Officials, SAFER Debate Amendment 44
by Ari Armstrong, October 30, 2006
Say what you will about Mason Tvert, he's got a flair for dramatizing his case through the media, and he has organized a surprisingly powerful movement to resist marijuana prohibition and advance Amendment 44 to remove legal penalties for minor possession of the drug. On the weekday morning of October 27, Governor Bill Owens called a press conference with law-enforcement officials to denounce Amendment 44. Tvert showed up with about twice as many supporters. Despite Owens's moaning that Tvert and crew hollered at him, both sides presented their basic arguments.
Those arguments are presented and evaluated here. This document presents nine photographs of the event, links to ten mp3 audio recordings, and presents my summaries and analysis of the debate in this document and five others.
Other articles discuss various aspects of the event:
Following are links to all the audio files:
Owens argued that, while the cigarette smoking ban was passed to protect health, marijuana use is unhealthy. (Thus, he used one rights-violating policy to rationalize another.) I address the argument about health elsewhere.
Owens continued, "But even more importantly, marijuana has been proven -- as we can see today -- to slow reaction times and decrease steadiness among its users. We routinely jail drunk drivers for unsteadiness and slowed reactions. There's no question that Amendment 44 would cause more impaired drivers on our roads."
I discuss the general problem of reckless driving elsewhere. But several of Owens's points merit a more detailed response.
First, Owens slander that the supporters of Amendment 44 showed slow reaction times and decreased steadiness is false. I saw no evidence that anyone in the crowd was under the influence of marijuana. As with alcohol, marijuana impacts reaction time only following consumption. I talked with supporters and opponents of Amendment 44, and the supporters were at least as fast and steady (and eloquent in conversation) as the opponents.
Second, Owens grants that alcohol also causes slowed reaction times and unsteadiness. Why, then, did he endorse a manufacturer of alcohol, Pete Coors (who was more recently arrested for drunk driving), for the U.S. Senate? Why does Owens not promote the renewed prohibition of the drug alcohol, given that it is, by his own admission, at least as dangerous as marijuana for drivers?
Third, it is doubtful "that Amendment 44 would cause more impaired drivers on our roads." Those who drive impaired are a small percentage of total users of alcohol and marijuana. If irresponsible drivers are willing to flout the DUI laws, thereby putting their very lives in danger and risking manslaughter charges, they're hardly going to be stopped by the petty offense for marijuana possession now on the books. At most, the change might encourage a few drivers to switch from one drug to another. Yet, as I argue elsewhere, the fact that some people drive under the influence of alcohol or marijuana is no argument for the general prohibition of those drugs. The answer is to crack down on reckless driving, not punish those who use drugs responsibly.
Next, Owens argued that Amendment 44 would make marijuana more widely available to minors. He cited a correlation about Alaska that proves nothing about causation. General prohibition has utterly failed to keep drugs away from minors. Instead, what's effective is good parenting and good enforcement of laws protecting minors.
Owens might as well argue that guns and alcohol should be outlawed in order to prevent children from obtaining those items. He might as well argue that the state should control sex for consenting adults in order to protect children from sex. Again, Owens endorsed a manufacturer of the drug alcohol for U.S. Senate, even though some children acquire alcohol. In other words, Owens wants to defend the rights only of people he likes and violate the rights of people he doesn't like.
Finally, Owens argued from authority, pointing out that Democrats such as Bill Ritter (who has admitted to using marijuana) and Andrew Romanoff also oppose Amendment 44.
Sheriff Grayson Robinson quoted "a very wise man [who] said that if we don't learn the lessons of history, we're doomed to repeat the penalties of those lessons." I immediately thought of the lessons of alcohol prohibition. But he had in mind Alaska (an example that proves nothing).
Englewood Chief of Police Chris Olson said, "Actually, I don't even want to address the folks that are standing out here." Meaning, those who took the morning off to take an active role in politics, whose basic human rights Olson actively violates. "I want to address the rest of the people in Colorado."
Olson argued that transfer of marijuana would remain illegal. "You get it illegally, right? That's the only way you can get it." Olson presumptuously assumed that those advocating the equal protection of human rights must use marijuana ("you have a demand for it, apparently"), but he's correct that cultivation and transfer would generally remain illegal. And that is precisely the fault of the prohibitionists, and it doesn't justify legal penalties for possession.
State Patrol Lt. Col. Rick Salas argued that marijuana has "negative psychological effects" that, he didn't mention, are analogous to those of alcohol. He did compare the health problems of smoking marijuana to the health problems of smoking tobacco -- without explaining why he does not therefore also endorse the prohibition of tobacco.
Salas claimed that "over 11,000 drivers, age 16 and older, have admitted to driving a motor vehicle within two hours of using marijuana." So existing policies have failed to prevent this harm, Salas implies. And how many drivers admitted to driving a motor vehicle after consuming alcohol? Yet Salas did not cite that statistic to argue for the renewed prohibition of the drug alcohol. Nor did he explain how his argument justifies violating the rights of non-driving adults.
Next, Salas claimed that marijuana is addictive. Yet, despite Salas's exaggerated claims, the physiological addictiveness of marijuana is slight relative to other drugs. As Jeffrey Schaler argues, addiction is a choice. People can become psychologically addicted to all sorts of thinks, from sex to fast food to cigarettes to alcohol to marijuana. But people have free will. Adults have the right to engage in potentially addictive behavior.
Suthers argued, "In 1981, the average THC content in marijuana was 1.83 percent. In 2003, the average THC content in a marijuana cigarette was 5.62 percent. For high-grade marijuana, the THC content rose from 6.58 percent in 1981, to 14.1 percent in 2003. Corresponding to the increase in the THC content of marijuana is a six-fold increase in the number of emergency-room admissions attributable to marijuana. There are now 4.6 million Americans who suffer from marijuana dependency... 62 percent of teens in drug treatment today are there for marijuana dependency."
However, all of Suthers's claims are seriously misleading.
Paul Armentano and Keith Stroup (of NORML) address Suthers's claims in The New Prohibition, pages 155-162. They grant that "marijuana potency data compiled by the University of Mississippi's Research Institute of Pharmaceutical Sciences does show a slight increase in marijuana's strength through the years (from about 3% to 5%)..." High-grade marijuana is "only a small percentage of the overall marijuana market, and [is] seldom used by the population at large..."
To the extent that the potency of marijuana has increased, that is attributable to the prohibition of the drug, because higher-potency product is easier to move through the illegal markets. Similarly, alcohol prohibition resulted in more potent (and often more dangerous) alcohol. But, as Armentano and Stroup point out, a higher-potency drug need not translate to more consumption of THC. "[I]t may be argued that higher potency marijuana may be slightly less harmful because it permits people to achieve desired psychoactive effects while inhaling less burning material." (Of course, marijuana need not be smoked to be consumed.)
Armentano and Stroup offer three main replies to Suthers's claim about hospital visits. First, a mention of marijuana use during an emergency-room visit does not imply that the drug had anything to do with the visit. Second, "the overall number of drug mentions has risen dramatically since the late 1980s -- likely due to improved federal reporting procedures." Third, "alcohol is by far the drug most frequently reported," yet Suthers does not for that reason advocate the renewed prohibition of alcohol.
What about Suthers's claim of dependency? The "rise in marijuana admissions is due exclusively to the proportional increase in teens referred to drug treatment by the criminal justice system," note Armentano and Stroup.
Suthers knows about the legitimate counters to his claims, yet he chose not to mention them. Suthers's strategy is to offer only one-sided drug-czar propaganda. My strategy is to evaluate the arguments of both sides and reach the correct conclusion.
Suthers added, "Only .3 percent, three-tenths of one percent, of all the people in prison in the United States are there for the possession of any amount of marijuana, including tons..." However, above a certain amount the offense is automatically prosecuted not as possession but as intent to distribute. I seriously doubt that Suthers can point to a single case where somebody was prosecuted merely for possession of "tons" of marijuana. But the broader point is that even an arrest, even harassment and a fine, is a violation of rights. Obviously a fine is not nearly the imposition that imprisonment is, but a violation of rights is not excused merely because it could have been more severe.
I discuss Suthers's comments about transfers to minors elsewhere.
The speakers at Owens's press conference failed to make good arguments that support the continuation of legal penalties for adult possession of marijuana. People have the right to control their own bodies. The proper job of those in law enforcement is to protect that right and all individual rights. Instead, these officials have chosen to endorse the continued violation of people's rights.