Weed Limit: Pot prohibitionists regurgitate tired tropes from the bygone days of the War on Drugs

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As pot legalization rolls through the U.S. like a modern-day Johnny Reeferseed, there have been concerted efforts to continue the demonization of weed that has lit up prohibitionists for decades.

Even as advocates work to pass initiatives to legalize, tax and regulate marijuana for adult-use or for medical patients, there is a parallel phenomenon amongst elected officials proposing legislation intended to neutralize the cannabis laws that enjoy majority support from citizens across the country.

In states across the country, lawmakers have sponsored bills that seek to set limits on THC blood content for DUI, create THC caps for flower and other cannabis products and fund studies to determine the correlation between pot smoking and violent behavior or mental illness.

Even if those bills have no chance to pass into law (either through lack of support or because they violate existing rules or protections written into legalization), they are stark reminders that the same arguments that led to cannabis prohibition in the early part of the 20th century are still alive and well.

Arizona has had no shortage of bad bills this year attempting to weaken Prop 207, which enjoys a certain amount of protection as a citizen initiative. We have been fortunate that most of the them have died unceremonious deaths.

HB 2084 set a THC limit similar to blood-alcohol limits for DUI, but was pulled by Rep. John Kavanagh (R-Fountain Hills) because it would not have garnered the three-quarters Senate support required by statute. Had it passed, it likely would have been found unconstitutional and not survived a court challenge. Likewise, HB 2809, which would have put the kibosh on your local dispensary sponsoring community events, went nowhere (although it may rear its ugly head again in the future).

In the 2020 legislative session, House Speaker Rusty Bowers (R-LD25) advanced HCR 2045, which would have asked voters to set a 2% cap on THC in medical marijuana. The pot in your local dispensary has 20% to 25% THC, while concentrates have levels that are much higher.

In a House Health and Human Services Committee meeting in February 2020, Bowers stated his belief that marijuana is "habit forming" and a "gateway drug," as he invoked the names of "friends" who used pot in the 1950s and '60s, but are now inexplicably dead.

He then went on a Reefer Madness style diatribe inspired by his reading of Alex Berenson's 2019 book Tell Your Children the Truth about Marijuana, Mental Illness and Violence.

Bowers' statements harkened back to a time when Americans received their news via newsreels at the talking pictures. They included all the classic Reefer Madness tropes about schizophrenia and violent mental illness brought about by the devil's lettuce designed to scare middle-class suburban mothers from letting their children leave the house.

He posited that marijuana use leads to "violent violence: Not just somebody punching you in the face, but very horrendous insanity violence."

Blaming it on "the hyper increase in THC," Bowers was performing CPR, breathing new life into old tropes that have been used for decades to justify keeping cannabis listed as a Schedule I narcotic and continue punishing even the most benign recreational users.

At the same time, Bowers admitted that there are "limited" benefits to medical marijuana, "but the data does not show, as yet, that there is a very strong correlation, but there are individuals that have received benefit."

To that end, HCR 2045 would have directed the Department of Health Services to study cannabis as it relates to mental health problems and crime, research intended to verify a predetermined outcome rather than clinical testing to actually study the effects and efficacy of the psychoactive parts of the drug. The studies would be funded with revenues taken from the state's Medical Marijuana Fund.

Fortunately, Bowers amended the THC cap out of the bill, but his willingness to perpetuate the scary caricature of a hyped-up doper (as well as the existence of similar proposals in other states with some form a legalized cannabis) should make legalization advocates vigilant for these kinds of bills in the future.

Bowers' claims of higher THC content in what is available now compared to the good old days is a refrain that prohibitionists have used for decades, according to Paul Armentano, deputy director of National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws.

In several recent opinion articles, particularly in Colorado (which is experiencing the same legislative phenomenon despite several years of legal pot), Armentano cites the same argument from the 1930s, when Commissioner of the U.S. Bureau of Narcotics Henry Anslinger said that cannabis was so potent that it is "entirely the monster Hyde, the harmful effect of which cannot be measured" to justify federal prohibition of the plant.

Likewise in the 1960s and '70s, public officials claimed "Woodstock weed" was so uniquely powerful that smoking it would permanently damage brain cells and mere possession needed to be heavily criminalized to protect public health.

Even former Los Angeles Police Chief Daryl Gates (of Rodney King fame) said advanced growing techniques had increased THC potency to the point that "those who blast some pot on a casual basis ... should be taken out and shot."

President Joe Biden even joined in the chorus when he was a senator in the '90s, claiming the cannabis of that time was like "comparing buckshot to a laser guided missile."

"Fast forward to two-and-a-half decades, prohibitionists are now harkening back to the '90s as if that was some time when marijuana was so low in potency, no one cared about it," Armentano said. "This is a tried and true tactic that seemingly works to some degree of effectiveness every generation: It's a very useful tactic, because if you recognize the majority of the country has first-hand experience with cannabis and if you recognize for most of those people that experience was largely innocuous, you have to convince those people that their firsthand experience is somehow anomalous."

Southern Arizona NORML Director Mike Robinette said there is a good possibility that arbitrary cap limits would drive cannabis consumers to the black market, particularly medical patients who need larger doses for their afflictions.

"THC caps would have the effect of driving consumers out of the controlled market and back to the underground economy," he said. "This was certainly not the intent of Prop 207 as it sought to create a regulated and controlled market. Without a crystal ball, we have no way of knowing if a bill supporting THC caps will drop in the next legislative session."

Robinette said he believes cap limits would not survive a challenge in the courts, because it would not "further the purpose of Prop 207," although NORML has not received a legal opinion on the matter.

"We really don't believe that when voters resoundingly passed Prop 207 with a 60-40 margin, that they had THC caps on their minds," he said. "In fact, Prop 207 was clear that voters were voting to legalize both the plant and the resin extracted from the plant. It is generally known that concentrates have higher levels of THC and are valued by both patients and adult-use consumers."

Robinette also voiced concern that should one of these bills pass in any state, it would set a precedent that could be used to continue efforts to nullify the will of voters in states that have spoken out loudly in favor of legal weed.

"Southern Arizona NORML and Arizona NORML have been working with Colorado NORML to lobby against THC caps and are grateful for the work that Colorado NORML is doing to oppose [them]," he said. "We do not want to see THC caps get any traction since that traction will serve to motivate other states to consider introducing such damaging and detrimental legislation to cannabis consumers and the legalized markets."

Is It SAFE?

For the fourth time, the U.S. House of Representatives passed the SAFE Banking Act, that would ease federal regulation on legal marijuana businesses so they might have full access to banking services other types of businesses take for granted. Last week's vote was 321-101 in favor of the bill.

Unfortunately, given the current make-up of the Democratic-controlled Senate, the bill has once again run into a roadblock.

This follows on the heels of the Biden Administration backpedaling on its promise to deschedule cannabis and lead a charge for social justice for those adversely affected by the failed—and failing—War on Drugs.

The bill received support from the governors of 20 states as well as several bankers' associations and even "a coalition of state treasurers," who sent letters of support to House leadership.

Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-NY), one of the few voices in the Biden Administration who's maintained his stance on legalization throughout the transition of power, is proposing an attempt to pass the legislation through the reconciliation process.

That would mean a simple majority could pass the SAFE Act, reflecting the actual will of the people, instead of the democracy-killing super majority needed to pass anything into law given the current mess in the Capitol.

Senator Kyrsten Sinema has voiced her support of the filibuster that basically gives all the power to the minority party (Republicans), which has hindered this bill as well as any other bills proposed by Democratic leaders.

Legislation does not happen in a vacuum, so contact your representatives and let them know what you think and why you voted for them in the first place.

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