Marijuana vending machines have arrived in Colorado. The first one is inside of a marijuana store, but one wonders were the next few will go. Private college campuses? Malls? Business centers? Hospitals? How close will they be allowed to schools?
Politicians from both sides of the aisle are beginning to recognize that spending $55,000 a year to incarcerate individuals in NJ has given us a very poor return on that money.
A little over 50% of individuals that are released from prison or jail* return to the criminal justice system within the next 3 years. We are neither rehabilitating people nor deterring crime.
Since the end of WWII, Democrats have been afraid of appearing that they are soft on crime, so they have supported harsh drug laws, mandatory minimums and the building of large public (and private) prisons. Some Democrats are aghast at the lack of ROI and the data that shows that drug problems are only getting worse. They have finally stood up to be heard.
But change is actually being pushed by Republicans, who are just now realizing that a large part of our state and federal budgets are paying to incarcerate Americans in astronomical numbers – the US has 25% of the world’s prison population. They are beginning to talk about how we should reduce our prison population, look at alternative options and spend this money on other projects.
Sound drug policy that pays for adequate drug treatment (which is FAR cheaper than incarceration) is a good start. This recent op-ed covers an upcoming bi-partisan summit here in NJ.
I was not interested in criminal justice policy until I began working in the drug and alcohol field (and then again when I worked at the largest inner city high school in America). Education, drug policy and the criminal justice system are intertwined, and any discussion of one of them should touch upon the others. We continue to lock up our poor and minorities at a much higher rate than wealthy and/or white people.
*prison is for a year or more and is run by the state or fed; jail is run by the county or municipality and people generally stay there 364 days or less
Here is a heartwarming (for me) story about how the New York Attorney General is going after insurance companies that don’t pay for addiction treatment.
One of the biggest problems in drug treatment has been that insurance companies are either (a) denying coverage completely, (b) paying for a lower level of care than is recommended by professionals or (c) paying for a shorter period of treatment time than is professionally recommended. Despite the passage of the Affordable Care Act and parity laws that state that insurance companies must pay for mental health and addiction treatment when required, many (most) insurance companies are still not paying.
It is very easy to find stories about how insurance companies are denying coverage. Here is an example. Here is another. And it is not new…this story is from 2002. It’s gotten so bad that HBO has a page on their site that tells you how to hold your insurance company accountable.
New York State has been far ahead of NJ on a lot of the drug policy laws. This is just the latest example.
Tom McLellan is the head of the Treatment Research Institute (TRI) in Philadelphia. He made headlines on NBC News this week as the expert who lost his son that has a plan. TRI has released a consumers’ guide for treatment programs – think consumer reports reviews rehabs.
McLellan worked in the White House for 2 years on drug policy, even though he thinks government work “makes you stupid.” Despite being a national expert with a PhD, he was not able to stop or save his own son from dying from addiction six years ago.
He testified before the NJ Heroin Task Force in 2012 and he was an incredible witness with brief, insightful points.
(check out my previous post on decriminalizing marijuana, as this one does not work as a stand-alone piece)
Marijuana can be eaten. It’s put in food, tea, cakes, cookies, muffins and even candy bars. Here is a link to a marijuana eatery in California: pot as food.
The NY Times published a story this February about the problems when Marijuana looks like candy. Edible marijuana is not tamper proof, and young kids will often try to eat sweet food (I remember gobbling down weight watchers caramels that I found in the back of my Mom’s car in the late 70’s). This emphasizes my very publicly stated point: when you legalize something, more people will use it. When you make something sweet (also think energy drinks), more kids will use it.
Another unintended consequence of legalization in Colorado is that dangerous, new versions of marijuana that are illegal in other states are legal in Colorado. Wax, or butane wax, is a super-concentrated form of THC that can keep people “high all day on just one hit.” To learn more about it, click on this: dangerous THC wax in Colorado.
Vaporizers have been around for over a dozen years, but the technology keeps improving. Some vaporizers are made to look like asthma inhalers. Vaporizers do remove some of the carcinogens that people would take in through smoking, but one saleslady I spoke with in Montreal told me how the vaporizers are “much more efficient in getting you high.” Legalization will lead to technology that will lead to stronger pot and stronger ways to use pot.
In a nation with medical and/or legal marijuana, we will see more and more advertisements in newspapers, magazines, the internet and television. Here is a TV ad for medical marijuana from my homestate: marijuana TV ad in NJ. One of problems caused by advertising on TV is that it will become more socially acceptable and more people will use it.
(the below paragraph was added on 4/17/2014)
A 19 year-old college student on spring break jumped to his death in Colorado after eating too many servings of a marijuana cookie. The four friends went to Colorado on a marijuana sampling trip. This is the first known death caused by marijuana since the legalization law went into effect.
(next sentence was added on 5/11/2014)
On March 25, 2014, I took part in a panel discussion at the Bloustein School about marijuana policy. It turned out that all the panelists were in favor of decriminalization.
The author of the article did a great job summarizing the event and the opinions, so I won’t repeat it. I do want to mention that while I disagreed with Ken Wolski, a RN and the Executive Director of the Coalition for Medical Marijuana, I appreciated that he did not engage in ad hominem attacks. But…he talked about how babies and veterans need marijuana (always be a tad skeptical when someone holds up babies or veterans as a reason to do something – they are trying to manipulate the audience and they often use anecdotal stories rather than data).
The two biggest arguments that people typically put forth for the full legalization of marijuana are that we will (a) stop locking people up and (b) that we can tax it and energize our economy.
Our drug policies have been poorly thought out since the Reagan era (stricter laws, racist laws, harsher sentences, less emphasis on treatment), and clearly, we need to consider making some serious changes. It costs over $55,000 to incarcerate someone in NJ and around $60,000 to do so in New York. The Vera Institute of Justice has found that the costs are enormous in states all over the country. It costs more to incarcerate someone then it does to give them substance abuse treatment or send them to college for a year.
(I organize the student and alumni activities and hand out scholarships for students in recovery at Rutgers. We serve over 100 students and I spend less then it costs to lock up 1 person in NJ).
We don’t have to legalize marijuana to stop locking people up. We can decriminalize marijuana (basically, we can make it like speeding). We could free up police to work on real cases (a point that David Simon has made over and over). We could give people substance abuse treatment and still save money. And people wouldn’t have to go through life as half-citizens, trying to explain away a marijuana arrest from when they were 19 or 24.
If you legalize marijuana, more people will try it. This was true for alcohol, and it is true for prescription drugs. We’ve seen a surge in prescription drug abuse (depressants, stimulants and opiate painkillers); this surge is due to the fact that these drugs are legal and have the societal stamp of approval.
Last year, there were almost 3 million arrests involving alcohol. They included public intoxication, drunk driving and of course, underage drinking. Some policy makers argue that legalizing marijuana will lead to more arrests (that’s the best article on marijuana I’ve ever come across).
The costs of underage drinking are high. If we legalize marijuana, we will probably have to create all kinds of new research centers, PSA’s and treatment programs to deal with increased underage marijuana use.
The other major point that the pro-legalization crowd makes is that we can make a lot of money by taxing marijuana. Colorado claims that they are raking in big dollars to the tune of $40 million in expected marijuana tax revenues in 2014. Colorado’s budget in 2013 was $20 billion dollars. So the expected revenue is 1/500th or .002 of the total budget. The pro-legalization people are being quite disingenuous when they print or say “$40 million tax dollars” without explaining how much of the budget that actually is.
For every dollar we bring in on taxing alcohol, it costs us about $10 in public dollars (medical costs, criminal justice system – that’s without measuring lost workplace productivity or family strife). I’m willing to go further than President Obama and posit that marijuana is 1/2 or 1/3 as bad as alcohol: so for every dollar of taxes we get in for marijuana, I think it is fair to guess that we would spend 3 to 5 dollars in public money on medical care, treatment or the criminal justice system. That is a revenue negative situation.
Colorado and Washington legalized marijuana on January 1, 2014. Over the next 3 years, we will get to see how this experiment plays out. I hope that NJ (and our neighboring states) take a wait and see approach. I expect that we will see more accidents, higher rates of addiction, more medical problems, more arrests and not enough marijuana tax dollars to pay for these new problems. I might be wrong, but I doubt it.
To learn more about decriminalization and the economic effects of criminalization and legalization, check out the work of Kevin Sabet, a policy expert who is actually younger than me. He wrote a fantastic book titled Reefer Sanity.
The NJ Task Force on Heroin and Other Opiates was created in March of 2012. We held hearings around NJ throughout the summer and fall of 2012, and we heard from a variety of professionals and experts. I also spoke with about 100 parents whose children had died from using opiates. Much of 2013 was spent on discussing, arguing over and writing the report. In the fall of 2013, we were struck with a series of delays. I was crestfallen, but hoped that the state would eventually release the report.
The report was released on March 18, 2014. I issued a statement about it:
It has been a long, cold winter.
It was made colder and darker by the continued explosion of the opiate epidemic in NJ and around the nation. High profile deaths made and continue to make news. I’ve been more concerned about the low-profile deaths – those of our children who quietly die in public restrooms, abandoned cars or their own bedrooms while their parents are sleeping.
My world was brightened last Thursday when Chairman Van Ess came to me in person and informed me that the Task Force Report would be released today. I am proud of the work that Task Force members and GCADA staff put into this. I am most pleased that we have made good on our promise to the parents that have suffered from the tragic loss of their children and given a forum for their story and proposed a series of solutions to the heroin plague.
This is only the beginning though, and good policies must continue to grow out of this. Some of our suggestions can be implemented immediately…others will take longer. Over time, we will see what works and what doesn’t – and what suggestions should be strengthened and intensified.
To those of you that are present at this joyous occasion and are hearing these words, I have a request:
Spread the word
Share this report with your friends and family
Make sure your town council and state legislators have seen it
Urge newspapers to write about it
Be a part of this
The complete report can be found here: NJ Task Force Report