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On Cannabis, Drug War Biden is Right About One Thing

On Cannabis, Drug War Biden is Right About One Thing
PHOTO Gage Skidmore

Joint Opinions

On Cannabis, Drug War Biden is Right About One Thing

The drug-war architect is skeptical about marijuana legalization and has the wrong idea, but for the right reason.

It would be unfair to say Joe Biden, the former vice president whose legacy bid for the Democratic presidential nomination is wheezing in stasis, a worthless and retrograde reanimated mummy with ideas staler than decades-old Corn Pops. Even very old cereal still has caloric value.

At a campaign event in Las Vegas over the weekend, Biden — who, at least before Deval Patrick threw his anodyne-but-bespoke silk top hat in the impossibly crowded ring, was the lone Democrat in the pre-primaries to not fully endorse cannabis legalization — attempted an explanation as to why he is still a weed holdout. Biden being Biden, he committed an unforced error by uttering the cursed and triggering phrase “gateway drug.” Twice!

That was all anyone appeared to hear, and more than any opponent needed to hear. The result was an internet dogpile, in which literally everyone rushed to post, in their own breathless words, what a complete idiot Joe Biden is and how he should go away forever. Riding to Biden’s defense was Nate Silver (of all people), who appears to have been one of the only pundits who listened to Biden’s whole quote.

Silver declares Biden’s stance “quite a bit further to the left than you’d assume from the headlines.” And though you might have to ask the likes of Matt Gaetz what partisan shading has to do with anything, it does seem that Biden, drug war architect and legalization skeptic, is onto something. Biden wants to know more about cannabis — and the knowledge isn’t here yet.

Above you can see the two-minute clip for yourself. Biden does stumble into nonsense territory by calling “gateway theory” a “debate” — it is not — but recovers in time to make a solid case for more scientific research before he makes a key decision. Notice not once does he say he opposes legalization.

“I think states should be able to make a judgment to legalize marijuana, I agree, I think that’s okay, but let me tell you,” he begins. “The truth of the matter is, there’s been not nearly enough evidence that’s been acquired, as to whether or not it’s a gateway drug.”

“It’s a debate and I want a lot more. Before I legalize it nationally, I want to make sure we know a lot more about the science behind it,” he continues. “There’s not — that’s why I want to move it to a Schedule II drug, a Schedule I drug, to Schedule III, so you can in fact do this.”

“I support using medical marijuana but here’s the deal. Ladies and gentlemen, anyone who’s been convicted, it should not be a crime. It should be, to the extent that it exists, that anyone ever been convicted of the use of marijuana and put in jail, they should be immediately released, their record immediately expunged, immediately and, and, and here’s the deal,” he says, gaining steam.

“It is not irrational to do more scientific investigation to determine, which we have not done, significantly enough, whether or not there are any things that relate to whether it’s a gateway drug or not.”

“It should not be a crime, it should be a civil penalty, to the extent that it exists, the states that don’t choose to legalize,” said Biden, who wrapped up with the coda that “I need more data to make that judgment,” drawing applause.

The gateway theory is, of course, an exploded myth and a relic of a bygone era for which Biden is the avatar. Most people who use cannabis never “go on” to use other drugs. The National Institutes on Health says this.

What’s not a myth is what cannabis does to the developing brain, or a developing fetus, or a teenager, or someone under 25, or a geriatric with Alzheimer’s disease.

In those instances what happens are all theories. In some cases, there are theories (most doctors will tell a pregnant woman not to smoke weed, same with a teenager) based on abundant data. Such a theory is almost but not quite a fact. For many other claims of cannabis’s value, or dangers, Biden is right: There just isn’t enough data. If you listen to medical professionals and research scientists — and if we are to live in a fact-based society where we acknowledge things like climate change are real, we really should — this is exactly what they say and have been saying.

“Recreational use has no demonstrated inherent health benefit,” three Colorado physicians recently wrote in an editorial published in the Western Journal of Emergency Medicine. “While some have suggested that it may increase relaxation and reduce stress, there are no clinical studies to support those claims. One plausible health benefit is the substitution of cannabis for other more dangerous recreational drugs; however, this is also not studied.”

This cuts both ways. Prohibitionists declaring that cannabis is responsible for, say, mass shootings — as was done on Tucker Carlson long ago — or making far more modest claims are also untrue.

“While it is disingenuous to say that cannabis legalization has not impacted emergency medicine… it is important to recognize that there are many greater threats to public health and to provide appropriate focus to each of these conditions,” the physicians added. “A legitimate discussion around the health effects of cannabis… requires a fair assessment of the risks and benefits by advocates and critics alike.”

There isn’t enough data because the drug has been illegal for decades (a colossal mistake to which Biden contributed). Assuming Biden is in earnest, he is absolutely right that the state of cannabis research is something close to appalling. It’s very hard to get cannabis research funded. When it is funded the cannabis available for research is garbage. Limited studies have limited findings, often unclear whether cannabis is a causal agent or merely correlative. Yet limited findings are pressed into service to explain the whole. Thus, much of what we “know” is a combination of anecdotes, folk knowledge, and (sorry!)  pernicious untruths. Cannabis might treat cancer; it does not cure it. Nobody wants to hear that.

Biden also deserves something (maybe not credit) for not taking the easy way out, the path chosen by most of his rivals for the nomination, a few of whom opposed legalization when their support meant something. Saying “I support legalization” just means you can read a poll and know what voters say they want. It’s also the opening line in what must be a manifesto. As anyone who has lived in a legal state or glanced at the issue of legalization knows, how you legalize is what’s important. Who benefits? Who gets the jobs? Who’s in charge? What do we test for? Who’s guaranteeing quality? And so on. Without those qualifications, legalization support is either an empty gesture or a misdirection. 

Well before this point, arguments like this devolve into whataboutism. “Cigarettes and alcohol are legal,” you will hear. “Marijuana should be, too!” Of course, cannabis should be legal, given the alternative. Look at the counterfactual, decades of a drug war, and observe the damage; now try to quantify any discernible benefit, but that fact is true independent of any other substance.

And it doesn’t change the truth. We don’t know enough about weed. What’s up with cannabis hyperemesis? What are all these other cannabinoids, and what do they do?  We know enough that nobody should be in jail for it and that it has therapeutic value, but we also “know,” based on data, that cannabis has a darker side. The best way to silence the skeptics and rank opportunists is to obtain more data. Taking his words at face value, Joe Biden wants to know what he doesn’t know. And so should you.

TELL US, has someone brought up the gateway theory to you?

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