Shortly before New York abandoned efforts to legalize recreational cannabis in June, the New York Times published an anti-marijuana op-ed that contradicted the latest peer-reviewed science and statistics concerning marijuana’s effects. The author was Kevin Sabet, CEO of Smart Approaches to Marijuana, a prominent anti-legalization group. He previously worked in both the Clinton and Bush administrations, resigning two years into Obama’s term.
Sabet’s anti-pot op-ed regurgitated his group’s main argument. The social costs of marijuana legalization outpace the revenue. He incorrectly suggested cannabis legalization added to healthcare needs, lost productivity, and more extreme consequences like DUI’s. He wrote, “taxpayers and communities have had to shoulder an estimated $4.50 in social costs for every $1 in revenue, according to researchers at the Centennial Institute.”
Who or What Exactly is the Centennial Institute?
The Centennial Institute is a group at Colorado Christian University whose mission is to “mobilize ideas on faith.” The “$4.50” figure originated in a November 2018 report posted on the self-proclaimed “think-tank’s” website by a for-hire, family-run research firm called QREM.
Titled, “Economic and Social Costs of Legalized Marijuana,” QREM presented a hypothesis for future impacts of cannabis that ignores it as a medicine, which as I’ll explain is probably the plant’s biggest draw. Colorado Christian’s vice-president of public policy and director of the Centennial Institute Jeff Hunt admitted QREM was commissioned to create an anti-pot report, not present unbiased socioeconomic information.
Hunt himself does not appear to have credentials as a sociologist, scientist, or researcher. According to his LinkedIn, he has degrees in divinity and political management. “Guesswork + bias + arithmetic,” Professor Mark Kleiman said describing Centennial’s report, adding that it was not a workable “benefit-cost analysis.” Dr. Kleinman, who teaches at NYU, worked as a consultant with Washington state on the mechanics of their legalization.
Kevin Sabet had already unsuccessfully used the same fake “$4.50” statistic in another anti-legalization op-ed published in the Chicago Sun-Times just before their legalization vote. Illinois went on to pass a bipartisan recreational cannabis legalization bill in June.
The $4.50 Published by the New York Times Was Deliberately Citing Bad Research
So why is this $4.50 number fake? Mark Kleiman points out the Centennial research did not account for the cost of cannabis criminalization. That’s right, the report on our nation’s marijuana prohibition forgot to include the cost of prohibition. It also failed to factor increased earnings into its projections “now that low-level drug offenses are reduced as barriers to education or employment.” Likewise, it did not adequately consider cannabis in conjunction with excessive use of other substances, such as alcohol which do have actual financial costs to society.
Instead of one of the hundreds of peer-reviewed studies on cannabis available publically through The United States National Library of Medicine at the National Institutes of Health, Kevin Sabet chose to cite an unreviewed post to The Centennial Institute’s website. Peer-reviewed journals are the standard within academic and scientific discourse–and most importantly, the FDA, DEA, and NIH. Authors submit to accredited journals with review teams made up of fellow experts in the specific subject matter. Acceptance into these journals means that a researcher’s peers have deemed the work sound, objective, and scientific.
Kevin Sabet used a paid-for report by the Centennial Institute because the conclusions he wanted to push simply don’t exist in real academia. As someone in the business of political discourse, Sabet certainly knew he was using illegitimate research. He was also aware the general public doesn’t know what a peer-reviewed journal is and would mistake his source as credible like the legitimate pro-cannabis research coming out.
Cannabis Reduces the Load on Healthcare Costs
In the area of the social cost of cannabis reform, Sabet pointed to healthcare needs, productivity, and motor vehicle accidents, but healthcare costs have actually gone down in multiple states with legalized cannabis–so have workplace suicides and drunk driving. And though it has come as a surprise even to experts, smoking marijuana doesn’t seem to affect motor vehicle accident statistics negatively.
Sabet and Hunt’s reports proposed that cannabis makes people obese and sedentary, adding to healthcare costs and loss of workplace productivity; however, the actual peer-reviewed studies find:
- Cannabis smokers have lower body fat and improved insulin sensitivity (a marker of diabetes) (Sandoiu).
- Marijuana motivates users to exercise (York-Williams).
- Marijuana use is associated with improved cognitive function in adult populations (Gruber).
A collaborative study by Albert Einstein College of Medicine in New York and the University of Miami found medical cannabis patients “consistently report using cannabis as a substitute for prescription medications,” including opioids. Many patients find they can not only save on expensive healthcare costs but years of their life by switching to cannabis as a safer alternative to pharmaceuticals.
Even Recreational Customers are Finding Symptom Relief
Marcus Bachhuber, MD, studied dispensary customers in 2016. He found that “while adult-use laws are frequently called ‘recreational,’ implying that cannabis obtained through the adult-use system is only for pleasure or experience-seeking, our findings suggest that many customers use cannabis for symptom relief.”
In the groups Bachhuber studied, adult-use customers who used cannabinoids as a substitute for over-the-counter pain and sleep medications, over 80% reported reducing or stopping the use of those medications in favor of cannabis, while over 85% of those who used it as a substitute for opioids reported the same.
A 2018 study published in the International Journal of Drug Policy examined how workplace fatality statistics changed when a state had access to legal cannabis. In the paper “Medical Marijuana Laws and Workplace Fatalities In The United States,” researchers D. Mark Anderson, Daniel I. Rees, and Erdal Tekin analyzed data from all 50 states and the District of Columbia. In states with legal cannabis, workplace fatalities decreased by an average of 19.5% for workers who were 25 to 44 years old. This reduction increased as time went on to 33.7% in states with programs that were at least 5 years old.
Motor Vehicle Accident Statistics Have Not Been Affected by Legalized Cannabis
Cannabis increasing motor vehicle death is also propaganda. A Congressional report from this year clarified, “Although laboratory studies have shown that marijuana consumption can affect a person’s response times and motor performance, studies of the impact of marijuana consumption on a driver’s risk of being involved in a crash have produced conflicting results, with some studies finding little or no increased risk of a crash from marijuana usage.”
This was supported by a separate piece in the journal Addiction in May 2019. “In this multi-site observational study of non-fatally injured drivers,” the authors wrote, “we found no increase in crash risk, after adjustment for age, sex, and use of other impairing substances, in drivers with THC<5ng/mL” (most users of cannabis will not have blood level above 5ng/ml.). Of course, becoming highly intoxicated by any substance means you shouldn’t get behind the wheel, but the data suggests that those who regularly consume moderate amounts of cannabis don’t pose any more significant danger to fellow drivers.
These Anti-Pot Reports Are Designed To Create Doubt, Not Truth
Reports like that of the Centennial Institute aren’t meant to be right, just to create doubt, which becomes an interesting topic ahead of the 2020 elections. “These guys are the flat-earth crew,” said Michael Collins, a Washington DC-based lobbyist with the Drug Policy Alliance. “They’re arguing about something that’s already been decided.” Cannabis reform is a very profitable endeavor for this nation and with proper regulation can make us the healthiest we have ever been.
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“Economic and Social Costs of Legalized Marijuana.” Centennial Institute, www.ccu.edu/centennial/policy-briefs/marijuana-costs/.
Gruber, Staci A, et al. “The Grass Might Be Greener: Medical Marijuana Patients Exhibit Altered Brain Activity and Improved Executive Function after 3 Months of Treatment.” Frontiers in Pharmacology, Frontiers Media S.A., 17 Jan. 2018, www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5776082/.
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