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Philly420: N.J. marijuana opponents cite questionable data

A hearing last month before the New Jersey Senate Judiciary Committee on fully legalizing marijuana inspired two bombastic opinion pieces from the opposition viewpoint. Let's take a look at their re-tread of some old school anti-cannabis scare tactics.

A hearing last month before the New Jersey Senate Judiciary Committee on fully legalizing marijuana inspired two bombastic opinion pieces from the opposition viewpoint. Let's take a look at their re-tread of some old school anti-cannabis scare stories.

Victoria Dalton, of the South Jersey and Philly-based law firm Hoffman-DiMuzio, focused on Colorado. She literally copy/pasted sections of a report issued by the Rocky Mountain High Intensity Drug Trafficking Area (HIDTA). There was no link or citation. My 12th grade English teacher would have totally called me on that.

That collection of local and federal law enforcement groups in HIDTA, including the federal DEA, have strongly opposed legalization.

The HIDTA report that Dalton copied discusses "marijuana-related" traffic fatalities. Yet dig down into the report itself and you find that "marijuana-related" can also mean the person was intoxicated with another drug and/or alcohol at the same time.

It's important to remember that marijuana toxicology tests do not measure actual impairment. The tests only indicate if a small amount of THC is found in the body -- unlike with alcohol where years of scientific testing have determined thresholds for drinking and driving.

A Blood Alcohol Concentration of more than .08 percent is considered too drunk to drive. No such levels have been put into place for cannabis. Having one nanogram of THC in the blood, an amount that will not cause impairment, was enough to enter the stats for the HIDTA report.

There are more than 26,000 DUIs recorded in Colorado each year. Most are for alcohol. The Colorado State Patrol alone issued 5,546 DUI citations in 2014, the first full year of retail marijuana sales. Only 12 percent of those DUIs included marijuana and only 6.4 percent for marijuana as the only substance involved.

Booze is by far the most common and dangerous thing impairing drivers in Colorado and in every other state.

Dalton also oddly claims that in Colorado "(t)here has been a 32 percent increase in usage for teens between 12-17 years of age from 2009 to 2014."

That directly contradicts national data from the federal Substance Abuse and Mental Health Administration (SAMHSA) and data from the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment.

National trends for use among teens showed no increase.

Teens in Colorado actually saw a decline in use from 22 percent in 2011 to 20 percent in 2013.

It is unclear where the teen data Dalton cites comes from as it isn't even included in the HIDTA report.

Next up was Diane Litterer, the CEO of the New Jersey Prevention Network, via the opinion pages of Asbury Park Press.

Her nonprofit operates with a $2.4 million dollar a year budget garnered almost exclusively from municipal, state and federal grants. According to IRS filings the bulk of the group's annual expenses are staff salaries, benefits and pensions. Litterer alone pulls in more than $100,000 a year.

Her Op-Ed claims that changing prohibition laws would somehow affect our youth. But that is not true according to every data set. Teens may increasingly view marijuana as less dangerous than alcohol or other drugs, but that is actually a truthful position to hold.

According to data from the University of Texas at Austin, a whopping 79 percent of 12- to-14-year-olds disapprove of marijuana use. This is the highest level of disapproval in years and comes during the era of shifting policies.

Litterer also repeats a false claim about marijuana altering brain structure that is often used by prohibitionists. Researchers at the University of Colorado at Boulder and the University of Louisville published definitive data on the subject in the Journal of Neuroscience earlier this year.

The scientists put adults and adolescents who consumed marijuana through a series of MRIs. They reported: "No statistically significant differences were found between daily users and nonusers on volume or shape in the regions of interest."

They went further in their conclusion. "In sum, the results indicate that, when carefully controlling for alcohol use, gender, age, and other variables, there is no association between marijuana use and standard volumetric or shape measurements of subcortical structures."

Litterer and Dalton also both made claims (again from the HIDTA report) about the potency of modern ganja. Somehow in their mind growers have developed super-strains of cannabis and all the weed on the streets today is jam packed with THC compared to the sticks and stems of 1970s.

While domestic cannabis cultivation has become much more refined, there was a lot of good weed and hashish on the streets when the Doobie Brothers were still releasing new albums.

The DEA and other law enforcement agencies submit seized marijuana for potency testing. Invariably in their annual eradication efforts they used to scoop up a lot of wild growing hemp with extremely low THC levels. That skewed the data on potency lower in the past. The DEA and other law enforcement have given up on ditch hemp and have turned their focus to basement and warehouse growing. Viola, potency levels rise.

Also hash, a concentrated form of cannabis that has been around for thousands of years, has always had higher levels of THC than dried flowers. So there was definitely some great stuff around in the 70s as Willie Nelson and Carl Sagan personally attested to enjoying.

Many readers of the Op-Eds also might be disappointed to know that there are a lot of weak bags of weed out there today. Just saying.

Dalton and Litterer hit on another common theme in both their editorials by bringing up the supposed threat of "Big Marijuana."

Somehow they imagine that massive corporate interests will lock down the weed market and advertise the pot products directly to children, presumably through cartoon characters and in toy stores. Yet every legalization law is specifically for those age 21-and-up. Given the massive reprisals against tobacco companies for marketing to children, it would be unrealistic to think of any future industry making similar mistakes.

Such a view also, conveniently, ignores the fact that without a regulated retail environment that checks IDs there is no way at all to prevent youth from purchasing marijuana underground. Absolute prohibition has, obviously, always failed to eliminate teen use.

While Dalton and Litterer attempt to paint Colorado's legalization in the negative even skeptics have realized it has been a real benefit to the state. Colorado Governor John Hickenlooper (a native of Narberth, Pa.) was originally against the move. But he has now come around to fully embracing the $76 million in annual new tax revenue.

Litterer does claim that she supports marijuana decriminalization. She also puts a caveat that those cited should be referred immediately to drug treatment. Such a move might benefit her group but it is wholly unfounded. Less than 10 percent of marijuana consumers develop dependence. That's a far lower level than caffeine or alcohol. Litterer sets up decrim as an alternative to full legalization. But that is not the case.

Decriminalizing marijuana, and stopping the arrests, makes sense for the criminal justice system. The policy frees up police and unclogs and already overburdened court system. It has worked successfully in Philadelphia to reduce arrests by more than 70 percent. The sky has not fallen on top of the Liberty Bell in a cloud of smoke.

Delaware's statewide decriminalization law goes into effect on December 18th. Maryland made the move last year.

Meanwhile, New Jersey's marijuana arrests are skyrocketing to an all time high of almost 25,000 per year. The Garden State is putting handcuffs on people for pot more often than for all other drugs combined. That's a real waste of resources during a deadly heroin surge.

Decrim is also a logical step on the path towards legalization. Stopping the discrimination and racially-biased enforcement of cannabis consumers while politicians and regulators take the time to set up a legal market is where decrim comes into play.

Most importantly, Dalton, the DUI law firm attorney, and Litterer, the prevention specialist, should not feel at all threatened if marijuana prohibition ends. Their jobs will be safe. But if they both want to be truly effective in this age of changing laws they should spend more time getting their facts straight.

Chris Goldstein is associate editor of Freedom Leaf magazine and on the board of PhillyNorml. Contact him at