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Smart Approaches to Marijuana (SAM) Editorial

Smart Approaches to Marijuana is a bipartisan “alliance of organizations and individuals dedicated to a health-first approach to marijuana policy.” They consist of “doctors, lawmakers, treatment providers, preventionists, teachers, law officers who seek a middle road between incarceration and legalization.” Furthermore they envision a society where “marijuana policies are aligned with the scientific understanding of marijuana’s harms, and the commercialization and normalization of marijuana are no more.”


Dr. Kevin Sabet | President & Founder


Twitter: @learnaboutSam &  @KevinSabet

Website: &


Marijuana legalization has been a hot-button issue in the United States. Just this year, legalization efforts went one for two by winning in Michigan but losing heavily in North Dakota.

These efforts began in earnest in 2012, when the western states of Colorado and Washington became the first states to legalize recreational use after massive amounts of money were spent to sell the referendums to the local populations. These two policy changes have indeed accelerated the growth of a multibillion dollar, addiction-for-profit industry and has caused negative impacts both inside and outside of those states. 

We now have five years of data1, lessons learned, and negative impacts affecting both families and communities. The goals and tactics of the marijuana industry mirrors the playbook and goals of Big Tobacco: successfully convert young, casual users into heavy, more frequent users. 

Given the United States’ addiction epidemic, the rise of lax legalization polices could not come at a worse time. In the time that the opioid epidemic has increased, the percentage of marijuana users using the drug frequently has skyrocketed.2 This is unsurprising as peer-reviewed research has revealed early marijuana use more than doubles the likelihood of opioid use later in life.3 


Although the full consequences from legalization will not be clear for decades, we need not wait that long to understand some key consequences in regards of youth consumption of the substance. 

Legalized states have among the highest rates of marijuana use in the country. Worse, since Colorado, Washington, Oregon, Alaska, and the District of Columbia allowed marijuana use, past-month use of the drug has rose above the national average among youth aged 12-17 in all of the aforementioned areas.4 This runs counter to the claims that legalization would have no effect on young adult and youth use of the drug. 

The data show that people are radically increasing their rates of consumption. One recent study showed increased use by 14-18-year olds with newer forms of consumption that have become popular such as vaping and edibles.5 About 62% of 11th grade students in Oregon have reported “very easy” access to marijuana, with many of them reporting marijuana acquisition coming primarily from friends.6 Another study out of Oregon found that as medical marijuana users and growers increased in a community, marijuana use amongst youth also increased, in part due to the rising social acceptance of it.7

One of the most common claims of the pro-legalization effort is that marijuana must be legalized to help crack down on the black-market trade of the drug. In reality, criminal activity has only been amplified as highway interdiction seizures and confiscation of illegal marijuana growing operations have become increasingly common. In 2016 alone, Colorado law enforcement confiscated 7,116 pounds of marijuana, carried out 252 felony arrests, and made 346 highway interdictions of marijuana headed to 36 different U.S. states.8 Additionally, a recent investigation by NBC found that foreign cartels are using the drug’s legal status to hide enormous human trafficking and drug smuggling operations.9

A leaked police report revealed that at least 70% of marijuana sales in 2016 in Oregon took place on the black market and around three to five times the amount of marijuana consumed in Oregon leaves the state for illegal sales.10 The U.S. Attorney General in Oregon stated this year that “[they have] a massive marijuana overproduction problem,” with 2,644 pounds of marijuana in outbound postal parcels and over $1.2 million in case seized in 2017 alone.11

Finally, one of the most concerning developments since legalization has been the increase in drugged driving and fatalities in the states that have legalized. A recent study out of Washington found that almost 17% of marijuana users admit to using the substance daily and more than half of daily users ages 15 to 20 believe that marijuana made them a better driver.12


The fact is, marijuana impairment makes it impossible to drive safely. According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, marijuana can slow a driver’s reaction time and impair the ability to judge time and distance.13 

In Colorado, the number of drivers intoxicated with marijuana and involved in fatal traffic crashes increased almost 90% from 2013 to 2015.14 Further, driving under the influence of drugs (DUIDs) have risen in the state with over 76% of statewide DUIDs involving marijuana. In Washington, marijuana-impaired driving deaths have more than doubled following legalization.15

In the end, the data from over the last five years is clear -- marijuana legalization has been an abject failure. History will not look kindly on those who helped corporatize the industry and line their pockets for another addiction-for-profit industry. Instead, we believe it will be wishing there were more who stood up to Big Marijuana and advocated for public health and safety. 

Dr. Kevin Sabet is a former senior drug policy advisor to three White House administrations. He currently serves as president and founder of Smart Approaches to Marijuana. Follow him on Twitter: @KevinSabet and follow Smart Approaches to Marijuana: @learnaboutSam

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