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Our American love-hate relationship with pot

Two conflicting new reports show our confused priorities


Mary Elizabeth Williams
April 16, 2014 6:27PM (UTC)

The past few years have seen incredible changes in America's relationship with marijuana – which has mostly meant that its current status can best be described as wildly contradictory. Case in point: The simultaneous news this week that marijuana use doesn’t increase crime – but it will damage your pliant millennial gray matter. Go ahead and take your chances with that, everybody!

New information from the Denver Police Department reveals that since the state legalized the sale of marijuana for recreational use earlier this year, crime rates have fallen – significantly. In the year's first quarter, violent crime has dropped nearly 7 percent since last year, and property crime has fallen more than 11 percent. Moreover, as MSNBC notes, researchers from the University of Texas at Dallas have found that in other states legalized medical marijuana "is not predictive of higher crime rates and may be related to reductions in rates of homicide and assault." So despite the concerns from certain factions of law enforcement that decriminalization would let loose a nation of reefer-mad "thugs" coming to "kick in your door," it would appear that it in fact has little effect on the survival of your door.

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But lest we go more than a few hours without some form of pot panic, other research this week from Northwestern University’s Feinberg School of Medicine and Harvard Medical School reveals that even recreational pot use can cause "significant abnormalities in the brains" of 18- to 25-year-olds. In a study of 40 young adults, researchers discovered "observable differences in brain structure" even among participants who smoked pot as little as once a week, and that "Those who used more marijuana had greater abnormalities." The study's co-author Hans Breiter told CNN Wednesday, "There's a general idea out there that casual use of marijuana does not lead to bad effects, so we started out to investigate that very directly. This research with the other studies we have done have led me to be extremely concerned about the effects of marijuana in adolescents and young adults and to consider that we may need to be very careful about legalization policies and possibly consider how to prevent anyone under age 25 to 30 from using marijuana at all." And writing in the Journal of Neuroscience, professor Anne Blood stated, "There is this general perspective out there that using marijuana recreationally is not a problem — that it is a safe drug. We are seeing that this is not the case."

Our culture has an often-conflicted relationship with plenty of other substances – alcohol, prescription medications – but nothing else provokes such disparate and confusing reactions as marijuana. In Colorado, you can get pot from a vending machine or a bakery.  In California, you can go to jail for two years for working in an ostensibly legal dispensary – and more than 17 years for cultivation.  In New York City this month, I spent a day with a friend currently on Marinol, while another friend was arrested and spent over 36 hours in jail after being caught possessing a joint. Our country has an attorney general who describes himself as 'cautiously optimistic' about wide-scale legalization, yet according to a 2013 PolicyMic feature, "Half of the population that is in prison for substance abuse is in prison for marijuana-related crimes." (And the ACLU points out that though African-Americans and whites use pot at roughly the same rate, "a black person is 3.73 times more likely to be arrested for marijuana possession.")

We still have a profound amount of time, energy and money going into enforcement of drug laws, while we are faced with increasing evidence that legalization does not result in higher crime rates. The medical questions of the safety of marijuana use remain widely and passionately debated, but what's clear is that we are living within a wildly inconsistent legal system in a country that, for the first time, strongly supports its decriminalization. And all of this leaves us more and more in the inevitable place of finally facing the question of the true purpose of our current restrictions. Pot may be bad for the brain, but is that an individual consequence or a societal one? And if the laws against it are not keeping us safe from crime, we need to keep asking, then what are they really there for?

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Eric Holder 'Cautiously Optimistic' About Legalizing Marijuana


Mary Elizabeth Williams

Mary Elizabeth Williams is a staff writer for Salon and the author of "A Series of Catastrophes & Miracles."

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