Speaker opposes legal marijuana

DUNCANSVILLE — Toward the end of a presentation before about 20 people, the chief of staff of Smart Approaches to Marijuana talked about the seeds of his opposition to legalizing recreational use of the drug.

Luke Niforatos and his wife used to push their daughter in a stroller near their home in Colorado, which legalized recreational pot in 2014. His daughter would be wreathed repeatedly in secondhand marijuana smoke, leading his wife to say, “This isn’t normal,” Niforatos told attendees at the talk, sponsored by the Blair Drug & Alcohol Partnership.

After that realization, he joined SAM, whose mission includes discouraging other states from following the 10 locations (including Washington, D.C.) that have approved recreational legalization.

Legalization isn’t as popular or discouraging to criminality as advertised. It also is disproportionately harmful to poor communities, isn’t as lucrative for government or isn’t capable of relieving prison overcrowding as its advocates claim, according to Niforatos.

Legalization advocates claim that a majority favors their side, but when survey questions are reframed to include the option to decriminalize possession of a small amount of marijuana, a healthy majority favor continued prohibition of recreational use, Niforatos told attendees.

Two-thirds of Americans favor legalization, according to the Marijuana Policy Project’s Director of State Policies Karen O’Keefe. who responded by email to a request for comment from the Mirror.

The SAM claims are based on “push-polls (that) managed to get the answers they want,” she wrote.

Niforatos said, “It may sound counterintuitive,” he said. “(But) the black market doesn’t go away.”

People may have the impression that legalization favors small players, Niforatos said. But most of the marijuana being sold now in states where it’s legal is grown by big producers.

Tobacco firms like Altria, makers of Marlboro, along with drug firms, including one that involves a former CEO of Purdue Pharma, are investing heavily in marijuana businesses, according to Niforatos.

Altria has acquired Juul, a manufacturer of vaping equipment, so with its marijuana investment, Altria now has access to a supply of the product, a delivery mechanism and its existing cigarette-based “supply chain,” Niforatos said.

“Big Tobacco got away with murder for 100 years,” Niforatos said. The marijuana industry looks to be headed for that sort of behavior, he said.

Despite what Niforatos says, the black market for marijuana has “been fully absorbed into the regulated market,” said O’Keefe, citing a 2018 report from the Colorado Marijuana Enforcement Division — although she conceded that the existence of “prohibition” in other states guarantees the persistence of illicit activity.

That contrasts with the dominance of the foreign cartels before legalization took hold, she said.

“Less harm is being done by the current licensed businesses than the cartels who used to control the market,” she wrote.

While there may be investors in marijuana that “previously invested in destructive products,” marijuana nevertheless is “far safer than tobacco,” O’Keefe wrote.

States now “craft appropriate regulations that were not in place in the bad old days regarding tobacco,” she wrote. “(The) ‘Big Tobacco’ boogeyman is a scare tactic.”

Regulation allows lab testing of products, public education about risks and sensible restrictions on advertising and packaging, she wrote.

Niforatos said marijuana is being sold in soda, lollipops, gum drops and toaster pastries, in packaging suggesting the traditional brands of those products, he said.

Just as with alcohol profits, 75 percent of which come from 10 percent of users, marijuana profits will come largely from heavy users, predicted Niforatos.

It’s easier to be a heavy user of marijuana now, because potency has vastly increased, he said.

Decades ago, it was 3 to 5 percent, he said. Now, 15 percent of it is around 97 percent.

There are twice as many pot shops in Colorado than McDonald’s, even though 72 percent of municipalities have banned them, including many affluent ones — perhaps helping contribute to their concentration in poorer neighborhoods, Niforatos said.

Pot shops in poor communities “are not necessarily a bad thing,” O’Keefe wrote. “Low income individuals are less likely to have cars, so convenient, walkable access — and local jobs — can be a positive,” O’Keefe wrote.

She lives a block and a half from a retail store, and it’s “just another business,” better than an empty storefront, she wrote.

Legalization also has created a problem for employers, Niforatos said.

In states that have legalized, positive test results for workers have increased by 4 percent since 2017 — 8 percent in safety-sensitive industries, according to SAM.

Nevada has passed a law prohibiting employers from rejecting applicants for testing positive, Niforatos said.

“They’re trying to make it a protected class,” he said.

Legalization may encourage opioid use, as regular marijuana users are 2.7 times more likely to abuse those harder drugs, Niforatos said.

It may also lead to more psychosis, as daily use of high-potency marijuana may be “correlated” with that, he said.

It has increased the incidence of vehicle crashes, statistics show, according to Niforatos.

Advocates claim that legalization would produce a government revenue windfall, but marijuana revenue comprises just 0.78 percent of the Colorado budget — and that doesn’t take account of the societal costs, Niforatos said.

Legalization advocates promote the idea that accompanying regulation will solve problems associated with illegal use, but the industries investing in recreational marijuana have a history of fighting regulation, he said.

Legalization advocates claim that legalization will allow a great exodus of basically innocent people from the prison system, but less than 1 percent of inmates nationally are in prison solely for marijuana possession, according to Niforatos and SAM statistics.

Rather than leading to harder drugs, “marijuana is actually an exit drug for many,” O’Keefe wrote. It’s use as a pain-reliever can help people get off of opioids, she wrote. “When marijuana is illegal, consumers are exposed to harder, far more dangerous drugs,” she wrote.

“Marijuana prohibition is just as devastating a failure as alcohol prohibition,” O’Keefe wrote. “Criminalizing the entire market means consumers don’t have a tested product, workers have no legal protections, and people will still sell marijuana illegally and be torn apart from their lives and families.”

And criminals will be enriched, she added.

Mirror Staff Writer William Kibler is at 949-7038.