Conservative senators who visited Jeff Sessions are sharing anti-cannabis propaganda with their peers

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Last week, the Straight reported that three Canadian senators took a trip to Washington, D.C. to meet with anti-legalization groups and U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions—the same man who, in 2016, uttered the words, "Good people don't smoke marijuana."

It's bad enough that three unelected officials decided to waste taxpayer dollars seeking out the advice of a prohibitionist, but it's not nearly as scary as what could happen as a result of their visit.

Since returning to Canada, Conservative senators Denise Batters, Claude Carignan, and Pierre-Hughes Boisvenu have been distributing a document among Senate committees that speaks to the alleged "threats" posed by the legalization of cannabis.

The document, authored by the antilegalization nonprofit organization Smart Approaches to Marijuana (SAM), is an amalgamation of more than 40 pages of data concerning the effects of legalization in Washington, Colorado, Oregon, Alaska, and the District of Columbia.

Cofounded by former member of the U.S. House of Representatives Patrick J. Kennedy (a son of former U.S. senator Ted Kennedy), and author Kevin Sabet of the antipot book, Reefer Sanity: Seven Great Myths about Marijuana, SAM's sole intention is to convince the American population that cannabis poses the same, if not greater risks to public health and safety than "big tobacco".

Its board consists largely of physicians focused on addiction and treatment, as well as clinical psychologists and pediatric specialists. But SAM has also recruited people like David Frum, former speechwriter for George W. Bush and senior editor at The Atlantic, as “honorary” advisors to the board. (Frum has written a number of op-eds addressing the “perils” of legal pot.)

Kennedy, who has admitted publicly to struggling with addiction and mental health issues, told Yahoo News in 2017 that medical cannabis is simply "a Trojan horse designed to addict people".

That should give you an idea of the tone of SAM’s latest document, which begins by alleging that today's "highly potent marijuana" is a threat to public safety, and proceeds to highlight data that has either been refuted by studies with greater sample sizes and longer timelines, or fails to serve SAM’s cause at all.

Take, for example, this little nugget: "Young adult use (youth aged 18 to 25) in legalized states is increasing." So you're telling us that a product legalized by the state is being consumed at a greater rate by a demographic that is, for the most part, legally allowed to use it? That’s not exactly earth-shattering data. (States with legal cannabis permit possession and use for individuals aged 21 and over.)

And while the document relies on information from the National Survey on Drug Use and Health (NSUDH) to point out that Alaska and Oregon are leading the nation in past-year cannabis use among youth aged 12 to 17, it fails to include data from the same organization that found that the majority of states with legal cannabis are actually experiencing a downward trend in use among youth. Cherry-picking at its finest.

Another stat included in the document suggests that the consumption of alcohol in Colorado has risen by eight percent since the state legalized weed, but it fails to point out other contributing factors, like the state's rise in population: between 2014 and 2015, Colorado was the second-fastest growing state in the United States, with close to 100,000 new residents moving there post-legalization.

SAM does itself a disservice by reporting on stats from Washington, D.C., where lawmakers have only legalized limited personal possession and cultivation of the plant, without creating legislation around sale or distribution.

To be clear, residents of D.C. can possess and grow the plant, but they're not allowed to buy it, sell it, or use it in public areas, and with federal land obviously excluded from legalization, there are few places for residents to consume. (Clearly, it's not the greatest "legalization" law.) So when SAM says public consumption and distribution arrests in the area nearly tripled between 2015 and 2016, one must consider the limited parameters of legalization in D.C.

While including a statistic about the increased number of calls to a Colorado poison control centre since legalization might stir up fear in the minds of those unfamiliar with the plant, most know that cannabis is relatively safe, and one would be required to consume a hefty amount in order to experience a fatal poisoning. An increase in calls tells us nothing about the number of actual incidents that may (or may not) have occurred.

SAM also points out that explosions caused by butane hash oil, a solvent used to make cannabis concentrates, resulted in the costly treatment of 30 burn victims at the Oregon Burn Center during the first year of legalization in that state. While SAM fails to mention that the Oregon Liquor Control Commission has, by its own admission, been slow to license legal extractors, this information actually points to why we should legalize cannabis and its derivatives: so that their production is regulated and fewer citizens feel the need to try and make them at home.

By SAM's account, legalization has "potentially exacerbated" other crimes as well, but its data isn't consistent with additional research on the subject. While a study included in the document funded by the National Institute of Health (NIH) found that the density of dispensaries was linked to increased property crimes in nearby areas, a study out of California points to the opposite: it found that the sudden mass closure of 400 medical cannabis dispensaries in Los Angeles in 2010 actually led to an increase in neighbourhood crime.

Numerous other studies also point to a reduction in violent crimes in states with legal cannabis, rather than an increase.

Later in the document, SAM claims that the "easy availability of marijuana after legalization" has a possible link to Colorado's growing homeless population. Again, this doesn't factor in Colorado's increase in overall population following legalization, and is entirely based on assumption.

Yet another obvious stat that fails to serve SAM's purpose? It reports that positive test results for cannabis in urine are double the national average in Washington and Colorado. Given the legal status of the plant there, we're not surprised by this, and neither should Canadian senators. 

While SAM has dedicated a section of the document to impaired driving, the studies it relies on include much smaller samples than the one published in the American Journal of Public Health in July 2017, which found that after three years of recreational cannabis legalization, "changes in motor vehicle fatality rates for Washington and Colorado were not statistically different from those in states without recreational marijuana legalization."

In addition to its collection of statistics, SAM makes outlandish statements that aren't in line with the public health and safety approaches taken by the states in question, claiming that the goal of the industry is "to successfully convert young, casual users into heavy, more frequent users", and that the nation's opioid epidemic is in some way related to the increase in legalization policies in U.S. states. 

That claim, of course, has been repeatedly debunked by numerous studies pointing to decreases in both opioid-related hospitalizations and the number of fatal overdoses in states with legal cannabis. 

While SAM attempts to frame the U.S. attorney general's decision to rescind the Obama-era Cole Memo as "signaling uncertainty for the future of the marijuana industry", the only thing it has signalled is an uncertainty among the American people toward witless politicians like Sessions, who fail to see both the harms of prohibition, and the benefits that legal medical and recreational cannabis can provide.

North of the border, Canadians who voted for legalization should be outraged by the drama being perpetuated by senators whom we did not vote for. Not only are Conservative senators challenging aspects of the bill related to important areas like home cultivation, they're seeking out the advice of prohibitionists like Sessions and the folks at SAM in an attempt to persuade independent senators.

This late in the game, it might feel like cannabis legalization is a sure thing. But with SAM's reefer madness manifesto being passed among senators as they discuss the bill in committee, now is the time to reach out to them to remind them what Canadians voted for when they elected a Liberal government.

Like it or not, senators play an important role in Canada's democracy. It's crucial that, rather than be swayed by the concerns of American politicians or lobby groups, senators put the desire of Canadians first.

If you're as concerned as we are, click here to contact senators.