Kojo talks with author Colson Whitehead about his new novel "The Underground Railroad" and its resonance at this particular moment in history.
As of Jan. 1, those who wish to can now purchase recreational pot in some 40 stores across Colorado. Last year the state, along with Washington, became the first to allow small amounts of marijuana for personal use, with plans to regulate it like alcohol. The federal government still considers marijuana an illegal drug, but, for the moment, seems prepared to allow for highly regulated distribution of medical and recreational pot. We explore these seismic shifts in the debate over legalizing marijuana.
- Kevin Sabet Director, Project SAM (Smart Approaches to Marijuana); Director, Drug Policy Institute at the University of Florida; Assistant Professor in the College of Medicine, Department of Psychiatry.
- Allen St. Pierre Executive Director, National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws (NORML)
MR. KOJO NNAMDIFrom WAMU 88.5 at American University in Washington, Happy New Year and welcome to "The Kojo Nnamdi Show," connecting your neighborhood with the world. Later in the broadcast, black barber shops and their long history of centers of political and civic culture. But first, people drove from far-away states and lined up for hours yesterday in Colorado to buy the first recreational marijuana legally on sale there. Twenty states now allow medical marijuana but Colorado, and soon Washington State, was the first to legalize cannabis for personal use.
MR. KOJO NNAMDIIt's a big moment for supporters who liken it to the end of prohibition. And states around the country are watching to see how the story unfolds in Colorado, including the challenge of developing rules around the sale and use of the drug. Joining us in studio to discuss this is Allen St. Pierre. He is the executive director of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws or NORML. It's a nonprofit organization that has been seeking for decades to legalize cannabis. Allen, good to see you again. Happy New Year.
MR. ALLEN ST. PIERREGood to see you. Thank you.
NNAMDIJoining us by phone from Vancouver, British Columbia is Kevin Sabet. He is director of Project SAM, Smart Approaches to Marijuana. He's the author of "Reefer Sanity: Seven Great Myths About Marijuana." He's director of the Drug Policy Institute. He's a professor at the University of Florida College of Medicine. And from 2009 to 2011 he served in the Obama Administration as the senior advisor to the director of the White House Office on National Drug Control Policy. Kevin Sabet, thank you for joining us.
DR. KEVIN SABETThanks for having me.
NNAMDIYou too can join the conversation. What do you think of Colorado legalizing recreational marijuana? The number's 800-433-8850. You can send email to email@example.com. Allen, recreational marijuana has been legal for more than a year already in Colorado. But until yesterday my understanding is that you couldn't buy it legally for that purpose. So can you explain first, what is legal now in Colorado?
ST. PIERREIn Colorado an adult over 18 can go to one of these stores and without permission from their doctor buy a small amount of marijuana. If you live in state you can buy an ounce of marijuana, which is approximately 35 marijuana cigarettes. If you are an out-of-state tourist, you can purchase a quarter ounce or about 7 grams of marijuana.
NNAMDIOver the age of 18? I thought it was 21.
ST. PIERREOver the age of 21 (unintelligible).
NNAMDIOkay. It's being regulated and taxed like alcohol. How will that work?
ST. PIERREIt's at vice-like levels so we're talking 25 to, in real effect, 35 percent taxation rates.
NNAMDISo many people drove across state lines, stood in long lines. What is the distinction between in-state and out-of-state residents?
ST. PIERREAn in-state resident can purchase at least one ounce of marijuana. And so that was about the only distinction the regulators made between out-of-state and in-state residents.
NNAMDINow, this is where some of the rules around this become complicated. It's illegal to smoke marijuana in public. So where do people consume their purchases?
ST. PIERRESo what they do is in the same way if you and I buy alcohol here in the District of Columbia from a retail environment, we have to take that product back to a private place and use it responsibly. And that's the same thing with marijuana in Colorado.
NNAMDIWashington State is not far behind but it has not yet begun selling recreational marijuana. What's its time frame?
ST. PIERREThey're looking at about April 1 to May 1. They acknowledge that they were going to be behind Colorado by about six months because Colorado already had a four-year head start by having legal taxes marijuana for medical purposes.
NNAMDIAgain, you can join the conversation by calling 800-433-8850. Do you think more states should follow Colorado and Washington State's lead, 800-433-8850? Kevin Sabet, what concerns do you have with Colorado and Washington State legalizing marijuana for recreational use?
SABETWell, the concerns are the fact that we are really now creating a new big marijuana industry like we've had big tobacco for 80 years. So what I mean by that exactly is that we now have profit financial groups that are, you know, multi-million dollar private holding groups for example that are investing in and basically betting on a lot more marijuana smokers and a lot more addiction.
SABETAnd the problem with this is that it runs completely in contrary to the scientific establishment on this. And that's why the American Medical Association joined us and the American Society of Addiction Medicine, former congressman Patrick Kennedy who cofounded Project SAM, the organization I direct, in really basically coming out against legalization of marijuana sales. And saying that, you know, the science shows that especially for young people, marijuana can be extremely damaging for when it comes to addiction drugs driving, which also obviously used for adults.
SABETAnd the issue is in Colorado now you are -- we are creating these industries -- this big industry that already have candies and chocolates and sodas and all kinds of things that frankly market to use in the same way Joe Camel did. So even though you have to be 21, the normalization is setting in and really this is going to be -- we predict -- we join the medical groups in predicting that this is not going to go well.
NNAMDIAs you say, even though you have to be 21, the general perception is that after that age marijuana is not as addictive either as cigarettes or as alcohol. What is the medical view on that and...
SABETWell, that's -- I mean, so the issue is all drugs have different levels of addictiveness and different levels -- different categories of harm, right. So we know that for example tobacco smoking is the most addictive drugs, more than heroin even. That wouldn't make us say well, because tobacco is more addictive than heroin we should legalize heroin. Marijuana is connected to -- is actually psychoactive. Tobacco is not. In other words, it makes you high, right.
SABETSo, you know, driving while stoned, working while stoned, the absenteeism, the motor skills -- all the kinds of things that come with when you're intoxicated is far greater than with tobacco. Because of course tobacco does not product that intoxication. On the other hand, alcohol's connected to violence more than marijuana. So this isn't about what's worse than the other. This is about saying we already have two legal intoxicants, alcohol and tobacco. They cause more death and destruction than all illegal drugs combined. And that's because they're widely available, there's an industry behind them and there's an industry betting on addiction, right.
SABETIndustries that are addictive industries -- and this by the way includes gambling -- they do not make money off of the casual user. So this isn't about, you know, a 50-year-old otherwise responsible person coming home and smoking a joint after work. Frankly, that's been going on before legalization and will go on after legalization. What's now different is that we're legitimizing and normalizing the use, which is in contrary to science. And these industries have to start people while they're young because it is while you're young that you get addicted.
NNAMDIWell, I'd like to hear both from you Kevin Sabet and from Allen St. Pierre on this. I just returned from Amsterdam in the Netherlands where people are able to use marijuana recreationally in cafes. What have we learned from that experience? First you, Allen St. Pierre.
ST. PIERREWell, most of the American experience about marijuana have been learned from the Dutch. Since the mid 1970s they have been legally selling marijuana in these so-called coffee shops. And there's two important points here. One, the youth there are not propagandized anywhere near to the degree that American youth are through the D.A.R.E. program or the Partnership for Drug Free America. And yet they use marijuana at much less rates than American children.
ST. PIERRETwo, is that marijuana really is a drug of terminus there. Most people will use alcohol, tobacco, coffee and marijuana. Very few statistically speaking will go on and use heroin or cocaine, unlike American children.
SABETNow, well, there's a couple things there. First of all, American children who use marijuana, the vast majority do not go on to use other drugs. So actually, you know, it's not the case here. But the point is -- and Allen and I would agree on this -- is that Americans have used all kinds of substances, whether it's cocaine, heroin, prescription drugs like Oxycontin at rates that far surpass our European -- frankly our European friends. So we've always had higher levels of use.
SABETWhat's important in the Netherlands is to look at what's actually happened inside the Netherlands since they have legalized it. In the beginning in the 1970s there wasn't really much of an increase in use because really there weren't many coffee shops that were established. All of a sudden in the mid '80s there became -- there was a spike in use among young people. In fact, a three-fold increase in marijuana among young people in the Netherlands from the mid '80s to the 2000s at the time when these coffee shops just increased exponentially. That was much easier -- you know, much more easily available.
SABETAnd frankly what you're seeing in Colorado is something very similar because many, many cities in Colorado, dozens in fact, have actually said no to this. They refuse to sell retail shops. The second largest city in Colorado, Colorado Springs, has said no. Denver obviously is the largest city and said yes and that's where most of the stores are now. So in the Netherlands, the other caveat I would make is that they do not have the history of commercialization, widespread promotion. And frankly, they don't have the First Amendment, which has been interpreted here as commercial speech is free speech.
SABETSo when I worked at the White House and we tried to deal with alcohol, good luck to us with that. We didn't -- we weren't very successful because it's legal and there's a huge lobby. That's what I'm concerned about with marijuana.
NNAMDISpeaking of the White House, Ben in Berryville, Va. wants to raise the issue of the federal government. Ben, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
BENHi. Thank you for taking my call. You know, I understand the thought of big ag. industries getting into marijuana, but I just don't see Dole investing billions of dollars, which will be necessary to really drive the pricing on production until the federal government has some serious reform in their laws. They're just -- their investors aren't going to let it happen.
NNAMDIWell, you have to go, Kevin Sabet, in about a minute, so I'll let you respond to that first.
SABETYeah, I mean, the issue is there already are -- I wish that was the case, Barry (sic) . There are millions and millions of dollars -- anybody can Google arcview and privateer -- and I hate to give them a commercial here, but they have raised tens of millions of dollars around an industry. We also have evidence that the tobacco industry, in a memo that we found from the 1970s, is ready to pounce as soon as marijuana is legalized here. We have evidence that the tobacco industries have trademark names like the Marley brand cigarette and other cigarettes that would apply for marijuana.
SABETSo I think we're living in a dream, if we think this is going to be confined to our old, you know, college buddy (unintelligible) ...
NNAMDII found that out at the U.S. Patent office in the 1980s, believe it or not. But I'm afraid that's all the time that Kevin Sabet has. So Kevin Sabet, thank you for joining us.
SABETThanks so much for having me. It's nice to talk to you and have a good day, Allen.
NNAMDIAnd Happy New Year to you. Kevin Sabet is director of Project SAM, Smart Approaches to Marijuana, and the author of "Reefer Sanity: Seven Great Myths About Marijuana." He's also director of the Drug Policy Institute and a professor at the University of Florida College of Medicine. Ben, thank you for your call. You too can call us at 800-433-8850. Allen, marijuana still illegal at the federal level, but as Kevin just mentioned, a kind of approval was given in the form of a memo from the Justice Department in August laying out certain criteria. Can you talk about that?
ST. PIERREYesterday would not have happened had, one, we don't have baby boomers running this country and we do. Mr. Holder and Mr. Obama, I think, epitomize the baby boom generation finally coming to power. And what they did in August was essentially say uncle. They put out a memo with a criteria allowing states to move forward with legalization. And as long as these states comply then we expect many other states are going to be joining Colorado and Washington.
NNAMDIThat was in the form of a memo. What might that mean under future administrations?
ST. PIERREDefinitely that is a fear of all of us who are reformers that because Mr. Obama did not put this in the form of an executive order, and he's burned no political capital on the Hill. So with a change of administration, all of this could change as well.
NNAMDIAs I was mentioning, in the late 1970s, early 1980s when I was a reporter I was doing stuff covering the U.S. Patent office was when I discovered that there were already all of these patents that anticipated that marijuana would be legalized at some point. It happens three decades later and so they're all in place.
ST. PIERREThey are. And I would suggest -- I mean, Kevin seems to have a real problem with the free market system more than anything else from what I hear from his voice. People will produce products in mass and drive the costs down. I didn't see that as a bad thing generally in American society.
NNAMDIYou -- the federal government has not weighed in on the banking piece of it. There's a very big economic side to this entire discussion. What are the issues there?
ST. PIERREThis is the big unknown entity that everybody wants to answer. These are all-cash businesses, whether the proprietors of these businesses, regulators, banks, society, no one wants to see the all-cash business. But until the federal government changes its laws and until another memo, which I thought was going to be happening before yesterday, this puts that industry into some definite dire straits so that the investors -- as Kevin was lambasting -- many of them have to have a very high threshold for risk tolerance right because what they're doing technically is federally illegal.
NNAMDIGot an email from Travis who says, "If you're from another state and you purchase marijuana in Colorado and cross the state border into Kansas say and get busted, are the laws stricter than getting busted for having weed in your own state because you're, well, trafficking across borders?"
ST. PIERREGood question. What determines trafficking for the purposes of charging for the prosecutor is the amount that you have, how it's packaged, is there indications of large amounts of cash? So if you just have a possession-ary amount of marijuana -- and I would suggest here, off the top of my head, that's probably two ounces or below -- you're probably not going to draw the ire of the Kansas State Police. But if you decide you're going to buy a quarter pound of marijuana in Colorado and drive down route 70, yeah, that could be a problem.
NNAMDISpeaking of the patent issue, here is Steven in Old Town Alexandria. Steven, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
STEVENHi. Thanks for taking my call. What about companies like Eli Lilly that are taking out patent rights on THC? They have -- they're also the main producers of the product called miranol. They're lobbying tooth and nail against legalization of marijuana because why would I buy miranol when I can just go and buy a joint?
ST. PIERREThat's correct. For the last ten to fifteen years, pharmaceutical companies that make alternatives to marijuana, in some cases synthetic marijuana, are the strongest opponents in congress to reforming laws. And even the U.S. government has taken out a patent on a cannabinoid molecule.
NNAMDISo how would that be resolved? How would that issue be resolved?
ST. PIERREWe expect by some pretty serious litigation in the future -- the idea that the government can hold a patent on it but private entrepreneurs can't strikes me as odd.
NNAMDIColorado's being closely watched and other states considering legalization including Arizona, Alaska, California, Oregon, what are they looking at?
ST. PIERREThis calendar year of 2014 we expect Oregon and Alaska to have initiatives to vote for legalization. But the big enchilada, we have to decide by the 15th of January, is California. One out of five Americans live in California. It is the largest market for producing and consuming marijuana. So I would suggest 2014 could be an incredibly pivotal year for marijuana legalization if California joins the rank.
NNAMDIIt's my understanding that Colorado, unlike Washington State, regulators require marijuana to be grown only indoors.
NNAMDIWhat's the reasoning and what's the effect of that?
ST. PIERREThe effect is to have marijuana only grow indoors for total control. In fact, they even have cameras mounted in these grow houses so that police in real time can watch what's going on in there, and also frankly to keep the cost of the product high. If the product is grown outdoors as a true row crop, we're talking a pennies-on-the-pound commodity. But if you grow it indoors with lights and humans interacting with the plant, from our data and estimates if you have a 50,000' grow operation indoors, you're going to drive the cost down to about $1 per gram. So it still makes it very expensive vegetable matter.
NNAMDIEconomically this will likely be a major boon for Colorado in terms of tax revenue and tourism. What's expected there?
ST. PIERREThey're expecting between 350 and $400 million per year in taxes, fees and licenses from the marijuana industry. With just medical marijuana they were already doing almost $100 million a year in taxes and fees.
NNAMDISo there's the economic effect and John in Springfield, Va. would like to talk about maybe the criminal justice effect. John, your turn.
JOHNOh hello, Kojo. Thank you for taking my call.
ST. PIERREI -- huge fan of the show. Love the topic and I was just wanting to say that with the war on drugs being so prevalent, if marijuana were legalized it does take out a number of soldiers in this fight, both on the criminal and police side. Because the police I'm sure are, you know, up to here -- past their ears dealing with it.
NNAMDIWe also got...
JOHNAnd there are a lot of people who do not want to be criminals.
NNAMDI...we also got a Tweet from Anton asking what the effect of legalization will be on incarceration rates due to the war on drugs.
ST. PIERREWell, one would hope that, as we saw in Washington last year, as soon as the citizens voted to pass legalization laws, the city prosecutor in King County, the biggest county in the state where Seattle is, immediately said we're not going to arrest anymore people and we're going to let everybody out of jail who was facing marijuana possession charges.
NNAMDIAllen St. Pierre. He is the executive director of NORML, the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws. That's a nonprofit organization seeking to legalize cannabis. Allen, always a pleasure.
ST. PIERREGood to see you, Kojo.
NNAMDIGot to take a short break. When we come back, black barber shops and their long history of centers and political and civic culture. We'll be joined by Quincy Mills. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
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