Why Marijuana Should Be Legalized: 'Regulate Marijuana Like Alcohol' Campaign Discusses Why Pot Prohibition Has Been A Failure

08/28/2012 08:20 am ET | Updated Aug 28, 2012

Should marijuana be legalized for recreational use by adults? That is the question that voters in three states are considering this November. Colorado, Washington and Oregon all have ballot measures that, if passed, would end marijuana prohibition in their state.

Colorado's Amendment 64 which seeks the legalization of marijuana for adults age 21 and older appears to be popular among voters. A recent poll from Rasmussen showed that 61 percent of likely Colorado voters are in favor of legalizing marijuana if it is regulated the way that alcohol and cigarettes are currently regulated.

According to a new report by the Colorado Center on Law & Policy, the passage of Amendment 64 could be a boon for the state economy. Marijuana legalization would produce hundreds of new jobs, raise millions for the construction of Colorado public schools and raise around $60 million annually in combined savings and revenue for Colorado's budget, the report says.

But it's not just marijuana use advocates that are behind the measure. The NAACP has backed pot legalization measures in Oregon and, as of last week, in Colorado not because the group necessarily favors marijuana use, but because members say current marijuana laws lead to a disproportionately high number of people of color being incarcerated or otherwise negatively affected.

To help better understand the issue at hand, The Huffington Post recently chatted with members of the Campaign to Regulate Marijuana Like Alcohol: Mason Tvert (co-director), Betty Aldworth (advocacy director) and Brian Vicente (co-director) -- the group behind Colorado's Amendment 64.

We asked Tvert, Aldworth and Vicente questions based on their particular areas of expertise -- Tvert, author of "Marijuana Is Safer: So Why Are We Driving People To Drink?" fielded questions on general marijuana use. Aldworth fielded questions on the initiative itself, voter concerns and levels of support. And Vicente handled questions about drug law, the marijuana regulatory system Amendment 64 proposes, as well as state vs. federal government interplay.

GENERAL MARIJUANA USE, LEGALIZATION CAMPAIGNS: Mason Tvert, co-director, Campaign to Regulate Marijuana Like Alcohol

A similar measure was put to ballot in 2006 in Colorado, can you tell us why you think that attempt failed?

The 2006 initiative was run with the desire to win, the expectation of losing, and the overarching goal of increasing public support for ending marijuana prohibition. It received 41 percent of the vote despite spending basically no money after the signature drive, and it produced an invaluable year-long public dialogue about marijuana –- particularly its relative safety compared to alcohol. It also laid infrastructural groundwork and unearthed support from around the state. Ultimately, Colorado voters were not yet ready to take that step toward ending marijuana prohibition. This came as little surprise given the decades of anti-marijuana propaganda to which voters have been exposed.

What is different in 2012?

The 2006 initiative would have simply removed the penalties for the possession of marijuana legal for individuals 21 years of age or older. The current initiative proposes a fully regulated system of cultivation and sales, which will eliminate the underground marijuana market and generate tens of millions of dollars per year in new revenue and criminal justice savings. It also directs the legislature to regulate the cultivation of industrial hemp, a versatile, popular, and environmentally friendly agricultural crop.

More importantly, voters are more informed about marijuana than ever before. They have also experienced the emergence of a state-regulated medical marijuana system that has not produced any serious problems, but has provided a number of benefits. We now know that marijuana cultivation and sales can be regulated, and that medical marijuana businesses do not contribute to increased crime. We have also seen marijuana use among high school students decrease since the state began implementing regulations, whereas it has increased nationwide where there are no regulations. And, of course, localities and the state have seen how much revenue can be generated through the legal sale of marijuana that would have otherwise gone into the underground market. Voters in Colorado no longer need to imagine what a legal and regulated system of marijuana sales would look like; they have seen it.

It's also worth noting that 2012 is a presidential election year, so we will benefit from increased voter turnout compared to an off-year election like 2006. Historically, the more people who vote, the more support marijuana reform initiatives receive.

Is marijuana less dangerous than alcohol and/or cigarettes?

Every objective study on marijuana has concluded that it is far safer than alcohol and cigarettes for the consumer and the surrounding community. Alcohol and tobacco are more toxic, more addictive, and more harmful to the body than marijuana, and alcohol is more likely to result in injuries and lead to interpersonal violence. According to an assessment recently published in the British Columbia Mental Health and Addictions Journal, health-related costs for alcohol consumers are eight times greater than those for marijuana consumers, and those for tobacco consumers are are 40 times greater than those for marijuana consumers. Our campaign has compiled a great deal of evidence regarding the relative harms of marijuana and alcohol at www.marijuana-vs-alcohol.org, and I have also co-authored a book on the subject titled, Marijuana Is Safer: So Why Are We Driving People To Drink? (Chelsea Green, 2009).

Has anyone, to your knowledge, ever died from marijuana usage?

There has never been a fatal marijuana overdose in history, and there is no clear-cut case of a death attributed to marijuana use. Thus, it comes as little surprise that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which track all causes of death in the United States, does not even have a category for marijuana use. It does, however, attribute upwards of 40,000 deaths per year to alcohol use, including hundreds of acute overdoses.

Does marijuana use lead to a higher likelihood of cancer?

There is no conclusive evidence linking marijuana use to cancer, and the largest case-controlled study ever conducted on the subject found that marijuana smoking is not associated with an increased risk of developing lung cancer. In fact, much to the surprise of the researchers, that study found that people who smoked marijuana actually had lower incidences of cancer compared to non-users. Meanwhile, alcohol has been found to contribute to the development of various forms of cancer, and we all know just how carcinogenic tobacco is. It's telling that there are no cancer-related deaths attributed to marijuana each year, but there are thousands attributed to alcohol and hundreds of thousands attributed to tobacco.

Is marijuana addictive?

Research has consistently shown that marijuana is far less addictive than alcohol based on a number of indicators. According to the National Academy of Sciences' Institute of Medicine, dependence among marijuana users is relatively rare and far less severe than dependence on other drugs. Research commissioned by the National Institute on Drug Abuse arrived at the same conclusion. Excessive marijuana use can become problematic for some people, just as excessive use of any substance – or food or sex, for that matter – can also become problematic. But there are no physical withdrawal symptoms associated with marijuana, whereas alcohol addiction can produce severe and potentially deadly physical withdrawal.

The opposition states that if Amendment 64 passes it would be legal for anyone 21 and older to possess and consume up to an ounce of marijuana, which they say is the equivalent of 60 joints. Marijuana use amongst adults can be assumed to vary substantially, but say that 100 percent of users are smoking heavily, is there any science that shows that this actually poses any kind of risk, say, even the stereotypical "demotivation?"

First of all, our opposition's claim that an ounce of marijuana can produce 60 joints suggests they either don't know the facts, or they don't care about the facts. Based on a standard demonstrated by the National Institute on Drug Abuse, an ounce of marijuana equates to about 30 joints (or one and a half packs of cigarettes). Ultimately, this is a scare tactic and the number of joints an ounce produces is irrelevant. Marijuana is a non-toxic substance that is far less addictive and less harmful to the body than alcohol, and unlike alcohol, it has never been found to contribute to violent or reckless behavior.

The Institute of Medicine has reported that that there is no convincing data demonstrating a causal relationship between marijuana use and lack of motivation. Seeing as 50 percent of all Americans have used marijuana -- not to mention our last three presidents, some of the world's greatest athletes, and Colorado's current and previous governor -- I think it's safe to say that marijuana is not a one-way ticket to loserdom.

LEGALIZATION BENEFITS, VOTER CONCERNS: Betty Aldworth, advocacy director, Campaign to Regulate Marijuana Like Alcohol

In your opinion has the war on marijuana been a failure or a success, or a little of both, and why?

Marijuana prohibition has undoubtedly produced far more harm than good. Use and availability of marijuana have remained unchanged for decades despite the vast government resources poured into the failed war on marijuana; meanwhile, we are criminalizing Coloradans simply for choosing a substance safer than alcohol; contributing to the power and coffers of a deadly and pervasive international gang of criminals; and throwing away millions of dollars every year in potential law enforcement savings, tax revenues, and economic stimulation.

How will the legalization of marijuana benefit the people of Colorado and why should a voter who is not a marijuana user come out and vote in support of this measure?

Immediately following passage of Amendment 64, law enforcement savings are estimated to be $12 million annually, allowing law enforcement to redirect resources to more serious crime. By 2017, the tax revenue and cost savings of Amendment 64 could top $100 million each year, and the potential for economic stimulation through job creation, construction, and the regular expenditures of small businesses is significant. By placing marijuana in a regulated market and removing it from the underground, criminal market we will no longer be empowering gangs and cartels but rather growing Colorado's economy.

The hundreds of thousands of Coloradans who sometimes choose marijuana over alcohol will no longer have to fear being criminalized for making that choice. The 10,000-plus (disproportionately black) Coloradans who we could otherwise expect to be arrested for simple marijuana possession each year in the future will not have to face the devastating consequences of a marijuana citation on their record, which can include significantly restricted access to student loans, jobs, housing, and even their children in the case of a custody dispute.

And, as you will read below, regulating marijuana like alcohol will take it off the streets and make it more difficult for youth to access. You don't have to be a marijuana user to understand that marijuana prohibition is far more dangerous than marijuana itself.

A criticism from opponents to legalization is that it could create more availability amongst Colorado youth. Are you at all concerned that legalization could spur an increase in use in general amongst minors?

For years, federal surveys have found that marijuana is "universally available" to young people, and that it is easier for them to purchase marijuana than it is to purchase alcohol. Our current policy of prohibition has utterly failed to keep marijuana out of the hands of teens, and it has even proven to be counterproductive. If we want to make it harder for minors to access marijuana, we need to take sales off the streets where dealers don't ask for ID, and put them behind the counter where proof of age is required.

Colorado's experience with medical marijuana has demonstrated the benefits of regulation. According to a recent federal government report, marijuana use among high school students in Colorado has decreased significantly since the state began regulating the sale of medical marijuana. Meanwhile, it has steadily increased nationwide, suggesting that even the partial regulation of marijuana can make it harder for young people to get their hands on marijuana. By regulating all marijuana sales, we can further reduce teen access and use.

If legalized, is there concern that marijuana use could increase harder drug use amongst Coloradans?

Every time researchers take an objective look at the so-called "Gateway Theory," they find that it does not hold water. There simply is no causal relationship between the use of marijuana and the use of other drugs. According to the National Academy of Sciences' Institute of Medicine and the World Health Organization, it is actually marijuana's illegal status that makes it a "gateway drug," because it forces marijuana sales into an underground market where other illegal products are available. By regulating marijuana and making it available on the legal market, we can actually reduce consumers' exposure to harder drugs.

Recently a parent group "Moms and Dads for Marijuana Regulation" joined the cause for legalization, why would a parent group support the legalization of marijuana?

Many parents in Colorado understand that marijuana's illegal status actually makes marijuana more available to teens and exposes those teens to harder drugs. The parents of Moms and Dads for Marijuana Regulation represent that viewpoint and, knowing that marijuana is going to be sold somewhere, by someone, would rather that marijuana be sold by strictly regulated businesspeople who check ID than by drug dealers who don't. They are frustrated by the health and safety risks posed by the underground, criminal marijuana market, and they understand that regulating marijuana like alcohol will create safer neighborhoods and communities.

It seems there is a shift occurring nationally toward more mainstream acceptance of marijuana legalization and more vocal criticism of the War on Drugs -- would you agree and why do you suppose this is happening?

People are increasingly seeing through the anti-marijuana propaganda they have been fed all their lives and recognizing the many failures of marijuana prohibition. Also, more and more people are coming to appreciate the fact that marijuana is relatively benign and far less harmful than alcohol for the consumer and society. The stigma is breaking down and a more open and honest conversation on the subject is taking place. As a result, public figures feel more comfortable speaking out about their support. As for politicians, they always tend to be a little behind the rest of the population, but as the public attitude is shifting, they are increasingly coming around.

Regardless of ideology or political orientation, a fact-based assessment of our current marijuana policy will lead to recognition that marijuana prohibition has failed. The NAACP, ACLU, and other criminal justice reform groups understand that marijuana prohibition disproportionately impacts people of color despite lower use rates than whites. Academics and economists are led to support regulating marijuana like alcohol as evidence-based policy reform which will align our laws with the reality of marijuana use and the marijuana market. Attorneys and members of law enforcement have seen the failures of marijuana prohibition firsthand. Faith leaders view marijuana policy reform as a more compassionate approach. Conservatives see marijuana prohibition as both wasteful of government resources and an invasion into people's personal lives. Colorado Democratic Party delegates approached their assessment from many of these perspectives, and voted to make support of Amendment 64 part of the official 2012 party platform.

DRUG LAW, MARIJUANA REGULATION: Brian Vicente, co-director, Campaign to Regulate Marijuana Like Alcohol

If it passes, what do you expect the economic impact of legalized marijuana in Colorado to be? If it remains illegal, how much does keeping it illegal cost?

According to a recent study by the Colorado Center on Law and Policy, passage of Amendment 64 would produce at least $60 million in annual revenue and savings, with the potential to top $100 million in annual revenues within 5 years. Amendment 64 would also create hundreds of jobs, mostly in construction, and generate tens of millions of dollars annually for Colorado public school construction.

Law enforcement arrests over 10,000 Coloradans annually for marijuana offenses which costs taxpayers at least $12 million dollars a year.

Do you think legalization will affect prices? Will they be driven drastically up or down, or neither?

We predict marijuana prices will remain fairly stable after the passage of Amendment 64. The state government will be required to collect state and local taxes on this product and those, along with a 15 percent excise tax, will keep the prices stable while undercutting the black market.

What does the legal marijuana market look like in Colorado, as you see it?

Colorado's new adult marijuana businesses will be required to follow strict regulations as created and enforced by the Department of Revenue, the same agency that oversees driver's licenses, liquor, and gambling. Adults will be able to purchase marijuana in stores in a manner very similar to a typical liquor store transaction. Businesses will pay all relevant taxes and will be required to check ID on every purchase.

Will those growing facilities, pot retailers, etc. that start businesses be held to the same kind of laws that other manufacturers of similar products like alcohol or tobacco might be held to? i.e. Will these facilities/retailers be opening up in neighborhoods, near schools, etc.?

These new businesses will be held to strict legal and regulatory standards concerning health and safety, labor practices, and the environment. Local communites will have the power to prohibit these stores and, if they choose to allow these busineses, will have total control over issues such as zoning and signage.

If the amendment passes, do you think some kind of DWI bill should also be introduced in the wake of legalization?

Our campaign firmly believes that NO ONE should drive while impaired by marijuana or any other substance. We took this issue very seriously in the drafting of Amendment 64 and that is why initiative explicitly states that the legislature shall maintain the absolute ability to legislate on this issue how it sees fit. Currently, it is 100 percent illegal to drive while impaired by marijuana in Colorado and prosecutors enjoy an over 90 percent conviction rate for cases where drivers are suspected to be impaired by this substance. The legislature has been considering strengthening DUI-marijuana laws in Colorado, and it can do so at any time before or after the initiative is adopted.

How might legalization affect Colorado crime rates in terms of marijuana busts, people doing time for marijuana, etc?

Over 10,000 Coloradans are arrested every year for marijuana offenses, at great cost to our criminal justice system. After this Amendment's passage, police and courts will be able to use their scarce resources to focus on more serious crimes. Supporters of Amendment 64, like the NAACP have recently publicized statistics showing the vastly disproportionate impact of Colorado's marijuaan laws on African Americans in our state.

How would pot legalization affect the kind of massive illegal grow operations like the one just busted up in Pueblo County?

After Amendment 64's passage, adult marijuana sales will take place in regulated stores with marijuana that is grown in strictly regulated, state-licensed cultivation facilities. This means that adults who are currently purchasing marijuana from the underground market will now make these purchases from regulated stores, and the demand for illegally-growm marijuana will dissipate. In short, regulated marijuana sales will put the market in the hands of closely-regulated businesspeople and take it away from dangerous, underground cartels.

How will trafficking be curtailed? i.e. Should voters be concerned about Colorado becoming a hub for legal growing that turns into illegal trafficking? Why is that unlikely or likely?

Amendment 64 only changes laws in the state of Colorado and after its passage, it will remain entirely illegal to cross state lines with marijuana or to ship it out of state. A fully regulated system of marijuana cultivation and sales will eventually lead to the elimination of the underground marijuana market in Colorado. Under a prohibition model, the production and distribution of marijuana is entirely uncontrolled. Authorities do not know who is growing it, where, or when, and they certainly do not know where it goes from there. Under the system proposed by Amendment 64, regulators and law enforcement officials would be directly involved in the process, ensuring it is produced and distributed in accordance with the law. The Colorado Department of Revenue is currently implementing a system of medical marijuana regulation that entails tracking all marijuana from "seed to sale." The same agency will oversee the regulation of non-medical marijuana if Amendment 64 is adopted, and it will in all likelihood extend that strict process to all marijuana production and sales.

What do you foresee the federal government's response to Amendment 64 passing to be?

We believe the federal goverment will respect the will of Colorado's voters and allow this state-licesed system of marijuana regulation to proceed. It's worth noting that Colorado voters approved a ballot initiative to repeal alcohol prohibition prior to the federal government repeal, and they are primed to do the same with the equally disatrous policy of marijuana prohibition.

FINAL STATEMENTS: Mason Tvert, Betty Aldworth and Brian Vicente

Individually, why did you become an advocate for marijuana legalization and why should marijuana be legalized, in your opinion?

Tvert: Initially, I got into the field of marijuana policy reform because I was infuriated by the fact that people were being made into criminals and otherwise having their lives disrupted simply for using a substance that is far less harmful than alcohol. I quickly realized just how many other important issues it encompasses. Ultimately, working to end marijuana prohibition reflects my most treasured values: compassion, fairness, and reason. I feel incredibly fortunate to be able to do it day in and day out, but of course I look forward to the day when there is no more work left to do.

Our public policies should be based on evidence, and all of the evidence clearly demonstrates that marijuana prohibition has been an absolute failure. It has caused far more harm than good, and it will continue to do so until we take the actions necessary to end it.

Aldworth: The more I've learned about our failed marijuana policy, the more I've come to understand that the collateral effects of prohibition are far more damaging than we realize. I've been an activist and advocate my entire life -– I ran my first (quite humble) action when I was 12 -– and I believe marijuana policy reform is one of the more important policy overhauls we can undertake to create a more fair, just, and balanced society.

Vicente: Over the years I've found that the more you learn about the government's War on Marijuana, the less this policy makes sense. The "War" has involved an enormous expense of taxpayer dollars and has yielded very little positive result. Marijuana prohibition leads to the criminaliztion of about 890,000 citizens annually. That's the equivalent of arresting every man, woman, and child in Boulder, Ft. Collins, and the entire state of Wyoming every year! My passion for working on this cause is driven by a desire to stop the unneccesary criminalization of these fellow citizens and community members.

Colorado voters should support this sensible measure in order to bring much-needed tax revenue into our state and to make better use of scarce law enforcement resources. This measure will also have the positive effect of allowing Colorado veterans with PTSD to use marijuana to alleviate their suffering. Vets with PTSD currently do not qualify under our state's restrictive medical marijuana law. This measure will allow them access to this substance without fear of arrest.

“HuffPost Live will be taking a comprehensive look at America’s failed war on drugs August 28th and September 4th from 12-4 pm ET and 6-10 pm ET. Click here to check it out -- and join the conversation.

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