Prohibition has not solved any problems of cannabis use, despite more arrests annually for cannabis possession than for all violent crimes combined. In fact, it is a failure of historic proportions, documented in the government’s own statistics.
Here is where we get into why we believe cannabis prohibition creates more harm than cannabis use: Black people are almost four times more likely to be arrested for cannabis possession than whites despite the fact that black people and white people use cannabis at roughly the same rate. This racial disparity worsens the economic plight of already struggling communities of color. The resulting poverty limits access to education, jobs, rehabilitation, and health care.
That is only one of the ways cannabis prohibition undermines public health. With underage use increasing from the 1960s until legalization began, prohibition has failed in its most basic intent, which was to prevent access to minors.
But far from the apocalyptic predictions of opponents of legalization, underage cannabis use has not increased in states that have legalized cannabis. We are not surprised. Regulation prevents youth access at licensed retailers—who check for ID—and creates a legal distinction between underage and adult use that minors can understand and respect.
We appeal to government officials, the public, and our fellow physicians to support the sensible regulation of adult cannabis use as a more humane and cost-effective alternative to prohibition. Our nation must embrace science, reject misguided moralism around cannabis use, and recognize that books like Berenson’s are exactly what he inadvertently entitled his own: Reefer Madness.
Former Surgeon General Joycelyn Elders is an honorary board member of Doctors for Cannabis Regulation (DFCR.org), which is the first and only national physicians’ association dedicated to the legalization and effective regulation of cannabis in the United States. Dr David L. Nathan and Dr Bryon Adinoff are board members of DFCR. From 2016-2018, DFCR received 11% of its income from the cannabis industry.
The authors report no conflicts of interest concerning the subject matter of this article.