Archive for the ‘prohibition’ category

Neuropsychological Deficits: Fact and Artifact About Marijuana Tests

April 15th, 2014

By Mitch Earleywine, Ph.D
State University of New York at Albany
Chair, NORML board of directors

A new study claims to show small deficits on neuropsychological tests in college students who started smoking marijuana early in life. It might get a lot of press. Prohibitionists love to bang the drum of marijuana-related cognitive deficits, so I’d like NORMLites to know how to make sense of this sort of research. The recurring themes in this literature involve several alternative explanations that never seem to dawn on journalists. These results often arise from artifacts of the study rather than physiological effects of the plant. I’d like to focus on a few: other drug use, dozens of statistical tests, the incentives for performance, and the demands communicated by the experimenters.NWA Canada Prohibition Car

The latest paper of this type is actually pretty good. Researchers studied over 30 people aged 18-20 who started using before age 17 (their average starting age was around 15) and who smoked at least 5 days per week for at least a year. They compared them to a comparable bunch of non-users. I hate to see 15-year-olds using anything psychoactive, even caffeine. Spending full days in high school with less than optimal memory functioning is no way to lay the groundwork for a superb life. I admit that I want these same people to grow up and be the next generation of activists, so feel free to call me selfish when I emphasize NORML’s consistent message: THE PLANT IS NOT FOR KIDS WHO LACK MEDICAL NECESSITY.

OTHER DRUG USE?
First, we have to keep other drug use in mind. Unfortunately, the marijuana group in this study got drunk more than 4 times as much in the last six months as the controls. Given what we know about binge drinking and neuropsychological functioning, it’s going to be hard to attribute any differences between these groups to the plant. It’s just as likely that any deficits stem from pounding beers. Studying cannabis users who aren’t so involved with alcohol would help address neuropsychological functioning much better.

HOW MANY TESTS?
In addition, we should always consider the number of measures in any study. Many of these neuropsychological tasks have multiple trials that can be scored multiple ways. The more statistical tests you run, the more likely it is that you’ll find a statistically significant difference by chance. It’s kind of like flipping coins. It’s rare to flip four heads in a row. But if you flip a coin a thousand times, odds are high that somewhere in the list of a thousand results will be four heads in a row. These investigators got 48 different test scores out of the participants. You’d expect at least 2 of them to be significant just by chance. They found differences on 14 different scores, suggesting that something’s going on, but we’re not sure which results are the “real” differences and which ones arose by accident. (That’s why we replicate studies like this.) And, as I mentioned, it might all be because of the booze.

WHY WOULD ANYONE DO ALL THESE TESTS?
We also have to consider incentives for performance. Most researchers bring participants to the lab for a fixed fee and ask them to crank out a bunch of crazy puzzles and memory assessments. It’s unclear why people would feel compelled to strain their brains. The authors of this study were kind enough to mention some relevant work by my friend (and former student) Dr. Rayna Macher. Dr. Macher showed that cannabis users respond best when you make the effort worth their while. She focused on people who used the plant at least four times per week for a year or more. She read one group some standard instructions for a memory test. The other group got the regular instructions plus an additional sentence: “It is important that you try your very best on these tasks, because this research will be used to support legislation on marijuana policy.”

As you’d guess, this simple sentence fired them up. Compared to cannabis users who didn’t hear that sentence, they performed better on 3 out of 10 measures. (You’d expect less than one difference by chance.) And compared to the non-users, the folks who got the incentive sentence did just as well on all the tests. For those who didn’t hear the incentive sentence, users did less well than non-users on 1 of the 10.

I know that prohibitionists are going to try to call this amotivation. (See my rant on that when you get a chance) I call it putting effort where it pays. But given what we know about how these studies can hamper the reform of marijuana laws, users everywhere should do their best on all tests whenever they get the chance.

WE OFTEN DO WHAT EXPERIMENTERS EXPECT OF US
Last but not least, we have to consider the demands communicated by the experimenter. Decades of data now support the idea that people often do what others expect them to do, especially if they believe the expectation, too. Another friend and former student, Dr. Alison Looby De Young, showed that these expectations are critical in studies of neuropsychological performance and cannabis. She gave a neuropsychological battery to men who had used cannabis at least three times per week for the last two years. One group of men read instructions that said that cannabis had no impact on their performance on these tests. Another group read instructions that said that cannabis was going to make them perform poorly. You guessed it, those men who heard they were going to flub the tests performed worse on 2 of the 4 tests. (You’d expect less than one difference by chance). As you might imagine, some laboratories communicate their expectations about cannabis and cognitive function subtly or not so subtly. Some participants are bound to behave accordingly. So what looks like a cognitive deficit is just an artifact of the laboratory environment where experimenters stare daggers at cannabis users.

In the end, I’m glad that researchers do this work, but these effects are too small and fleeting to justify prohibition. We already know that cannabis isn’t for healthy kids. People who get heavily involved with the plant early in life might not perform as well as those who never touch cannabis even if investigators control for other drug use, AND use a sensible number of tests, AND provide appropriate incentives, AND communicate a reasonable expectation.

But how many people should go to jail for that?

If you said, “None,” you’ve done an excellent job on an important cognitive test.

Maryland Becomes 21st Medical Marijuana State, and 18th to Decriminalize

April 15th, 2014

Yesterday morning, Gov. Martin O’Malley signed into law both the medical marijuana bill and the decriminalization bill, making Maryland the 21st state with an effective medical marijuana program, and the 18th state to decriminalize possession of small amounts of marijuana.

The medical marijuana bill expands a program that, while established last year, was unable to get off the ground. The previous law relied on the participation of teaching hospitals, which understandably did not want to be involved with a substance that is still federally illegal. The law signed today will allow registered cultivators to grow medical marijuana and up to 15 licensed cultivators to provide the medicine to patients and dispensaries. This new law will finally provide real access to seriously ill Marylanders.

The decriminalization law removes the criminal penalties for possession of less than 10 grams of marijuana, and replaces them with a civil fine of up to $100 for a first offense, up to $250 for a second offense, and up to $500 for subsequent offenses. Third-time offenders and individuals under 21 years of age will be required to undergo a clinical assessment for substance abuse disorder and a drug education program. The measure will officially go into effect on October 1.

This is incredible progress, but our work is not done yet. A September 2013 poll found that 53% of Marylanders support legalizing marijuana for adults 21 and up, and taxing and regulating it like alcohol.

Maryland Decriminalization Bill Headed to Governor

April 9th, 2014

After being approved by the General Assembly on Saturday, a bill that would replace current penalties for possession of less than 10 grams of marijuana with a fine passed the Maryland Senate. The bill will now go to Gov. Martin O’Malley, who has indicated he will sign the bill into law. This would make Maryland the 18th state to decriminalize simple possession of marijuana. 

Watch MPP’s Rachelle Yeung talk about this major victory:

Maryland House Votes to Decriminalize Marijuana in Surprise Turnaround

April 7th, 2014

On Saturday, the Maryland House of Delegates overwhelmingly approved an amended version of the decriminalization bill. In a 78-55 vote, the House approved imposing civil fines — not criminal penalties and possible jail time — on those possessing less than 10 grams of marijuana.

The bill now goes back to the Senate for concurrence, before heading to Gov. Martin O’Malley. Gov. O’Malley has previously said he’s “not much in favor” of decriminalization.

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Del. Keiffer Mitchell

Saturday’s vote was the product of lots of hard work from MPP and our allies, both in the legislature and outside of it. Just a few days ago, the House Judiciary Committee gutted the decriminalization bill and replaced it with a task force that wouldn’t report back for two years. Thanks to the leadership from the Legislative Black Caucus and Del. Keiffer Mitchell, we were able to turn the tide. Many thanks to all of our supporters who emailed and called their delegates.

But our work on this long overdue reform is not done. Don’t forget to make sure you’re plugged in to our efforts by liking the Marijuana Policy Coalition of Maryland on Facebook and following the coalition on Twitter.

Majority of Law Enforcement Officers Want to Reform Marijuana Laws

April 5th, 2014

A survey released this week by the publication Law Officer revealed that a majority of law enforcement officers want to see our country’s marijuana laws reformed.

The poll, which questioned over 11,000 law enforcement officers regarding their opinions on drug policy, revealed that just over 64% believed our marijuana laws needed to be relaxed in some form. When asked “Do you believe possession of marijuana for personal use should…” and presented with several options, 35.68% of respondents stated that marijuana be legalized, regulated and taxed, 10.84% chose that it should be be legalized for medical reasons and with a doctor’s prescription only, 14.24% said it should continue to be illegal but only punished via fines (no incarceration), and 3.68% said marijuana should simply be decriminalized. Only 34.7% believed marijuana should continue to be illegal with the criminal penalties that are currently in place.

“This poll reveals that support for marijuana prohibition is eroding even amongst those who are serving on the front lines enforcing it,” stated NORML Communications Director Erik Altieri, “When a majority of the American people and most of those tasked with implementing a law disagree with it in principle, it is time to change that law.”

You can view the full results of this survey here.

“Prohibition cannot be enforced for the simple reason that the majority of the American people do not want it enforced and are resisting its enforcement. That being so, the orderly thing to do under our form of government is to abolish a law that cannot be enforced, a law which the people of the country do not want enforced.” – New York Mayor Fiorello La Guardia on alcohol prohibition.

Maryland House Judiciary Committee Kills Decriminalization Bills

April 3rd, 2014

Yesterday, the House Judiciary Committee neutered two marijuana policy reform bills. Instead of considering the proposed policies on their merits, the committee completely amended the content of the bills to create a task force to study the issues. The two bills, SB 364 and HB 880, formerly would have respectively decriminalized the possession of small amounts of marijuana and regulated marijuana similarly to alcohol.

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Rep. Bobby Zirkin

The decriminalization bill, sponsored by Sen. Bobby Zirkin, has passed the Senate two years in a row with overwhelming bipartisan support — most recently, last month, in a 36-8 vote.

The Committee acted two days after D.C. Mayor Vincent Gray signed into law the most lenient decriminalization law in the country, and the same day as a national survey conducted by the Pew Research Center found that 76% of Americans don’t think people should be jailed for simple possession.

 

New Jersey Marijuana Prosecutors Reverse Course, Say It’s Time to Legalize

April 1st, 2014

The New Jersey State Municipal Prosecutors Association now officially supports legalizing the possession of marijuana, which is quite an unlikely source of support, since they are the principle group who prosecutes marijuana users in the state.

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Jon-Henry Barr

“Each week, New Jersey police officers arrest hundreds of citizens for the disorderly persons offense of possession of under 50 grams of marijuana,” said Jon-Henry Barr, president of the board of trustees of the Municipal Prosecutors Association. “Those arrested include professionals and many people who would never think of committing any type of serious, victim-related crime.”

In an interview with Kathleen Hopkins from the Asbury Park Press, Barr enumerated the reasons why a strong majority (seven out of ten) of the association wants to support the legalization of marijuana:

• Requests by prosecutors to analyze samples of marijuana are overwhelming the state’s drug-testing laboratories, sometimes leading to dismissals of cases when defendants invoke their rights to speedy trials;

• Studies show that marijuana is less addictive than alcohol, nicotine, and caffeine;

• Marijuana is easier for high school students to obtain than alcohol because the sale of alcohol is strictly regulated;

• Very few of the thousands of DWI cases prosecuted annually are for driving under the influence of marijuana;

• Statistics show that African Americans are four times more likely to be arrested for marijuana offenses than white people are, but there is no evidence to show there is disproportionately more marijuana use in minority communities;

• The state loses money by not collecting sales tax on marijuana, while drug dealers profit.

This much-needed support from the New Jersey State Municipal Prosecutors Association comes at a pivotal time in the state’s struggle to define its stance on marijuana. Two bills have recently been introduced; one bill permits citizens to carry an ounce or less of marijuana, while the other sets up a tax-and-regulate system.

Maryland Senate Approves Decriminalization Bill

March 14th, 2014
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Sen. Bobby Zirkin

For the second year in a row, the Maryland Senate has approved Sen. Bobby Zirkin’s proposal to decriminalize possession of small amounts of marijuana. Today’s vote had an even wider margin than last year’s. Seven Republicans joined 29 Democrats for a 36-8 bipartisan vote. SB 364 now heads to the House Judiciary Committee for its consideration.

Yesterday, the House Judiciary Committee heard nearly eight hours of testimony on proposals to decriminalize and legalize marijuana from MPP and other members of the Marijuana Policy Coalition of Maryland

SB 364 would replace criminal penalties for the possession of 10 grams of marijuana with a civil fine of up to $100. This is a much-needed measure in Maryland, which has the fourth-highest arrest rate per capita for marijuana possession. Arrest records have a devastating effect on a young person’s life, and can become an obstacle to obtaining an education, employment, and even housing. SB 364 is a strong step towards ending the ineffective and destructive prohibition of marijuana. This bill would also free up law enforcement to focus on addressing serious crimes instead of arresting adults for using a substance objectively safer than alcohol.

More than two-thirds of Maryland voters (68 percent) support changing state laws to make possession of small amounts of marijuana a civil offense punishable by a fine of up to $100, according to a survey conducted in September by Public Policy Polling. The full results are available at http://www.mpp.org/MDpoll.

D.C. Decriminalizes Marijuana

March 4th, 2014

Moments ago, the Washington, D.C. City Council voted to decriminalize marijuana possession!alert_sidebar_dc_decrim

The measure removes criminal penalties for possession of up to one ounce of marijuana for individuals 18 years of age and older and replaces them with a civil fine of $25, similar to a parking ticket. It also removes penalties for possession of paraphernalia in conjunction with small amounts of marijuana, and it specifies that individuals cannot be searched or detained based solely on an officer’s suspicion of marijuana possession. Public use of marijuana would remain a criminal offense punishable by up to 60 days in jail and a fine of up to $500. Currently, possession of any amount of marijuana is a criminal offense punishable by up to six months in jail and a fine of up to $1,000.

The bill goes into effect this summer.

This means that, outside of Washington and Colorado, marijuana penalties are now less punitive in our nation’s capital than anywhere else in the country.

Washington, D.C. has the nation’s highest arrest rate for marijuana possession, according to a report released in June by the American Civil Liberties Union. Blacks accounted for 91% of marijuana possession arrests in the District, and they were eight times more likely to be arrested for marijuana possession than whites, despite using marijuana at similar rates. The ACLU’s analysis concluded that enforcing marijuana possession laws, which make up nearly half of all drug offenses, costs the District more than $26.5 million per year. Hopefully, this new bill will have an immediate impact on this injustice.

MPP’s Rob Kampia Discusses the Future of Texas Marijuana Policy Reform

March 4th, 2014

On March 1, MPP officially began lobbying for marijuana policy reform directly in the Texas legislature. Over the next several years, we will be working with supportive lawmakers and local advocates to remove the threat of jail for simple possession of marijuana, and eventually end marijuana prohibition altogether in the Lone Star State.

Here is MPP’s executive director, Rob Kampia, discussing the future of marijuana policy reform on KXAN: