This was an theatrical poster which accompanied a 1936 movie, entitled Marihuana. The plot of the anti-pot exploitation flick was as follows: Girl sparks a joint at a beach party. Girl is forced to have sex with her boyfriend because, well, she’s high. In fact, they’re so high that they fail to notice as another young woman drowns in the background. Girl gets pregnant. Girl gives her baby up for adoption. Boyfriend gets killed in a drug deal gone awry. Girl dies from an overdose on heroin.
You know, the standard experience for anyone who has tried marijuana.
Taylor Bickford and Dr. Tim Hinterberger showed the movie’s poster on the big screen during last Wednesday’s Alaska Common Ground forum on Ballot Measure 2; the initiative that will decide the fate of legal marijuana in Alaska this November.
The proponents of legalizing marijuana likely used it for two reasons. First, to show where we have been; to spotlight the insane logic that has often been used to uphold prohibition policies in the United States, starting back in the early 1920s, when Americans associated “the Marijuana Menace” with Mexicans and African Americans, and began outlawing it at the state level.
Bickford gave the audience, which packed the Wilda Marston Theater in Anchorage to capacity, more recent examples.
“Marijuana leads to pacifism and communist brainwashing.” “You smoke a joint and you’re likely to kill your brother.” “Reefer makes darkies think they’re as good as white men.”
Isn’t history fun? These are all quotes attributed to Harry Aslinger, the first commissioner of the Federal Narcotics Bureau — a position he held until 1962. Here’s another:
“Marijuana leads to homosexuality and therefore to AIDS.” That impressively detached stain on American history was made by President Reagan’s U.S. Drug Czar Carlton Turner in 1986.
But the 1980s are a lengthy trip in the way back machine. I was five. The Anchorage audience let out a hearty chuckle at the ridiculousness of the things we used to think, safely viewed through the lens of the present.
That’s the other reason the movie poster was shown: as a hint that we may not have come as far as we’d like to think.
Deborah Williams and Kristina Woolston oppose marijuana legalization. Their group, called “Big Marijuana. Big Mistake,” is fighting the initiative. They were present to debate Bickford and Hinterberger. Attendees (with a notable pro-legalization bent) were on the edge of their seats, prepared for an in depth, two-hour lesson plan delving into the complex issue that they would be tasked with voting on come November. But the arguments they received from the group opposing marijuana legalization were, well, dumb.
1. Mickey Mouse is Selling Pot in Colorado, and Alaska is Powerless to Stop Him!
Williams continuously pounded the refrain of relentless marketing by licensed, legal pot sellers in Colorado, claiming that they were using cartoons, “cute little doobie figures,” Fred Flintstone, and Disney characters like Minnie and Mickey Mouse to sell pot in a way that entices children. (Save a single Etsy shop selling a t-shirt with Mickey Mouse’s silhouette filled in with marijuana plants, I found little evidence to support the alleged Disneyfication of the Colorado marijuana industry.)
“Within Alaska’s Constitution, when you have a ballot measure, you’re not allowed to repeal any part of that ballot measure for two years.” Woolston said, adding that any substantive change would likely result in lawsuits at the expense of the state.
Which, of course, is patently false. As Bickford noted, the initiative would empower the legislature to create a Marijuana Control Board (or, if it didn’t, the same power would be given to the Alcoholic Beverage Control Board), which would “adopt regulations governing marijuana-related entities. The regulations would need to cover certain topics and be subject to certain restrictions.”
This is the same procedure used by both Colorado and Washington, where certain edibles marketed to children — like lollipops and gummy bears — have been outlawed.
Bickford pointed out the explicit power, within the initiative’s language, granted to the legislature to implement such restrictions. “Anyone who tells you otherwise here is trying to deliberately mislead you or hasn’t read the initiative. There’s no other option,” he said. “The rule making process actually compels the regulatory board to set restrictions on advertising.”
2. Marijuana Makes You Crazy and Suicidal!
Deborah Williams repeatedly tied marijuana use to psychosis.
“I’ve been in Alaska over 35 years. I have taken loved ones to the emergency room in psychosis from marijuana,” she said, during her opening remarks. The audience promptly laughed. “It’s a shame to laugh about that because I can’t tell you how many people come up to me and talk to me about issues that they’ve had associated with loved ones and the marijuana we’re talking about today.”
It’s a shame she couldn’t tell us. I would have appreciated an attached number.
Attendees, of course, weren’t laughing at the mentally ill. They were laughing at the claim of a direct causal link between marijuana and psychosis that does not exist. She would revisit the accusation later: “Scientist after scientist have study after study showing the relationship between marijuana and psychosis…. Average IQ loss, in one of the most extraordinary studies ever, eight IQ points on average lost by marijuana users.”
The Asian Journal of Psychiatry has found that “heavy cannabis use” at a young age combined with “genetic liability to psychosis and exposure to environmental stressors like childhood trauma and urban upbringing increases the risk of psychotic outcome in later life.”
Woolston noted that Alaska already struggles with far above average suicide rates, especially in villages, and asserted that marijuana use would likely worsen the crisis.
“That’s just absurd,” Hinterberger fired back. “People who are depressed are more likely to abuse marijuana. People who are depressed are more likely to commit suicide. There is no causal relation between marijuana use and suicide.”
Most of the data suggests that if there is a link between mental illness — which has not been established with any definitiveness — it happens during early development. Ballot measure 2 explicitly establishes that only Alaskans 21 years of age or older can legally purchase marijuana. Will under-aged youths still smoke pot? Of course. The same way they have in the past (and the same way they attain alcohol and all other drugs): Illegally.
The larger debate still raging is a linear, chicken or egg, question. Does marijuana used at a young age cause psychosis, or is psychosis exacerbated by marijuana use? The latter appears to have more merit.
Williams asserted that marijuana — alone — naturally evolves into crazy. Science, as she enjoyed enlisting throughout the night as the pillar that supports her opposition to legal weed, in no way substantiates this claim. Data suggests that marijuana — if there is any causal link at all — is just a single component of many contributing factors. But any linkage thus far hypothesized connotes a relationship, not causation. This includes the New England Journal of Medicine (which Williams cited throughout the debate and features on her group’s website), which said “it is inherently difficult to establish causality in theses types of studies because factors other than marijuana use may be directly associated with risk of mental illness. In addition, other factors could predispose a person to both marijuana use and mental illness. This makes it difficult to confidently attribute the increased risk of mental illness to marijuana use.”
Williams’ claim of marijuana users’ “average IQ loss” of eight points is also suspect. She likely drew the figure from a 2012 study from Duke University, published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. That study, which Williams touted as “one of the most extraordinary studies ever,” is also one of the more challenged studies ever, relating to marijuana’s effects. A year after its release, the same publication released another study; this one by Norwegian economist Ole Rogeberg. Rogeberg (and, later, University of Queensland statistician Annette Dobson) criticized the small sample size used (124 reported regular marijuana users), and argued that the same IQ loss could be attributed to socioeconomic status.
The plain reality is that these are still theories, and yet Williams decided to quite nonchalantly adopt them as — in her words — “very clear, peer reviewed, absolute, definitive science right now,” despite her cited sources cautious warning to say no such thing.
3. Marijuana Will Make You Kill Your Child!
Remember that time you left your ten-month old child to die inside your sweltering car because you were getting high? Of course not, because you’re not a horrible person. Plenty of people aren’t horrible persons, and plenty of them get high. But it only takes one horrible person to make a political anecdote ready to dole out at a marijuana debate.
In late July, Seth Jackson, a 29-year-old foster father in Kansas was getting lit and watching HBO’s Game of Thrones when a crying baby on the television screen reminded him that he had forgotten to remove his ten-month old from his Dodge Charger. The child, tragically, died. Jackson reportedly made several calls, saying “I left her in the car, she’s dead, she’s dead.”
“The kind of scoffing at the health impacts and the deaths that have occurred at the hand of marijuana is inconsiderate and insensitive to those who have died as a result,” Woolston scolded a crowd flush with supporters of the ballot measure. “Just last week, a ten month old child perished in a car because her dad was inside getting high.”
The child’s death was absolutely horrible and I, in no way, mean to diminish that reality. But this tragic death was also less attributable to marijuana and more representative of shit parenting. Getting high does not render responsibility, self awareness, and parenting moot. An audience critical of pseudoscience and propaganda does not make them guilty of relishing the death of an infant, and did not make them deserving of such moral indignation.
A four-week-old child died in North Carolina that same week for the same reasons, except marijuana was not listed as a factor. Another infant died in March after being abandoned in a car for hours in Seattle. Marijuana was not a factor — the father said he had no explanation. A nine-month-old child died in a similar situation in Florida in June. Another child, the same age, died this past April in San Jose, California. Janette Fennel, president of Kids and Cars, an organization that documents these tragic fatalities, told the NBC’s Bay Area affiliate that “Everybody wants to vilify and say oh, these parents are dumb, or on drugs,” but added that 90 percent of the time, that’s not the case.
4. Marijuana Makes You Sex Crazy!
What we know is marijuana is candidly not safe. Particularly concentrates, edibles, and 37 percent [tetrahydrocannabinol (THC)] marijuana. The New England Journal of Medicine points out impaired short-term memory making it difficult to learn and retain information, impaired motor coordination interfering with driving skills and increasing risk of injury, altered judgment increasing the risk of sexual behaviors that facilitate the transmission of sexually transmitted disease, in high doses paranoid psychosis.
Role play: imagine yourself walking into a party. You see your best friend furiously humping the side of a couch. Mortified, you throw your hands up in the air. “Dude, you’re humping a couch!”
Your friend responds, clearly distressed: “I CAN’T HELP IT! I’M HIGH!”
Raise your hand if you’ve found yourself in this situation. Anyone?
This gem comes via the National Institutes of Health, in a 2010 study which suggests that “an association of marijuana use with increased rates of sexual risk behavior and sexually transmitted diseases.” It goes on to note that the results were based on a sample of 656 “Adolescents in the juvenile justice system” with a mean age of 16.7 years old.
I would presume that, under the pretext of the current initiative, our fictitious friend at a party — and any furniture in close proximity — is reasonably safe.
5. This Isn’t About Medical Marijuana!
An audience member submitted a question to Steve MacDonald, the forum’s moderator, about medical marijuana. “In 1998, we approved a ballot measure allowing the medicinal use of marijuana. This question comes from a person in the crowd: ‘How else will I get this medicine to treat my multiple sclerosis?'”
“Obviously, people with medical marijuana cards are getting marijuana,” Williams responded, saying that she’d like to see that discussion take place without Alaska having to go through what she described as the “Colorado Experience” of “extreme” legalization. “This is not about medical marijuana.”
Multiple attendees vocally objected, saying “yes, it is.” Those mutterings turned into screams demanding that Williams “answer the question.”
“I just did!” Williams replied.
She hadn’t. Nor had she adequately explained medicinal marijuana’s legality in Alaska. Nor had she refuted the findings of the New England Journal she reflexively cited as the go-to source to back up her points, which points out that marijuana “appears to be an effective treatment for neuropathic pain, disturbed sleep, and spasticity in patients with multiple sclerosis[.]”
Voters approved, as MacDonald described, an initiative calling for the legalization of medicinal marijuana. However, subsequent legislative redress rendered the will of the public obsolete. Current law stipulates that patients approved for medical marijuana may cultivate six plants, with no more than three allowed to reach maturity and no more than one ounce retained legally. How they acquire these plants is not addressed. It is illegal to buy medical marijuana and there are no state-licensed dispensaries, thus the plants must magically appear in medical marijuana patients’ homes.
To the patients stuck in the legal limbo of Alaska’s medical marijuana (lack of a) program, Ballot Measure 2 is very much is about access to medical marijuana.
As Bickford noted that a lot of people in the room seemed passionate about the medical marijuana issue, partly because Alaskans currently are “forced to turn themselves into criminals to obtain their medicine.”
We have had a reasonable conversation about medical marijuana. That happened in 1998 and the voters said ‘we want a medical marijuana system.’ Guess what happened? The legislature gutted it, and we don’t have a medical marijuana system today. I think it’s really — I don’t think it’s up to [Williams and Woolston] to decide what this initiative means to people. Like any public policy issue, this means different things to different people. And I think, if I was a person sitting in the audience who’s had to criminalize themselves for however many years to obtain my medicine, I would personally be offended if I was told this isn’t what it’s about.
Big Marijuana. Big mistake. Obvious Farce.
Williams spoke of dabbing and blow torches and green crack and gummy bears. But the reality is that people often take things to ridiculous, harmful, and sometimes fatal extremes — including when they’re sober. That’s a sad part of human nature that we address with laws that say “don’t do that or society will punish you.” Alaskans can direct their elected officials to do just that. We did it last year with synthetic cannabinoids, or Spice.
But you don’t outlaw something that doesn’t represent a clear and visible threat to society just because people have, at one point or another, used it as a weapon against themselves. Over a hundred people have died from auto-erotic asphyxiation. Sex and masturbation remain legal. Just because some people add extreme measures to something does not make that thing extreme, and it certainly doesn’t alone justify illegality, be it sex, marijuana, My Little Ponies, or anything else.
I thought I was showing up to hear two coherent and illuminating sides present an expert case for a complex issue. An hour into it, I was legitimately concerned that “Big Marijuana Big Mistake” might accuse pot smokers of witchcraft.
One would think it would take more to legitimize the case for continued prohibition than the same tired hyperbole, misinformation, and deliberate lies that have kept such policies in place for nearly a century. However, to attendees of last week’s forum, that remains the lone argument offered by those who would like to see prohibition stick.