Kurt Wallace: This is Kurt Wallace and our guest today on Rare is Paul Armentano, Deputy Director of NORML (National Association for the Reform Marijuana Laws), his book “Marijuana Is Safer: So Why Are We Driving People to Drink?” Paul, thanks for spending some time with us today.
Paul Armentano: Thank you for having me, Kurt.
Kurt Wallace: Loretta Lynch came out and said (and she’s probably going to be the nation’s new attorney general), talking about marijuana versus alcohol. Sen. Sessions read an excerpt from the New Yorker quoting President Obama saying, “I don’t think it’s more dangerous than alcohol”, because he’s tried it before. But, she said that he’s basing it on personal experience and personal opinion, neither of which she has to share. Your thought?
Paul Armentano: Well, Ms. Lynch is not only on the wrong side of public opinion when it comes to this issue — but she’s also on the wrong side of the science. By any objective metric, whether we want to talk about toxicity, dependence liability, lethal overdoes, the roll of these substances in preventable death, their impact on behavior or the overall impact on society — it is very clear that alcohol poses the far greater threat to public heath than does marijuana.
And, that’s why virtually every scientific and even government appointed committees that has ever tried to answer this question in an objective manner have all concluded, that when it comes to potential harm of the individual user and when it comes to potential harm to society — marijuana is the far safer substance. The irony of course is that we don’t legislate it that way.
Kurt Wallace: Now she’s talking about enforcing the national legislation – that there is a difference between the way the states are handling this issue vs. national and the concerns around crossing state lines with marijuana and sort of an alarmist danger aspect to the way the law is structured and views marijuana nationally vs. the state laws. Who’s going to win out? National or local?
Paul Armentano: Well, right now there’s a policy in place by the justice department where they are essentially taking a hands off approach. With regard to states that have established legislatively regulated schemes where the production in the retail distribution of cannabis is licensed and regulated by the states. Now, there are a number of states where that activity is presently taking place.
And, for the past couple years the position of this administration has been to let those regulatory schemes play out. The administration has made it clear through memos they have sent to US attorneys in all 50 states that they do not wish to intervene in these statewide regulatory programs unless those program are failing to regulate marijuana appropriately.
In other words, they believe that these programs are not sufficiently keeping marijuana out of the hands of young people. If they believe these programs are not sufficiently keeping marijuana from crossing state lines in the states that have not legalized the production and use of the substance. In those instances the federal government has said they will intervene.
But, barring those sorts of instances the federal government has said they will largely back off and let the states experiment with different regulatory schemes that contradict the federal prohibition. And, by and large the administration kept their word and they’ve maintained that hands off approach.
So, while Ms. Lynch during her questioning expressed certain personal reservations about marijuana, I was relieved to see that when she was asked specifically in regard to whether she would continue to carry on the administration’s hands off position she was very clear in her answer that it is in fact her intent to do so.
And, I do not expect if she is confirm to see the justice department take a more proactive or interfering roll in these jurisdictions that have chosen to essentially part ways with the failed federal prohibition and institute their own statewide program.
Kurt Wallace: There’s a Gallup poll that was taken last year, it’s posted on Rare, that says 47% of those under 40 years old believe that alcohol is more dangerous than marijuana at 13%, even tobacco is more dangerous than marijuana – 27% say and nearly 100 million Americans have tried marijuana. What is the difference here in the mindset vs. reality?
Paul Armentano: Well, that’s really the million dollar question is that we see tremendous public support for marijuana reform. When we look at national polling there was a Gallup poll a couple of years ago showing 58% of the American public believes that marijuana ought to be legal. Without the questions even providing any other details of how marijuana would be regulated.
So, nearly six out of ten Americans saying that there ought to be legal access to marijuana. People ought not to face criminal prosecution or incarceration for their injection or possession of this substance. Yet, among federal lawmakers or even state lawmakers, we see nowhere near that level of support.
We see this continue to be treated as if it is a fringe issue among elected officials. When the reality is among the public the status quo, the idea that we should continue to criminalize this substance is in fact, the minority position. In regard to the separate question of whether or not marijuana is safer than alcohol?
When my co-author and I went about writing this book in several years ago one of the impetuses for drafting this manuscript was a poll that was done in the mid to late 1990’s showing that only about a third of the public at that time agreed with the statement marijuana is safer than alcohol. Another third thought both substances were equally dangerous and a third thought that alcohol was in fact more safer than cannabis.
Fast forward to the beginning of last year and CNN commissioned a national poll asking the same question and at that time there had been a seismic shift in public opinion. And, nearly 3/4 of respondents who answer that poll agreed with the premise of our book that marijuana is in fact safer than alcohol. So, then the question remains.
So, why are we as a society driving people to drink by not only legalizing and embracing the more dangerous substance that is alcohol. But, by stigmatizing and criminalizing those who choose the safer alternative. And that’s really the vexing question. And, that is why as a society we are engaging in this public discussion at this time.
Kurt Wallace: Have you explored that alcohol when ingested to a point of, say an alcoholic with alcoholism, they have to get medical attention which they’re called detox centers or being detoxed medically in order to not die from withdrawals? It’s the one substance that people can die from vs. there’s not a detoxing necessary for marijuana or any other drug that would alleviate the potential of death.
Paul Armentano: Well, you’re correct. There’s tremendous toxicity associated with ethanol. That’s why a person can drink enough ethanol in one sitting to overdose and die.
And, you’re also correct that a person who is a long time heavy drinker of alcohol can cease their use of alcohol and go into withdrawal systems that are also so severe that they can cause death as well. We are talking about a substance that again by any objective measurement is more harmful than alcohol.
The problem is we have had in place a policy in regard to marijuana for now close to 100 years that is entirely divorced from what scientific record says. And, we have a policy in place that imposes penalties and punishments in regard to the use of marijuana that are entirely disproportionate to the behavior that we as a society are trying to discourage.
At worse marijuana use is a public health issue but it is not nor should it have ever been a criminal justice issue. And, that’s ultimately what needs to change in our laws and in our regulations.
Kurt Wallace: What about the medical benefits of cannabis in terms of treating various problems of epilepsy and pains and PTSD — that sort of thing, psychological issues?
Paul Armentano: Human beings have been using cannabis for social purposes, spiritual purposes and therapeutic purposes going back 1000s of years. We have a unique history of use as a society with this substance for a broad range of different purposes motivations. And, you are correct that just as there is this growing awareness from the public that marijuana does not pose the risk that society that warrant a criminal prohibition.
There is also an awareness, not just along the general public but among health practitioners as well — that this notion that the federal government maintains in its laws that marijuana possess no accepted medical use of treatments in the United Sates is entirely inconsistent with what the scientific record tells us.
Right now we have 23 states that have codified legislation allowing for the physicians to provide cannabis as a therapeutic agent. We have FDA approved drugs derived from the components of cannabis like Marinol.
We have literally thousands of physicians in states that are overseeing their patients therapy and improvement using cannabis and we have literally 100s of controlled trials in the clinical literature establishing the relative safety and therapeutic efficacy of cannabis for a broad range of indication. Both symptom management and some cases even potentially even disease modification.
It is not hyperbole to say we know ore about cannabis and it’s mechanisms of action than we know about the majority of conventional pharmaceuticals for which it could replace.
And, it is unconscionable that more than four decades after congress placed cannabis as a schedule one controlled substance — the most restrictive prohibited category of any drug in the nation, that we are still having this debate among the public. But that politicians at the federal level refuse to even address the question.
Kurt Wallace: Paul Armentano Deputy Director of NORML your book “Marijuana Is Safer: So Why Are We Driving People to Drink?” Thanks for spending time with us today on Rare.
Paul Armentano: Thank you for having me.