Since 1990, over 7.2 million Americans have been arrested on marijuana charges,8 more than the populations of Alaska, Delaware, the District of Columbia, Hawaii, Montana, North Dakota, South Dakota, Rhode Island, Vermont, and Wyoming combined.9 Nearly 90 percent of these arrests were for simple possession, not cultivation or sale.10 Despite the fact that reported adult use of marijuana has remained relatively constant for the past decade, annual marijuana arrests have more than doubled since 1990.11 Arrests for cocaine and heroin have declined sharply during much of this period,12 indicating that increased enforcement of marijuana laws is being achieved at the expense of enforcing laws against the possession and trafficking of more dangerous drugs.
Rather than stay this course, federal officials ought to take a page from their more successful public health campaigns discouraging teen pregnancy, drunk driving, and adolescent tobacco smoking – all of which have been significantly reduced in recent years.13 America did not achieve these results by banning the use of alcohol or tobacco products or by targeting and arresting adults who engage in these behaviors responsibly, but through honest, fact-based public education campaigns.
By overstating marijuana’s potential harms, America’s policy-makers and law enforcement community undermine their credibility and ability to effectively educate the public of the legitimate harms associated with more dangerous drugs like heroin, crack cocaine, and methamphetamine.
In fact, almost all drugs – including those that are legal – pose greater threats to individual health and/or society than does marijuana.14 According to the Centers for Disease Control, approximately 46,000 people die each year from alcohol-induced deaths (not including motor vehicle fatalities where alcohol impairment was a contributing factor), such as overdose and cirrhosis.15 Similarly, more than 440,000 premature deaths annually are attributed to tobacco smoking.16 By comparison, marijuana is non-toxic and cannot cause death by overdose.17 In a large-scale population study of marijuana use and mortality published in the American Journal of Public Health, marijuana use, even long-term, “showed little if any effect …
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