Government has lost its credibility to talk pot

Editor's Note: This article first appeared in The Hill on September 2nd, 2018.

It’s been a long time since the public has been willing to Just Say No, but that doesn’t mean the government is done saying it.

The long history of United States drug policy has been to pursue political agendas and ideology rather than promote sound public policy. The public has questioned the motives behind the government’s drug policies well before Reagan’s War on Drugs. At this point, it is doubtful that a pollster could find an issue where the federal government has less credibility than marijuana reform.

The worst part of the leaked memo that the White House has created a Marijuana Policy Coordination Committee to gather “data demonstrating the most significant negative trends” about marijuana legalization in order to “turn the tide” is that we doubt few people will be surprised that this is where the government chooses to spend its resources. It is a cliché you will hear from every communication expert: credibility takes a lifetime to gain and a moment to lose. Sadly, the federal government has spent the last several lifetimes ensuring it has no credibility with the public when it comes to the issue of marijuana.

This lack of credibility is probably why legalization has occurred in the first place. The marijuana legalization movement is the most remarkable display of a populist revolt in our modern system of representation. Instead of deferring to our elected officials and our institutions of public health and public safety, citizens in state after state have decided to defy federal law and move forward with a tax and regulate system in order to abandon prohibition.

The leaked memo shows that the government has learned the exact wrong lesson from this movement. The White House believes they must cherry-pick negative data from legalized states because “[t]he prevailing marijuana narrative in the U.S. is partial, one-sided”. Advocates for legalization have been able to push their narrative precisely because government has been obstinate, reactionary, and hyperbolic with marijuana messaging. When the government declares there is no medicinal value to marijuana, advocates get to show a 5-year-old who no longer has constant seizures. When government says marijuana will ruin your brain, advocates get to point to the countless examples of contributing members of society who also partake in marijuana. And when the government wants to tell you that states that have legalized marijuana have become a hellscape, advocates get to point out that Colorado remains consistently ranked as one of the healthiest and economically robust states in the nation.

Unfortunately, there are very real harms that come from the government losing credibility. Marijuana legalization is a complicated process, with a mixed bag of challenges and opportunities. While the substance is not nearly as harmful as past government campaign ads would have you believe, there are plenty of ways it can be used irresponsibly and harmful to public health. Women who are pregnant or breastfeeding should know that marijuana does travel into the child’s body. Users should know that there are some troubling statistics coming from the fatal accident reporting system showing more drivers involved in fatal accidents testing positive for marijuana. Marijuana, like any other substance, can be abused by heavy users and have a real impact on their ability to lead a healthy, productive life. And, of course, marijuana on a developing brain can have both short term and long-term detrimental effects.

The vast majority of the public simply wants to remain safe and healthy, even if they choose to take the edge off at the end of a day with a glass of wine or a joint. Those people are looking for trustworthy information about how to do so responsibly. It should be governments’ job to credibly produce this information. The White House’s Marijuana Policy Coordination Committee appears poised to ensure this does not happen.

Andrew Freedman is the former Director of Marijuana Coordination for the state of Colorado; and a principal at the consulting firm, Freedman & Koski, Inc.

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