Will Massachusetts new medical marijuana law have consequences beyond comforting ill patients?
During a relatively quiet campaign on the voter referendum, opponents of the proposal, including law enforcement officials, warned legalized medical marijuana would lead to increased pot use by juveniles, addiction to other drugs and more driving accidents.
The debate over these potential consequences has raged in other states where conflicting studies have been attacked by advocates on both sides for the studies assumptions and methodologies.
For example: One review of federal statistics after California legalized medical marijuana concluded that 1,240 persons were killed in California traffic accidents over a five-year period where the driver had used marijuana. The data also showed half those drivers were also drunk at the time and the test for marijuana usage could not pinpoint if the drivers were high at the time of the accident.
Beyond the debate of those issues, another negative consequence has been clearly demonstrated: People who grow, sell and use medical marijuana in states where it is legal do so in a country where it is not.
Chris Williams, a medical marijuana grower in Montana, became the face of this dilemma in September when he was convicted on federal drug trafficking and weapons charges. Williams faces a mandatory minimum of more than 80 years in prison when he is sentenced in January.
Although only a handful of those in the medical marijuana trade have been charged by federal officials, it is a threat that hangs over all states, including Massachusetts.
Outside the federal/state conundrum, there remain other concerns that are still under study.
One of the more comprehensive studies, Medical Marijuana Laws, Traffic Fatalities, and Alcohol Consumption recently published in the Journal of Law and Economics published in the Institute for the Study of Labor suggests mild consequences. The report, compiled by economists at the University of Colorado, Montana State University, and the University of Oregon found:
- On average, states that legalize medical marijuana saw an 8-11 percent decrease in traffic fatalities in the first year.
- Medical marijuana laws (MML’s) are associated with sharp decreases in the price of marijuana and an increase in the potency of the pot.
- States with MML’s have seen a 10.6 percent reduction in the number of drinks consumed and a 7.4 percent reduction in binge drinking among 20-through-29 year olds.
Arrests of juveniles in Arizona on pot charges have dropped since the state instituted medical marijuana laws in 2010.The number of cases of driving under the influence of marijuana is up, continuing a trend that began before the law took effect.
Criminal and motor vehicle records from individual medical marijuana states give mixed evidence the new laws are creating unintended consequences.
For now the pressing concern is the tension between state and federal law, with the Williams case in Montana as a sign of what could come under a stronger enforcement drive by federal officials.
Voters approved medical marijuana in Montana in 2004. In 2009, the U.S. Justice Department issued the Ogden Memo, essentially instructing federal prosecutors to turn a blind eye to growers and users of medical marijuana.
It appeared that the federal government had adopted a “Don’t ask, don’t tell” policy. That changed with recent raids.
Although the Obama administration said earlier this month that it wouldn’t take action against the recreational use of marijuana approved by Washington state and Colorado voters, the Williams’ case and raids last year in California show federal philosophies can change.
Robert Mikos, a Vanderbilt University law professor who has studied the impact of medical marijuana laws, says although federal authorities rarely bring criminal charges against individual providers, they have used other strategies.
“If you’re selling drugs out of your store, the federal government could seize all of your assets: cash, the drugs that you’re selling, the store front itself,” he said. “It’s used those tactics in some states to try and crack down on the medical marijuana industry.”