“For first time, majority in U.S. supports public smoking ban.” That was the headline in July 2011 as cigarette bans swept the country. In 2000, just one major U.S. city banned smoking at work sites, restaurants and bars. As of last year, 60 percent of the 50 largest cities did, including Indianapolis. Last July, Indiana became one of 38 states with smoke-free air laws.
“Majority now supports legalizing marijuana.” That headline appeared this spring amidst growing debate over liberalizing marijuana laws. Although marijuana use is still against federal law, 26 states have legalized medical marijuana, decriminalized recreational marijuana or both. Indiana has flirted with the idea.
Senate Bill 580 this past session would have made possession of less than two ounces of marijuana a Class C infraction punishable by nothing more than a fine — the same as a traffic ticket. The bill died without a hearing; its author, Sen. Karen Tallian, D-Portage, promised to reintroduce it next year. A WISH-TV/Ball State University Hoosier Survey showed support for decriminalization at 53 percent.
What’s going on? The Hoosier Survey and poll results from Gallup and Pew Research Center suggest a severe case of schizophrenia on smoking. Health advocates have succeeded in their marketing campaign against Big Tobacco but have failed to gain the upper hand in the marijuana debate. This is partly due to misinformation and partly due to misrepresentation by activists.
The National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws (NORML) is the most vocal group seeking to repeal marijuana restrictions. The group says prominently on its website, “According to the prestigious European medical journal, The Lancet, ‘The smoking of cannabis, even long-term, is not harmful to health.’”
Since The Lancet said those words in 1996, however, it has published numerous studies refuting the conclusion. In 2009, it wrote, “Epidemiological, clinical and laboratory studies have established an association between cannabis use and adverse outcomes . . . (including) dependence syndrome, increased risk of motor vehicle crashes, impaired respiratory function, cardiovascular disease, and adverse effects of regular use on adolescent psychosocial development and mental health.”
Any smoking is bad for one’s health. But on almost every measure, marijuana is more dangerous than tobacco, comparable with alcohol in its ability to impair judgment and to more-potent narcotics in its lasting effects on the brain. The typical cannabis cigarette “increases the smoker’s risk of developing lung cancer by 20 times the amount of one tobacco cigarette,” says the British Lung Foundation, which published a review of medical research in 2012.
Marijuana harms short-term memory and makes it difficult to learn and retain information or perform complex tasks. It slows reaction time and reduces motor coordination. Prolonged use is “associated with lower test scores and lower educational attainment because during periods of intoxication the drug affects the ability to learn and process information, thus influencing attention, concentration and short-term memory,” said researchers M. T. Lynskey and W. D. Hall.
One reason commonly given for decriminalizing marijuana is to free law enforcement to focus on serious crime and to reduce the number of minor possession cases clogging the court system.
The argument is na´ve. The National Research Council has found that the long-term marijuana use can alter the nervous system in ways that promote violence. Further, legalizing drugs doesn’t end illegal activity connected with drug trade. Consider Amsterdam, where coffee houses selling marijuana are commonplace. The city has been plagued by drug trafficking, drug tourism and street crime.
Support for legalizing marijuana has risen 11 points since 2010, an increase that can only be attributed to propaganda. Policymakers must resist the urge to do the popular thing. Society can’t deem cigarette smoking a public health hazard and simultaneously embrace marijuana smoking.