Marijuana-use spike in survey on national drug use proves time to legalize is now, advocate says

This week, news that a national survey by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) showed illegal drug use among Americans twelve and older is climbing, with much of the increase due to marijuana, made headlines nationwide. But Sensible Colorado's Brian Vicente says there's no cause for alarm in these figures. Far from it: He feels the numbers show that it's time to legalize marijuana for adult use.

Vicente is an outspoken advocate for medical marijuana. Yesterday in this space, he weighed in on the decision by the state's board of health not to approve Tourette Syndrome as a condition treatable by MMJ. In his view, this verdict is proof that "the system has failed."

A SAMHSA graphic showing the decline in perceptions of marijuana is harmful.
A SAMHSA graphic showing the decline in perceptions of marijuana is harmful.

Still, there's no denying that medical marijuana has become increasingly acceptable across the country -- and National Drug Control Policy Director Gil Kerlikowske feels this trend played a part in the rising use of marijuana documented in the SAMHSA study. For the first time since 2002, more than half the young respondents to the survey (to read it in its entirety, click here) felt marijuana use wasn't harmful.

Even Vicente doesn't go that far. But he argues that marijuana is far less harmful than plenty of other substances approved for legal consumption in this country.

"I think there are two issues here," he says. "The first being that in fourteen states and the District of Columbia, marijuana is medicine, period. It's codified. The laws outline that, and people are relieving suffering by using it. So if more people are accessing and using medical marijuana to deal with cancer, AIDS and crippling pain as opposed to them using traditional addictive narcotics to relieve their suffering, then that could lead to a rise in marijuana use.

"But the second point here is that millions of responsible adults are using marijuana safely for recreational purposes in this country. It's a drug that is scientifically proven to be safer than alcohol and many other drugs on the market -- specifically prescription drugs. And I think we need to think about whether we should be criminalizing adults for making the choice to recreate with this relatively benign substance."


One of the constant refrains in the SAMHSA study is that marijuana is often the first illegal drug used by underage individuals. Vicente doesn't shrug off these figures, emphasizing that use of marijuana or any other drug by young people shouldn't be sanctioned or condoned.

He also acknowledges that changing attitudes toward marijuana in this country "could in part be attributed to more people using marijuana medically." But in his view, this usage argues for legalization, not against it.

"I think the government should realize that there are many, many responsible adults using marijuana safely," he maintains. "In many cases, they may be using marijuana as a recreational substance instead of abusing alcohol or abusing other, more dangerous drugs. And that, in fact, this could be a positive thing for society, and not an issue that should lead to the criminalization of adults who are making a more responsible lifestyle choice."

A SAMHSA graphic showing past-month marijuana use in relation to other illegal substances.
A SAMHSA graphic showing past-month marijuana use in relation to other illegal substances.

Instead of using the SAMHSA study as a rationale for stricter marijuana laws, Vicente hopes officials will look inside the numbers and realize that change should be embraced, not fought.

In his words, "our government needs to institute policies that reflect the fact that responsible marijuana users are not criminals and instead focus on more science-based policies, and policies that severely restrict youth access to all drugs."

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