Maybe California got it right after all.
Seventeen years after the Golden State became the first in the union to experiment with medical weed, a review by The New York Times finds the results have been better than even many advocates may realize.
None of the dire warnings sounded in 1996, when medical marijuana became legal in California, has come to pass. There have been no crime waves, no neighborhoods brought to their knees by dispensaries, no rash of teen drug use or increase in hard drug abuse.
And despite the popular image of lawless dispensaries and recreational use masquerading as medical use, the easy availability of green may be a very good thing for the state.
That’s because, as researchers first noted earlier this year, weed appears to serve as a substitute for booze. This is especially true of young drinkers, many of whom turn to marijuana in states where it’s easy to get.
The result? Drunk drivers are replaced by stoned drivers or by tokers who never get in their cars at all (ganja rarely lends itself to hitting the town). And though stoned driving is still dangerous, it’s notably less dangerous than drunk driving.
“If it turns out cannabis and alcohol are substitutes, then by my scoring system, legalizing cannabis is obviously a good thing,” said Mark A.R. Kleiman, professor at UCLA and an advisor to Washington State on its marijuana law. “Alcohol is so much more of a problem than cannabis ever has been.”
In fact, according to the Times, police are seeing more and more marijuana in California and less and less alcohol. Fourteen percent of state drivers were found to have traces of marijuana in their systems during a spot check last year. Only half that many tested positive for alcohol.
Other predictions of calamity remain unfulfilled. There has been no spike in teenage cannabis use, despite the glut of dispensaries in Los Angeles and, previously, other parts of the state. Daniel I. Rees, a researcher from the University of Colorado and an author of the study showing drinkers turn to pot, said dispensaries probably went out of their way to avoid serving minors, given the already uncertain legal ground they occupied.
“The dispensary numbers went through the roof,” Rees said. “But nothing happens to marijuana use among teenagers.”
The same is true of the old canard marijuana would act as a gateway drug, leading users on to heroin, meth and other hard substances. According to the Times, there has been no major uptick in hard-drug abuse since California enacted MMJ.
And claims the state can’t control legal weed are misleading. California counties that impose tight regulations and local taxes have avoided the excess and political battles that have drawn so much attention around L.A.
Medical weed has also injected a wallop into California’s economy. The state’s marijuana industry is exploding, tax revenues are pouring in (in some places), and patients have a wide selection at relatively low prices.
The state’s entire marijuana scheme is likely to change in coming years, though. Efforts are in the works to legalize pot completely, in 2016 if not next year. With large majorities of Americans and Californians now supporting legal weed, it’s likely it will pass.