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December 18, 2005

The Elephant in the Living Room: America's huge pot market

Our pot market dwarfs all others for illegal drugs; yet, like them, it's rarely seen by non-users. Whether they consume alcohol or not, Californians encounter its retail distribution network every time they shop for food.  "Marijuana," which may command a comparable dollar volume, was sold through a distribution network that was nearly invisible in California until Proposition 215 created  a 'gray market' of sorts. It's ironic that as this entry is being composed, multiple busts  of medical marijuana outlets are being reported in San Diego. My purpose here isn't to comment on those busts, but rather to call attention to some of the absurdities brought out by standardized questioning of  Californians seeking pot recommendations.

 Just like all illegal drug markets, the pot market has thrived under the noses of the drug warriors; also like them,  it can't be measured directly. Thus police agencies are free to emphasize different points to different audiences. When seeking more money for enforcement, they cite evidence of market growth; when justifying their failures, they inevitably claim things would be much worse without the policy .

Ironically, in the case of pot, there is now convincing evidence that when Richard Nixon declared war on drugs in 1969, its market was still relatively small and just starting to grow.  Even more ironically;  given the emphasis on pot and kids, there is also convincing demographic evidence that virtually all its subsequent growth has been both incremental and a direct result of the recruitment, as customers, of the same fifth graders targeted by D.A.R.E. since the Eighties and surveyed so assiduously as adolescents by MTF/SAMHSA since 1975. Virtually all also tried alcohol and tobacco and many  went on to try several other illegal drugs as well.

In a very real sense, America's still-growing illegal pot market is the most redolent elephant hiding in our national living room.
In 1972, Richard Nixon disregarded the Shafer Commission's recommendation  that cannabis be decriminalized and studied for its therapeutic potential. Instead; he opted to continue  a 'war' on pot- a policy that has since been expanded and intensified several times.  Marijuana possession soon became the leading cause of felony arrests, which now number over three quarters of a million each year. Our total prison population, which has more than tripled since 1980, is well over two million.

It now clear that although the potential for today's huge illegal cannabis market  was created by the MTA in 1937, it didn't begin to be realized until pot was tried by hundreds of thousands of adolescents thirty years later. Ironically, the most important clue to their drug vulnerability was noted by the first researchers to  encounter them; however, it was misinterpreted after NIDA came on the scene at about the same time.

The important clue was that- almost without exception- the juveniles and young adults smoking pot in the mid-Seventies had already tried alcohol and tobacco. The first (and only) assumption by NIDA-- that pot somehow acts as a 'gateway' between legal and illegal drugs- it is still being assiduously investigated by NIDA-funded investigators thirty years later; yet the important nexus seems to be that all three agents can reduce the symptoms of stress and anxiety increasingly plaguing adolescents as life has become more 'modern' and complicated over the past two centuries.

The understanding that a robust illegal market for pot didn't begin for thirty years  after it was banned depends almost entirely on an absence of news during that interval: over twelve million men were in uniform during World War Two and yet the only pot bust to make headlines was that of Dorsey drummer Gene Krupa in San Francisco in 1943. The next celebrity bust involved  then (relatively) unknown Robert Mitchum five years later;  it generated coast to coast notoriety just ahead of television. The important points aren't whether Krupa's and Mitchum's busts were righteous or that they show that a small illegal pot market had always existed; rather that 'narcotic' arrests of relative unknowns could generate such intense curiosity.

What would become the 'counterculture' of the Sixties was foreshadowed in the Fifties by bi-coastal 'beat' writers who also attracted attention for their use of cannabis and newer drugs called 'psychedelics'.  The Fifties also saw the introduction of the first pharmaceuticals specifically intended for mental symptoms. That a surge in drug interest and availability took place between the 1962 firing of drug watchdog Harry Anslinger and Nixon's 1968 election is significant; many young people were being inspired by Civil Rights Movement and other movements that followed on behalf of 'free speech,' gays, and women. Those protests, in turn, had an effect on the "hippie" phenomenon when the 'baby boomers' born after World War Two began to come of age. Multiple protests eventually coalesced into an anti-war movement that would convince Lyndon Johnson not run in '68, and critically affect Nixon's judgement;  eventually driving him from office only two years after his 1972 landslide victory.

As mentioned earlier, the first encounter between researchers and youthful pot users (impossible under Anslinger) had occurred in the mid Seventies; although the association with alcohol and tobacco was noted; it was misinterpreted. NIDA's first major error thus became its obsession with validating a 'gateway' "theory" which has never passed muster as a useful hypothesis. More subtle; and even more egregious- has been NIDA's failure to recognize an incremental pattern as that market has continued to grow- let alone the reasons for that pattern. These elements are persuasively revealed  by a simple tabulation of the age distribution of the thousands of Californians I've interviewed for cannabis recommendations over the past four years. Whatever doubts one may have about the 'legitimacy' of their use, there is no question they are admitted chronic users who first tried pot as adolescents.

All but two were over 18 when first seen and 95% were born between 1946 and 1986.
The next entry will report their demographic specifics as chronologically related  to their initiations of alcohol, tobacco- plus the other illegal drugs they admitted trying from an arbitrarily selected  menu.

Tom O'Connell MD

Posted by tjeffo at December 18, 2005 03:01 AM