Commentary: Legalize marijuana, stop synthetic cannabinoid overdoses

The 16 synthetic cannabinoid overdoses in Hermann Park at the end of June are enough evidence that punitive policies aimed at creating a drug-free world have utterly backfired. Instead of ushering in a utopian society without drugs, the War on Drugs has incentivized the creation of new psychoactive substances (NPS) purported to mimic the effects of “classic” drugs like marijuana.

However, these newly emerging drugs are widely misunderstood. Synthetic cannabinoids, often referred to as “fake marijuana” or “synthetic marijuana” have a different chemical structure and produce profoundly different effects in their users than marijuana.

Rather than being a safer alternative to marijuana, several studies have found that synthetic cannabinoids produce a wide range of dangerous side effects, such as nausea, convulsions, hallucinations, and psychosis. All too often these common misconceptions result in tragedy, perhaps best demonstrated by the 229 percent increase in NPS-related poison center calls between 2014 and 2015.

A mounting body of evidence suggests repressive drug policies play a large role in driving people to use “legal highs” as replacement drugs. This may explain why states with harsh marijuana laws, like Alabama andMississippi, experience more severe outbreaks of synthetic cannabinoid emergencies. Legality, however, is not the only barrier people face when acquiring their drug of choice.

For many, marijuana is accessible so long as one has the money to purchase it. As noted in the 2016 Global Drug Survey, the unique challenges posed bypoverty mean synthetic cannabinoids “might find their long-term relationships with those already marginalized in our society.” It should come as no surprise, then, that many of the 16 people who overdosed on synthetic cannabinoids last week were reported to be “homeless people who hang out at the park.”

Instead of continuing to play a game of cat-and-mouse with drugs like synthetic cannabinoids, society must acknowledge the abject failure of prohibition and immediately work toward legalizing, regulating, and controlling marijuana. Though the Texas Legislature banned 1,000 unique chemical combinations used to make synthetic cannabinoids last September, the nature of NPS means new chemicals are likely to be synthesized at a rate that far outpaces these new laws.

A recent survey of synthetic cannabinoid users found an astounding 93 precent prefer natural marijuana and the small number of those who didn’t listed reasons such as drug tests or the low cost. Legalizing and regulating marijuana has the potential to reduce many of the harms associated with synthetic cannabinoids simply because people prefer to use marijuana.

While it may be tempting to continue down the path of reactive prohibition, we must be aware of the consequences. Bans on synthetic cannabinoids and other novel psychoactive substances might slow the use of certain drugs, but they also have the potential to severely impede research into these new drugs while simultaneously incentivizing the creation of drugs we know even less about.

Legally selling marijuana to adults in a manner that controls when, how, and where it can be consumed will greatly reduce the demand for increasingly risky alternatives. Rather than continuing fruitless efforts to ban drugs we know very little about, our efforts should focus on regulating legal marijuana access, vigorous public education, and early warning systems to increase awareness about the dangers of NPS.

Russell Jones has worked as a police officer, narcotics detective, DEA Task Force Officer, and as a federal narcotics intelligence agent in South America, Russia and China. Retired, he now is a speaker for Law Enforcement Against Prohibition (LEAP).

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