Tech + Health

03.06.14

The U.N.’s Half-Baked Weed Protest

A day after marijuana legalization efforts received international criticism, a 32-year-old received the first license to grow weed in Olympia, Washington. Is the Evergreen state—and those that may follow—ready for the green light?

Sean Green, a 32-year-old from Spokane had just three words to say after accepting Washington state’s first legal marijuana license Wednesday: “Let’s get growing.”

A far cry from the stereotype of a stoner, the clean-cut father of two has both the face and name to succeed as the poster boy for Washington state’s legalization. After all, they’re going to need one.

In a scathing report from the International Narcotics Control Board (INCB)—the monitoring body for the UN’s international drug control treaties—President Raymond Yans condemned the progression of marijuana laws in both the U.S. and Uruguay. “INCB is gravely concerned about some initiatives aimed at legalization of the non-medical and non-scientific use of cannabis,” Yans writes (PDF). “Such initiatives pose a serious danger to public health and well-being, the very aim of the international drug control treaties.”

It’s been just over two months since Colorado opened the doors to America’s first legal recreational marijuana stores, and the dictator’s club is using it for fuel.

While drug policy activists in a constant battle against the INCB found their words unsurprising, the media took notice—not because the UN is watching, but because they’re sure we’re doing it wrong. It, being of course, the legalization.

In an op-ed for Washington Monthly titled “How Not to Make a Hash Out of Cannabis Legalization,” drug policy expert and Washington state’s top marijuana consultant Mark Kleiman makes a solid argument stating that—in many ways—we are messing it up.

Without the support of the federal government, he says, Colorado and Washington are in statutory limbo. A fact alone that screams disaster. “They’re quasi-pseudo-hemi-demi-legal: permitted under state law, but forbidden under a federal law that might not be enforced,” Kleiman writes. In the absence of a streamlined national system for handling the sale of marijuana, the businesses are virtually felony-aholics run by independent and competitive commercial enterprises. In Kleiman’s eyes, this ownership is where the breakdown between safe and reckless legalization occurs.

“When you have a commercial system, it’s the people who are constantly using that are your best customers,” he says. “For people who are in the business of selling drugs, substance abuse users are the target demographic. They’re number one.”

The reason for this commercial-driven cannabis legalization is simple, he says: the voters. “In order to get the legalization initiative to pass, proponents had to convince the voters that marijuana is harmless—that it won’t cause a drug abuse increase.” Kleiman tells The Daily Beast. “If that’s your stance, you can’t put something in the law to control it.” By things, he means security precautions such as an internal tracking system to regulate buyer’s purchases—something neither has. “You can’t try to regulate a problem that you claim doesn’t exist.”

“The INCB’s condemnation should be taken with many grains, indeed pounds, of salt, given that organization’s previous condemnations of proven public health interventions to reduce the harms of drug misuse.”

Kleiman isn’t shocked by the INCB’s comments (“of course they said that”), but he isn’t self-justifying either. “What we’re doing in America is the softest target for the opponents of legalization,” he says “We’re making it easy to be against legalization.”

Mason Tvert, communications director for the Marijuana Policy Alliance and co-director of the campaign behind Colorado’s Amendment 64 (PDF), is angered by the notion that our current cannabis structure could lead to a nationwide disaster. “This system was created with the help of experts in every single industry, including the healthcare community,” he tells The Daily Beast. Tvert rejects the idea that Colorado’s legalization has somehow put residents more at risk—and insists it’s the opposite.

“Prior to this system, people were buying marijuana wherever they could find it, from whoever had it. It’s much more restrictive now.” While a special provision in Amendment 64 prevents Colorado from tracking an individual's purchases, strict guidelines ensure that all packaging includes a clear description of the contents. “This process involves people in the medical field and research field. There’s now testing facilities and testing on the products. Labeling requirements. Packaging. This is more control over the product than there’s ever been in history,” he says. “Anyone that says we’re doing it wrong is holding us to an unreasonable standard.”

Alison Holcomb, the primary author of Initiative 502 and lead policy director behind Washington state’s legalization is equally as passionate about her state’s plan. Holcomb’s on a high headed back to Seattle after attending Green’s license ceremony when we connect on the phone. “I think that the Liquor Control Board is doing a fantastic job,” she says. “The initiative called for background checks, testing computer systems, labeling, cannabinoid profiles, THC content, pesticides and fertilizer specifications and more,” she says. And that’s just before the licenses were issued. For the stores themselves there’s an even longer list of demands. “Sanitation standards, consumer health risks, identification procedures, and security requirements, are just a few,” she says. With up to 334 stores in set to open in Washington as early as June, Holcomb is too busy moving forward to notice who’s trying to push her back.

Ethan Nadelmann, president and co-founder of The Drug Policy Alliance, makes up for it. “The INCB’s condemnation should be taken with many grains, indeed pounds, of salt, given that organization’s previous condemnations of proven public health interventions to reduce the harms of drug misuse,” he tells The Daily Beast. “The voters of Colorado and Washington, the government of Uruguay, and, strikingly, the President and Attorney General of the United States, are providing global leadership in forging new cannabis regulatory policies,” he adds. “[They] promise to advance public safety and health more successfully than the failed prohibitionist policies defended by the INCB.”

It’s the INCB’s main claim, that the “introduction of a widely commercialised ‘medical’ cannabis” in Colorado” has caused more car accidents from “drug drivers” that is hardest for both Kleiman and Tvert to swallow. Kleiman brings up a study that proved cannabis impaired driver creates a relative risk of 2 (alcohol’s relative risk at twice the legal limit is 50). “In policy terms that means driving 10 miles stoned is about as dangerous as driving 5 miles straight,” he says. Tvert is a bit more direct. “That claim is absolutely ridiculous anyone that uses it should be embarrassed—at the most basic level, the testing on marijuana and driving does not differentiate on who was driving or how long the marijuana has been in the person’s system,” he says. “If they used marijuana a day ago, the UN is saying that that was a marijuana-related incident.” While both stress the importance of educating Americans about the dangers of driving under the influence—and the benefits of avoiding it all together—they find it absurd to use this metric as a measure of the success of cannabis legalization.

If there’s one thing to calm everyone’s nerves (besides the drug in question) it’s the knowledge that a cannabis catastrophe would still pale in comparison to that of almost all other drugs. “It will only be a moderate size disaster,” Kleiman says with a grin. “Cannabis is only that bad, there’s only so much we can screw it up.”