The Changing Face of Marijuana and Marijuana Policy (3/3)

"Medicine Man", a medical marijuana dispensary in Denver (Colorado)

Conclusion of the article by Dr. Kevin Sabet

Legalization is about much more than “live and let live” and not jailing marijuana users. Regardless of the law on the books, most jurisdictions in the US and Europe have already made it practice not to imprison marijuana users.

Experience with marijuana laws in the United States and Europe have found that most marijuana smokers never see the inside of a jail or prison cell. Though there were almost 800,000 arrests for marijuana offenses last year in the US – far lower than the number of arrests for nonviolent alcohol-related offenses – most arrestees get off with a ticket or summons. Regardless of whether or not one lives in a state with a formal decriminalization law on the books or not[1], marijuana smokers who commit no other crime are rarely, if ever, imprisoned. In fact, researchers have reported that less than 1 percent of all prison inmates appeared to be incarcerated in prison simply for marijuana use.[2]

Dr. Kevin Sabet speaks about the effects of legalization (Columbus, USA) - Photo Columbus Dispatch

Marijuana contains medicinal value, but it should not be used in its raw, smoked, ingested, or vaporized form to receive those medical benefits.

Just like opium, marijuana is a potentially dangerous drug with a medical value. But also just like opium, we do not need to smoke, eat, or vaporize the raw plant in order to receive those medical benefits.

But “medical” marijuana as it stands today, in California, Colorado, and many other states, has turned into a charade. A recent study found that the average “patient” was a thirty-two-year-old white male with a history of drug and alcohol abuse and no history of life- threatening disease[3]Further studies have shown that very few of those who sought a recommendation had cancer, HIV/AIDS, glaucoma, or multiple sclerosis.[4]

Other studies, like a recent Journal of Policy and Management paper conducted by RAND researchers, have found that specific dimensions of laws authorizing the use of marijuana for medical purposes, namely home cultivation and legal dispensaries – two features found in Colorado and other states with similar laws – are positively associated with marijuana use and “have important implications for states considering legalization of marijuana.”[5]

The public should not feel helpless, however. State supreme courts (like in a recent case in California) have confirmed that localities can ban retail marijuana outlets entirely (several dozen have already done so in California and Colorado). The public can help get the truth about marijuana out to the community – relying on public health messages and medical associations to relay the message that more marijuana is not healthy for any family or community.

Groups like the one I started with former Congressman Patrick Kennedy, Project SAM (Smart Approaches to Marijuana; www.learnaboutsam.org) stand ready to help in such efforts. We urge you to work with us and other like-minded organizations – before Joe Camel becomes reincarnated as Joe Pot.

"Reefer Sanity, Seven Great Myths About Marijuana", by Kevin Sabet, Ph.D.Dr. Sabet is the Director of the Drug Policy Institute at the University of Florida and an Assistant Professor in the College of Medicine, Department of Psychiatry. With Patrick J. Kennedy, he is the co-founder of Project SAM (Smart Approaches to Marijuana). He is the author of Reefer Sanity: Seven Great Myths About Marijuana (2013, Beaufort) and a consultant to numerous domestic and international organizations, including the United Nations, through his company, the Policy Solutions Lab. Dr. Sabet is regularly invited to give testimony to governments, and he is a frequent contributor to opinion-editorial pages worldwide. 


  1. It is largely understood that whether a state is labeled as “decriminalized” or not does not necessarily mean much for describing its policy. Several non-decriminalized states actually have lower penalties than “decriminalized” states. See Pacula, R., J.F. Chriqui, and J. King. 2003. Decriminalization in the United States: What Does it Mean? National Bureau of Economic Research Working Paper # 9690; and Pacula, R., R.J. MacCoun, P. Reuter, J.F. Chriqui, B. Kilmer, K. Harris, L. Paoli, and C. Schaefer. 2005. “What Does it Mean to Decriminalize Cannabis? A CrossNational Empirical Examination,” in B. Lindgren and M. Grossman, eds. Advances in Health Economics and Health Services Research, vol. 16: Substance Use: Individual Behavior, Social Interactions, Markets and Politics. Elsevier Press; and MacCoun, R., Pacula, R. L., Reuter, P., Chriqui, J., Harris, K. (2009). Do citizens know whether they live in a decriminalization state?  State marijuana laws and perceptions. Review of Law & Economics, 5(1), 347-371.
  2. Bureau of Justice Statistics. (2004). Data collection: Survey of inmates in state correctional facilities (SISCF) Retrieved from http:// www.bjs.gov/index.cfm?ty=dcdetail&iid=275.
  3. O’Connell, T. et al. (2007). Long term marijuana users seeking medical cannabis in California(2001-2007): Demographics, social characteristics, patterns of cannabis and other drug use of 4117 applicants. Harm Reduction Journal. Retrieved from http://www.harmreductionjournal.com/content/4/1/16.
  4. Nunberg, H. et al. (2011). An analysis of applicants presenting to a medical marijuana specialty practice in California. Journal of Drug Policy Analysis, 4(1). Retrieved from http://www.bepress.com/jdpa/vol4/iss1/
  5. (Pacula, R. et al. 2013). “Assessing the Effects of Medical Marijuana Laws on Marijuana and Alcohol Use: The Devil is in the Details.” NBER Working Paper No. 19302, August 2013, JEL No. I18,K32,K42