 percent of voters said they are against the pending ballot initiative.
A just-released California Field poll similarly finds that likely voters back Prop. 64 by a margin of 60 percent to 31 percent.
Proposition 64 permits adults to legally grow (up to six plants) and possess personal use quantities of cannabis (up to one ounce of flower and/or up to eight grams of concentrate) while also licensing commercial cannabis production and retail sales. The measure prohibits localities from taking actions to infringe upon adults’ ability to possess and cultivate cannabis for non-commercial purposes. The initiative language specifies that it is not intended to “repeal, affect, restrict, or preempt … laws pertaining to the Compassionate Use Act of 1996.”
The ballot measure is endorsed by the ACLU of California, the California Democratic Party, the California Medical Association, California Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom, the California NAACP, the California League of Conservative Voters, Equality California, the Drug Policy Alliance, Students for Sensible Drug Policy, and NORML.
Michigan: Governor Rick Snyder has signed a package of legislation into law regulating the retail sale of medical cannabis and cannabis-infused products. The measures are ordered to take immediate effect.
The measures seek to clarify and expand various aspects of the state’s 2008 medical cannabis law. Specifically, the new law provides qualified patients for the first time with legal protections regarding the possession and use of non-smoked cannabis derived topical products and edibles, as well as cannabis-based extract products. The law also licenses and regulates facilities where state-qualified patients may legally obtain medical marijuana.
Michigan was one of the only medical marijuana states in the country that had yet to regulate the dispensing of medicinal cannabis. About 210,000 residents are now registered in the state’s medical program.
Missouri: Voters will not have the opportunity this November to decide on a proposed statewide proposition to permit the physician-supervised use of marijuana.
A Cole County Circuit Judge this week upheld a decision by St. Louis election officials to disqualify thousands of petition signatures because voters had mistakenly signed forms indicating that they resided in a county other than where they lived.
The measure, sponsored by New Approach Missouri, sought to authorize qualified patients to possess, cultivate, and/or obtain cannabis through a licensed system of dispensaries. Polling indicated that over 60 percent of voters backed the proposal. On Thursday, Secretary of State Jason Kander called on lawmakers to move swiftly to enact similar legislation.
Voters in Arkansas, Florida, Montana, and North Dakota will vote on medical use measures on Election Day. Voters in Arizona, California, Maine, Massachusetts, and Nevada will also vote this November on initiatives legalizing the adult use of marijuana. A summary of 2016 ballot measures and their status is online here.
Assembly Bill 4193 permits marijuana to be sold at convenience stores to adults aged 19 and older in unlimited amounts. The legislation also seeks to expunge the criminal records of past marijuana offenders. Says the bill’s sponsor, Assembly member Michael Patrick Carroll: “To me it’s just not a big deal. It’s already ubiquitous. Anybody who thinks this is somehow going to increase the availability of marijuana has never been 19. If that’s the case, then what’s the big deal about having it available at the local 7-Eleven?”
Separate legislation to legalize adult marijuana possession, A 2068, is also pending before the legislature. #TakeAction
Tennessee: Members of the Nashville Metro Council have given final approval to municipal legislation providing police the discretion to cite rather than arrest minor marijuana offenders.
Council members voted 35 to 3 in favor of the new ordinance. It provides police the option of issuing $50 citations for those who possess up to a half-ounce of marijuana. Under state law, the possession of small amounts of cannabis is classified as a criminal misdemeanor, punishable by up to one year in jail and a criminal record.
Washington D.C.: District Mayor Muriel Bowser announced this week that she will propose amending the city’s medical cannabis law so that qualified patients may obtain up to four ounces of cannabis per month. Under existing law, patients are limited to no more than two ounces per month. The Washington D.C. currently has about 4,000 registered medical marijuana patients.
Looking for updated information on all of the pending statewide marijuana related ballot measures? Check out our 2016 Election page!
At our board meeting in Boson held this past Friday, in conjunction with the Boston Freedom Rally, the board voted to endorse the 2016 Arkansas Medical Cannabis Act, sponsored by the Arkansans for Compassionate Care. This initiative would establish 38 non-profit medical cannabis centers across the state, and would function like most of the standard medical use laws in effect across the country, requiring a patient to receive a written recommendation for an Arkansas licensed physician and obtain a medical use card from the state permitting them to purchase marijuana from one of the licensed dispensaries for a wide range of ailments and conditions. Or if a patient lives more than 5 miles from a licensed dispensary they would be permitted to cultivate up to six plants in a secured facility.
The attorney representing the Arkansas Medical Cannabis Act is long-time NORML Legal Committee member, John Wesley Hall from Little Rock.
A second proposed medical use initiative has also qualified for the November ballot, proposing a Constitutional amendment permitting the medical use of marijuana (The Arkansas Medical Marijuana Amendment). This second proposal is far more restrictive than the first in terms of the list of conditions for which marijuana could be recommended, and does not permit personal cultivation. It is not clear why the sponsors wished to propose this as a Constitutional amendment, as a simple act would require a 2/3 vote by the legislature to reverse it, and our opponents do not have the support in the state legislature to accomplish that.
As a result, the NORML board felt the Aransas Medical Cannabis Act is a more consumer-friendly proposal and elected to endorse it.
Strange Suit Filed By Misguided Attorney
Also, one misguided defense attorney, apparently acting as a surrogate for the sponsors of the Constitutional amendment, has filed suit against the Act that had previously qualified, challenging their signatures. The misguided individual alleged in her law suit that she is a NORML Legal Committee Life Member (although she did not allege that NORML has joined or supported her suit), but she does not attempt to explain why she would oppose a well-drafted medical use initiative that appears to have a good chance to be approved by the voters.
The NORML board of directors wanted to make it clear that NORML is not involved in this suit, nor do we think it is a helpful strategy.
Meeting at our board meeting in Boston this past Friday, held in conjunction with the Boston Freedom Rally, the national NORML board of Directors endorsed Denver Social Use Initiative 300, the Neighborhood-Supported Cannabis Consumption Pilot Program.
Under current law, marijuana can be legally smoked only in a private home, or in one of only a few marijuana-friendly hotels in the state. Most tourists and many renters have no place where they can legally consume marijuana that they legally buy in Colorado. This is not a realistic situation, and will continue to result in many people smoking in public, which is not legal in Colorado, and can result in stiff fines.
Two Competing Social Use Initiatives
There were initially two competing social use initiative being circulated in Denver. Denver NORML and Responsible Use Denver were circulating petitions for an initiative that would have allowed marijuana-only lounges and special use permits to be issued, and frankly, it was in my perspective the preferred proposal. It would have provided Amsterdam-like lounges where marijuana smokers could socialize with their marijuana smoking friends outside a private home, and it would have provided for special permits for 420 and similar events where marijuana smoking would have been legal.
And most importantly, it would not have permitted alcohol sales in the marijuana lounges, an attempt to avoid the problems often faced when alcohol drinkers imbibe too heavily, getting in fights and otherwise engendering violent and aggressive behavior. As marijuana smokers, we did not want to be blamed for these all-too-familiar alcohol-related problems.
But despite a valiant effort by Jordan Person and Judd Golden and Denver NORML supporters, the petition failed to gather a sufficient number of signatures of registered voters. It was a true grassroots effort, and Denver NORML will likely be back with another effort in the future.
An industry-backed and funded effort, Initiative 300, did make the ballot with a proposal that would permit certain bars and lounges to apply for a license that would permit marijuana edibles in restricted areas, and perhaps vaporization (although city authorities have questioned whether this would be permissible under current state law). But to obtain such a license, the applicant would first have to obtain the approval of a neighborhood advisory council, a requirement that is not likely to be met by many applicants.
Nonetheless, any proposal that recognizes the need for responsible marijuana smokers to be allowed to use marijuana outside a private home is a step in the right direction, and thus this initiative, with all of its shortcomings, still deserves our support.
So all Denver marijuana smokers need to get behind this city-wide voter initiative, and let’s continue to push the envelope until we achieve a policy that treats responsible marijuana fairly in all respects, including job discrimination, child custody issues; driving under the influence of drugs, and the right to socialize with other marijuana smokers in a public setting outside the home where we are permitted to smoke marijuana.