The underwhelming reality of medical marijuana laws


In 1996, as California voters considered whether to make theirs the first state to legalize the use of marijuana for medical purposes, they were warned that they were on the verge of creating a grim wasteland from which they might never escape.

Brad Gates, sheriff of Orange County and head of a group opposing the ballot measure, called it an “irresponsible” change that would unleash uncontrollable drug use and produce a “nightmare for law enforcement.” President Bill Clinton opposed it, and his drug czar called it a “cruel hoax.” But the measure won anyway.

That was 17 years ago, and today, it’s clear that the critics were under the influence of some hallucinogenic substance. As a way of destroying the California way of life, Proposition 215 has been a bust.

In one respect, the opponents were right: The program is so lenient that getting medical marijuana is easy for anyone claiming a medical need, from chronic pain to insomnia to anxiety. A CNN reporter said it took him 20 minutes to get the required card and recommendation from a doctor, with no physical exam. Some physicians advertise their willingness to certify patients for cannabis.

So the effect is pretty close to legalizing pot for all adults who want it. But the apparent consequences of this outwardly drastic change amount to a non-event.

As The New York Times reported Sunday, “Warnings voiced against partial legalization — of civic disorder, increased lawlessness and a drastic rise in other drug use — have proved unfounded.” By now, there’s a stack of research indicating that allowing therapeutic use of cannabis has had no notable ill effects.

One fear was that the law would encourage kids to smoke weed by suggesting it’s not dangerous. But a study of California and other states by D. Mark Anderson of Montana State University, Benjamin Hansen of the University of Oregon and Daniel Rees of the University of Colorado Denver reached the conclusion that “the legalization of medical marijuana was not accompanied by increases in the use of marijuana or other substances such as alcohol and cocaine among high school students. Interestingly, several of our estimates suggest that marijuana use actually declined.”

Another risk was that the state would be overrun with stoned motorists weaving randomly down the highways, wreaking death and destruction. But the same scholars, in a separate investigation of medical marijuana states, detected just the opposite effect: a reduction in overall traffic fatalities of at least 8 percent in the first year.

They suspect that some people switch from alcohol to cannabis — and that pot smokers are either less likely to drive while impaired or, if they do drive, are less likely to crash.

The epidemic of crime that cops expected failed to materialize. The state’s crime rate has fallen by nearly 40 percent since 1996, and violent crime has been cut in half. Crime fell nationally as well, but not quite as much as in California. The same pattern holds even if you look solely at the period after 2004, when dispensaries became common.

None of this has changed the tune of those who were against it all along. In 2009, the California Police Chiefs Association put out a report repeating the litany of horrors, including the allegation that “minors who are exposed to marijuana at dispensaries or residences where marijuana plants are grown may be subtly influenced to regard it as a generally legal drug, and inclined to sample it.” Or they may not.

The group says that “many violent crimes have been committed that can be traced to the proliferation of marijuana dispensaries” and that “criminals in search of prey” are “commonly encountered outside” them. Yet somehow the Golden State has gotten dramatically safer.

Some areas have more such shops and the resulting traffic than neighbors prefer, which also happens with liquor stores and convenience stores. But even alongside the dens of iniquity, trouble is not the norm. A study by UCLA professors Nancy Kepple and Bridget Freisthler found no evidence that marijuana outlets generate crime in the surrounding areas.

All this news is a good omen for states that are considering legalization of recreational use of cannabis, something Colorado and Washington embraced last year. It’s also reassuring for residents of Illinois, which will allow medical use starting Jan. 1. But if you’re expecting a more liberal policy to be a big deal, you’re in for a letdown.

Steve Chapman blogs daily at newsblogs.chicagotribune.com/steve_chapman.