Reefer Madness Comes to Alaska
I knew immediately this debate was going to be contentious. I was sitting on the left side of the auditorium when the woman next to me popped out of her seat like a Jack in the box. “I’m moving!” she said. “The legals are on this side, and the illegals are on the other side. I’m going to sit with the illegals!”
“I’m going to sit with the illegals” isn’t a sentence you hear very much these days.
I’m a “legal” for a number of reasons, and I wanted to explain to my former neighbor that this wasn’t like a wedding with a bride’s side and a groom’s side. But she was gone, ensconced with the illegals by Deborah Williams and Kristina Woolston who would be advocating for “Big Marijuana. Big Mistake.”
Proposition 2, which will be on the ballot in Alaska in November, asks whether marijuana should be legalized and regulated like alcohol. And it is this ballot proposition the two sides are here to debate.
The large screen behind the stage displayed a graphic with “Big Marijuana. Big Mistake.” and an image of an enormous white chess pawn planted right on the state of Alaska. A woman behind me called out to the man running the screen. “Excuse me! Can you put up something a little less subjective? That message is pretty non-subjective.” He changed the slide to an image of the ballot wording for Prop 2.
A moment later, the sound guy whom I know came over to say hi. “For a pot debate, this seems a little tense. Am I right?” I asked.
“Oh, yeah,” he said nodding. “Totally.”
The moderator, veteran Alaska broadcaster Steve Mac Donald, stood behind the lectern an began to introduce the guests. I was already waiting for the obligatory weed joke.
“Right now smoking weed is illegal in Alaska, and because it is, no one… no one would ever, ever, ever think of smoking marijuana in Alaska, because that’s illegal, right? Right, Kevin?”
Kevin was the timekeeper for the debate, sitting a few seats to my right. I couldn’t see Kevin from my angle, nor whether he was uncomfortable with the shout out. But I guessed that was the weed joke. Eh.
Mac Donald gave a brief history of the legality, and the illegality, and the grey area of legality of pot in Alaska since the beginning. “Sometimes it’s downright confusing,” he said.
There is a strong right to privacy clause in the Alaska Constitution, and back in the 70’s an Anchorage attorney named Irwin Ravin decided to test that clause and challenge The Man by loading up the back seat of his car with marijuana and speeding through the streets of Anchorage until he got arrested. The police ultimately charged him with possession. He sued, and won. Ravin – 1, The Man – 0.
Later, it became legal to have up to 4 oz. of marijuana in your own home, but with a catch. There was (and still is) no legal provision to actually get the four ounces to your home to begin with, or to get what you needed to start growing it yourself. So, if you can get away with being a criminal at first, you will then rewarded by not being a criminal anymore.
In 1998 medical marijuana was approved, but those needing the medication still have no way to obtain it legally through dispensaries, or transporting it from other places to their homes. In 2000, and 2004 legalization efforts fell short at the ballot box. And now here we are ten years later.
Colorado and Washington have recently legalized recreational marijuana, and from my understanding they’re doing pretty well. I’d heard that crime was down, tourism up, money has been allocated to schools, and people seem pretty happy about it. More people in Colorado would vote for legalization now than voted for it in 2012 when it became legal. Washington seems to be struggling with implementation a little bit, with demand far outweighing the ability to supply. For a businessperson, that’s a good problem to have. But all in all, it seems like a success, and I wondered to myself how the No on 2 side was going to handle that. I was soon to find out.
Dr. Tim Hinterberger – Yes on 2 (University of Alaska Anchorage professor, neuroscientist, Chair of Alaska Campaign to Regulate Marijuana Like Alcohol)
Hinterberger, a soft-spoken man with a greying goatee talked about growing up in Chicago and seeing the hypocrisy and unjustness of marijuana arrests, and how he vowed to do something about it if he ever could. He talked about his long-time involvement in the issue in Alaska, and how after the successes of Colorado and Washington, the time seemed to be right. The tide of public opinion was turning, and legalization and regulation of marijuana was a good idea for Alaska.
“You will hear the opposition say…” he went on, like an attorney in opening arguments, and gave a list of what the opposition was going to say. It seemed almost absurd on its face, and the audience erupted in spontaneous laughter after, “they will compare marijuana to crack cocaine.”
Hinterberger cited the Brookings Institute, a series of articles and an editorial in the New York Times, The Seattle Police Department, and others to indicate that yes, regulation is working in both Colorado and Washington. And it can work here.
Deborah Williams – No on 2 (Former ED of the Alaska Lung Association, former ED of the Alaska Democratic Party, Deputy Treasurer of Big Marijuana, Big Mistake)
“This ballot measure is extreme, and costly,” she began. She has taken loved ones to emergency rooms because of “psychosis from marijuana,” she said, and some in the crowd chuckled skeptically. “It’s a shame to laugh about that,” she admonished.
Marijuana today has much more THC than it did in the 70s, she said. Today, there is marijuana called “green crack.”
“This is an actual brand name of marijuana. Go online. Google ‘green crack.'”
Later that evening, I did. I didn’t really find anything scary. The first page of Google entries seemed to be mostly reviews. This is the first paragraph of the first Google entry that popped up for “green crack.”
“Don’t let the name fool you: this is pure cannabis. Few strains compare to Green Crack’s sharp energy and focus as it induces an invigorating mental buzz that keeps you going throughout the day. With a tangy, fruity flavor redolent of mango, Green Crack is the perfect daytime medication for patients treating fatigue, stress, and depression.”
“What’s so different, and what makes this particular initiative that you’re being asked to vote for so extreme is the extraordinarily extreme definitions,” Williams went on. She seemed visibly agitated, speaking quickly, glasses on the end of her nose, and again urged everyone to use the google to look up – wax, crumble, butane, and marijuana concentrate. I did that too, but got lost in a stream of “how to” articles, and videos, and reviews (which all seemed to be in the 4-5 star range). So far, urging people to Google seems a lot more terrifying than the actual Googling.
“The other reality is, of course, edibles,” she said, “Gummy bears! Some gummy bears have four doses in them, and of course the Kit Kat bars.” She again tells everyone to Google these things, and also YouTube search how to smoke wax. I Googled the gummy bears and it seems that depending on the bear, the dosage may vary. And that there had been some ER visits from children who had ingested the gummy bears thinking they were regular candy.
She talked about hash oil and said those in the know were aware that 710 is the new buzz word for “OIL” because if you turn the word OIL upside down it turns into 710. She pointed at the screen which showed a barrel of oil with “710” written on it, and demonstrated how to decode it by holding up her clipboard and turning it upside down to illustrate the point. “It’s not 420 anymore,” she said. “Now it’s 710.”
She again urged another google search of “dabbing” and said there were videos of people “going into psychosis, or falling down.” This is a method by which hash oil (710) is heated on a plate, and the smoke is inhaled. It seems to be the Jell-O shot of pot smoking, and High Times Magazine wants July 10 (7/10) to be celebrated as Dab Day to “celebrate the wonderful world of oils and concentrates.” Someone’s terrifying hash oil hellscape is someone else’s “wonderful world.”
“This is specifically what this initiative protects and defines,” she says.
I look over at the Yes on 2 side to see what they think of all this, and both of them are sighing and eye rolling, and shaking their heads.
The next slide was about marijuana accessories. “Again, go on google…” The directive is getting tedious. It strikes me at this point that “going on Google” one can find almost anything, from any source to back up any particular claim or perspective.
There are accessories that look like highlighter pens, and mascara applicators, and some people use blow torches to light concentrates and breathe in the smoke. These are specifically protected, she says. Students are finding secret ways of smoking marijuana in class.
Here’s what came up when I searched for mascara-like marijuana accessories.
The talking points continued, and Williams went rapid fire:
“If you look at all these articles, and experiences, and data of, you know, Colorado…”
“People have died in Colorado after consuming edibles.”
(No mention of other underlying factors for the three deaths I think she is referencing.)
“Scientists have study after study showing the relationship between marijuana and psychosis.”
(The relationship is not shown to be causal.)
“Average IQ loss in one of the most extraordinary studies ever – 8 IQ points on average lost by marijuana users.”
(This “most extraordinary study ever” is widely disputed for various reasons which you can read HERE.)
The next slide was labeled “short term effects” but time was up. She packed a lot into 7 minutes.
There is more applause than I expect. I had a feeling I’d be fact checking when it was all over. I was right. (see above)
Taylor Bickford – Yes on 2 (Former ED of the Alaska Redistricting Board, Director of Alaska Operation Strategies 360, Spokesperson Campaign to Regulate Marijuana Like Alcohol)
“Like anyone who’s lived in the state for any period of time knows, marijuana is here already. It’s nothing new. We actually have the highest rates of use in the entire country, which equates to 100,000 Alaskans if you equate the rates of use with our population numbers. So this is really important for a number of reasons. First of all, if marijuana is so dangerous, and you take Deborah [Williams'] claims at face value, then you have to ask yourself why we are not seeing widespread problems currently? And second, there is a massive multimillion dollar marijuana industry that already exists in this state. The difference between our marijuana industry and the marijuana industry that exists in Colorado is that ours is run by criminals and entirely in the underground market.”
He then talked about the origins of national marijuana prohibition in the 1930s, and showed a slide of this poster.
Despite warnings of despair and weird orgies, marijuana was not illegalized because of public health concerns. The War on Weed began with a man named Harry Anslinger, who was the assistant prohibition commissioner in the Bureau of Prohibition, before being appointed as the first commissioner of the Federal Bureau of Narcotics in 1930. “Marijuana leads to pacifism and communist brainwashing,” Anslinger declared. He had a number of other notorious opinions including, “The primary reason to outlaw marijuana is its effect on the degenerate races… Reefer makes darkies think they are as good as white men.”
There were noises of horror and dismay as Bickford read the final quote.
Anslinger’s racism resulted in the prohibition on which most current laws stand. The name “marijuana” and its r-rolling ethnicity added fuel to the racist fire. And of course, those depraved jazz musicians…
About $8 billion a year is spent nationally on the enforcement of marijuana prohibition, Bickford said. In Alaska, the arrest rate for possession is one person every 3.7 hours. 80.6% of all drug arrests in the state are for marijuana possession – the highest rate in the country. The state spends between $8 million and $14 million a year to enforce current marijuana possession laws. And currently, because of the underground market, teens have the easiest access to marijuana of any age group in the state.
“You saw a lot of pictures, and assumptions that are being made by Kristine and Deborah,” he said, and explained that the initiative sets up a framework to regulate and tax marijuana like alcohol.
As soon as the initiative passes, there will be a 9 month rule making period during which the regulatory board will have broad authority over labeling requirements to make sure that marijuana products are properly labeled and not attractive to children. The rules can prohibit or place restrictions on advertising, and regulate the appropriate display of marijuana and marijuana products.
“The idea that we are going to have rampant advertising of marijuana, and we’re going to have aggressive advertising of marijuana to children is completely ridiculous,” Bickford said. “Our policymakers are not going to let that happen, and rules will be set up very strictly to make sure that is not allowed.”
“Tonight I hope we can focus the discussion not on marijuana use, because that’s going to happen no matter how you vote in November. The question is what do we do with this industry? Do we continue to allow criminal organizations, and leave it to the underground market to control it like we did during alcohol prohibition? Or do we take the reasonable step that other states have taken and understand that this is an objectively safer substance than alcohol, and understand that there’s no logical reason we can’t regulate it in a similar way.”
Kristina Woolston – No on 2 (Owner of Northwest Strategies Ad Agency, part owner Fat Ptarmigan pizza pub, coordinating committee for Big Marijuana, Big Mistake.)
“Every day we talk to Alaskans, who no matter how they feel about marijuana are shocked by how extreme this measure is for Alaska. They wonder why the Marijuana Policy Project, a DC based organization is spending so much time and effort in Alaska. They don’t really have our best interests at heart.”
I wondered, and found their website HERE, which includes a vision statement.
“MPP and MPP Foundation envision a nation where marijuana is legally regulated similarly to alcohol, marijuana education is honest and realistic, and treatment for problem marijuana users is non-coercive and geared toward reducing harm.”
“By telling us over and over again that their drug is safe, proponents of this measure continue to discount the human toll of marijuana. I’m from a small rural village in Southwest Alaska, and I have seen firsthand the effects of substance abuse – alcohol, marijuana, meth, and other drugs that are choking the life out of our communities. It affects our community, it affects our health, it affects our productivity and our youth. These are all communities that are being decimated by substances,” she said. “Proponents of this measure continue to compare marijuana to alcohol as if to suggest that by legalizing marijuana, our problems with alcohol will disappear. But legalizing marijuana doesn’t eliminate our scourge in our communities with alcohol – it just vastly expands another substance which has its own set of very serious problems. Proponents keep saying that their will be a local option, and yes communities can stop pot stores from opening in their communities, but they can’t stop from bringing in marijuana.”
“Recently I heard a quip that perhaps it’s the gateway to the White House. Well, my son was in the audience when that statement was made, and while it was a joke and it got some good laughs, I don’t think it’s responsible for us to convey this message to our kids that you can be successful in life, and perhaps reach the White House because of this drug… I’m not ready to give up on our kids, just because some are already using it.”
More talking points:
“Using marijuana doubles your chances of a car accident.” (presumably you have to be driving a car)
There is no field sobriety test for marijuana at traffic stops. (so where did the statistic above come from?)
There are impacts on business and in the workplace. (businesses can still set their own drug policies like with alcohol)
She shows a slide of “what you can expect to see if this measure passes,” with newspapers and magazines filled with ads for pot stores. She addressed the 90 day period in which the regulatory board in Alaska can ban or restrict products and ads by saying, “I know Taylor said we can just wish that away, but the reality is that’s not the case in Colorado.”
Why do you feel it is in Alaska’s best interest to create an industry that would be allowed to advertise and promote the increased use of a drug that is less harmful than alcohol, but not harmless?
Bickford: “The rule-making process will allow for advertising to be banned,” he reiterated and said that what the No on 2 side is purporting, that the initiative will automatically lead to advertising, is simply not the case.
“The problem with decriminalization is when you take a product or substance and you say you’re not going to be arrested for using it, but you set up no legal way for it to be bought or sold, you’re maintaining one of the biggest problems of prohibition. It was one of the biggest problems of alcohol prohibition…and it has been one of the biggest problems with marijuana prohibition, and that is that you’re empowering the criminal underground.”
If you look back at the last 10 years in Alaska, he contended, you’d see that marijuana doesn’t lead to violent crimes being committed by people who have used it. But you will find cases of murder, and other violent crimes committed during illegal drug deals gone bad. It is the criminality, he argues, that has created more problems for the state and the country than marijuana use ever has or will.
He also stated that the Marijuana Policy Project is not a for-profit entity as had been repeatedly claimed by No on 1, and they’ve been working in Alaska for almost 20 years. He claimed the misinformation was an attempt on their part to demonize local activists.
“Advertise. Advertise. Advertise. Again, we invite you to look at what’s going on in Colorado. As Kristina and I showed, there are people on the corner like the Liberty Tax guy, advertising to buy cheap marijuana here. There are ads in the paper. 3/4 page ads in the Denver Post with cute little doo-dee figures saying ‘buy marijuana here.’ Value packs, you know those packages of coupons you get? There are advertisements in value packs. There are advertisements on buses just like the misleading advertisement that is on the bus here. It. Is. In. Your. Face. It is consume, consume, cheaper price, cheaper price, try this! Try this concentrate! Try this edible! Advertise. Buy. And it’s attractive to children.”
“I was involved with tobacco in the 80s. We thought Joe Camel was bad? Colorado has Fred Flintstone, Mickey Mouse and Minnie Mouse, unbelievable sex, crass commercialization of a product that is harmful and addictive. And you are looking at being seen by your children, your grandchildren, and yourself.
Williams pronounces every word carefully, and gesticulates with her hands, a lot.
Steve Mac Donald:
“I’m not doubting anything you just said right now [to Williams], but I want to go back to this 9 month rule making period. Does that necessarily have to happen here if this is approved [to Bickford], or can that be ruled out in this rule making period? Can you clarify that?
Bickford: 100% it can, and anyone who tells you differently is either trying to mislead you, or they haven’t read the initiative. There is no other option. The rule making process actually compels the regulatory board to set restrictions on advertising… Because something happened in the first couple months after legalization in Colorado, doesn’t mean it’s going to happen here.
Steve Mac Donald: So, we don’t necessarily have to have gummy bears. We don’t have to have people in costumes waving marijuana around on the street.
The short answer was – no.
Kristine Woolston points out that Colorado has a thriving illegal export business and that marijuana is leaking across the border into other states. I found myself pondering who would take Alaska’s legal marijuana, and drive down the Al-Can to sell it in our next neighboring state… where it is already legal.
Deborah Williams says that she’s a lawyer and you can’t redefine the definition of “marijuana” if it’s in the statute. And she again invites everyone to google what is happening in Colorado.
Bickford was getting frustrated. “There is a nine month rule making process and it specifically says… it specifically says that there will be a rule making process and that advertising can be banned… and it means exactly what it says. If the state of Washington can ban gummy bears and lollipops, so can the state of Alaska.”
If the law was written to only legalize the plant form, and not wax and candy, etc., would you still be against the initiative?
Williams: I personally believe in decriminalizing marijuana.
>>>Screechy brake noise<<< Wait. WHAT?
“But I don’t believe in commercializing, advertising, and industrializing any more than I believe in commercializing gambling,” she said.
I remember the slide that popped up earlier that Williams showed during her opening statement that talked about short term memory loss, and effects on the fetus; and students sneaking a smoke in class; and the trip to the emergency room with the family member who was psychotic from marijuana; and respiratory disease, and the health of Alaskans; and the people who died from falling out a window; and demotivating our youth; and all the other things that had nothing to do with commercialization or advertising. The things they’ve been mentioning frequently in… oh my god… only 53 minutes.
And now we learn that Williams would be fine with decriminalization as long as it isn’t tied to a regulated industry, or advertising (which can be banned)? We were asked as an audience to be afraid of things that the No on 2 side doesn’t even believe are part of the issue. My brain was turning into a gummy bear.
“Alaska villages have a terrible problem with suicide,” Woolston said. She cites the American Psychiatric Association with studies showing an increase of depression, suicidal ideation, use of other substances, and risk taking behavior associated with marijuana.
Suicide? This part is no laughing matter. Suicide is a real problem in the state, particularly in rural communities like the ones Woolston says she’s advocating for. I checked out the APA’s website under marijuana addiction. Nothing about suicide, or suicidal ideations, or even depression.
“Again, read the newspapers. Read the journals,” Williams says.
Okay, I did, and found this from PBS in February of this year, titled:
Studies claim medical marijuana may reduce suicide rates, traffic fatalities
Contrary to the claims of outdated anti-marijuana PSA’s, a new study published in the the American Public Journal of Health claims that legalizing medical marijuana can reduce suicide rates by five percent among the general population and by as much as 10 percent among young male population.
The study, co-written by professors from Montana State, San Diego State, and the University of Colorado at Denver, analyzed 17 years worth of statistics in search of shifts in suicide rates per 10,000 people in states where medical marijuana was legal from 1990 to 2007. Using the statistics of states in which marijuana is still illegal as the control group, the study’s authors concluded that in states with legal medical marijuana, the suicide rate for males aged 20-29 decreased 10.9 percent, and for men aged 30-39 they saw a decrease of 9.4 percent.
If, as the most recent study suggests, marijuana can help with depression and reduce suicide, then implying there is actually a causal relationship between marijuana and suicide is grossly irresponsible.
Dr. Hintenberger spoke up saying, “I have to respond to this implication that using marijuana contributes to suicide, or causes suicide, because it’s just absurd. People who are depressed are more likely to use marijuana, and people who are depressed are more likely to commit suicide. There is no causal relation between marijuana and suicide.
“Crime is up 7% in Denver according to comprehensive crime statistics,” said Williams.
I took the initiative and googled without having to be urged.
Comparing Denver’s county- and city-wide crime statistics from the same six-month period from January to June in 2013 and 2014, homicides dropped 62 percent since marijuana was legalized there in January.
Most violent crime categories, like sex offenses and kidnapping, also saw a drop in Denver since marijuana was legalized…
The only glaring spike, the data show, comes in the disorderly conduct/disturbing the peace category, which increased more than 200 percent from 234 reports in 2013 to 735 in 2014…
More neighbors blasting Pink Floyd at midnight, fewer homicides, and sexual assaults. Go ahead and crank up Dark Side of the Moon, my friend. I’ll take that tradeoff any day.
By now, the Yes on 2 part of the audience was becoming restless, making noises of disapproval, laughing periodically. And the applause from the No on 2 people had diminished markedly, sometimes absent altogether.
Williams was not dissuaded, citing the New England Journal of Medicine saying that marijuana was shown to cause “impaired short term memory, making it difficult to learn and retain information, impaired motor coordination, interfering with driving skills, and increasing the risk of injury, altered judgment increasing the risk of sexual behaviors that facilitate the transmission of sexually transmitted diseases.” The crowd laughed. For someone who personally believes in decriminalizing marijuana, and said it’s all about the advertising, these arguments now sound like nothing but hollow political fear mongering – the 21st century version of Reefer Madness.
“Despite the fact that a lot of kids can get it, as Taylor [Bickford] said, I think he said 80% of high school kids say they can get it… well the good thing is they’re not. The majority are not using it, and I think it’s incumbent upon us to help them not use it, because we do know the health effects if they do start early,” Woolston said. I googled.
And for good measure this:
I begin to start counting the number of times Williams mention gummy bears. I’m up to five since the Q&A started. If you watch the entire debate which is embedded below, it might make a fun drinking game to help you get through it.
Would THC levels be on packaging so you’d know exactly what you’d be getting?
Hintenberger: Yes, absolutely. And that is one of the major benefits of regulation, just as with alcohol. How would you like to have to buy your alcohol like they did in the old days in an unlabeled mason jar, and just have to guess what the heck was in it? Having quality control, having independent laboratories testing all of these items will be one of the biggest benefits of regulation.
Williams: One of the biggest challenges now being faced by Colorado – and you saw the pictures of the Krondike bar, and the Heath bar, and the various kinds of candies – the gummy bears
, the cotton candy, the caramel corn, the unbelievable products, so attractive to children that have multiple doses in them. The Krondike bar has four doses… Even with labeling, what you find – how many of us don’t like to even look at a label to find out how many calories, or how many servings in a certain thing…”
More about gummy bears out of the packaging.
And more about gummy bears with multiple serving sizes.
“How often do you see alcohol gummy bears?” Williams asked.
Now, I’m just Googling for fun. Apparently, you can make your own alcohol gummy bears by soaking them in vodka, which you can legally purchase and transport to your home as an adult.
“How often do you see nicotine peanut butter cups?” she went on.
I totally thought she had me on this one, but…
There were a few more questions, and some more misinformation. According to Woolston, one marijuana cigarette has more carcinogens than six tobacco cigarettes.
Tim Hinterberger had the last word of closing statements.
“I want to thank everyone for coming here and listening to everything we’ve had to listen to. Frankly the distortion and misinterpretation of the science that we’ve had to listen to from our opposition practically leaves me speechless. It’s exhausting to me, as a scientist to have to put up with it.”
I walked out of the auditorium a little dazed, a little overwhelmed. I wondered at the beginning of the evening how the No side was going to handle the fact that legalization was not the end of the world in Colorado or Washington, and that in Colorado the number of people who support legalization has risen 4% since the vote that legalized it in 2012. I had not expected that my answer would be this level of fear mongering and misinformation. I felt stunned. The No on 2 side had audibly lost audience support as the hyperbole, and lists of candies, and roster of cartoon characters in advertising, and correlation with promiscuity and STDs and suicide, and mascara wants, and cries of “just Google it” rolled on. The Yes on 2 crowd had become audibly agitated, shuffling in their seats, laughing in disbelief. Several supporters of Prop 2 had yelled out during the debate, and in the lobby people seemed almost dazed.
I asked Taylor Bickford how he would characterize the Big Marijuana, Big Mistake campaign, and the methods and materials they used to sway voters to vote no?
“The opposition group has based its entire campaign on scare tactics and misinformation,” he said. “There is no better example of this than their refusal to admit that marijuana is less harmful than alcohol – a position currently held by nearly three-quarters of the American public. They won’t concede this obvious point because it undercuts all their arguments against regulating marijuana like alcohol. So instead, they’ve actually doubled down on the generations-old prohibitionist playbook, claiming that marijuana causes psychosis, suicide, homelessness, and more. They have compared it to crack-cocaine and even insinuated that marijuana use leads to violent crime and the proliferation of STDs. I doubt that even Harry Anslinger himself could have dreamed that the legacy of “Reefer Madness” would survive this long.”
For the brave of heart, here is the entire debate – or you could just Google it.
[h/t Alaska Commons]