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May 4, 2004 - The Santa Cruz Sentinel (CA)

UCSC Sociologist Says Making Pot Legal Does Not Boost Use

By Anna Gosline

Return to Drug War News: Don't Miss Archive

SANTA CRUZ - A leading critic of U.S. drug policy contends there is no link between the decriminalization of marijuana and increased drug use.

In research published in the May issue of the American Journal of Public Health, Craig Reinarman, a UC Santa Cruz sociologist, said he found there was no difference between drug-use rates in Amsterdam, where marijuana is freely bought at licensed coffee shops, and San Francisco, where pot-smokers still can get busted.

"Drug policy doesn't appear to have much relevance," Reinarman said in an interview Monday. "There is not a lot of evidence to suggest that criminalization has a deterrent effect."

In the late 1990s, Reinarman conducted random door-to-door surveys of 265 adults from San Francisco who had used marijuana 25 times or more. The research team, including two scientists from the Center for Drug Research in the Netherlands, then compared the data with identical survey information gathered from 216 adults in Amsterdam.

The results showed no difference between the cities for key factors such as age of first use, and age and duration of maximum use. Dutch marijuana users also were less likely to use other illicit drugs such as cocaine, crack, amphetamines or opiates such as heroin.

"It seems to us that the burden of proof is now on those that support criminalization to prove that it actually reduces drug use," said Reinarman, who won a lifetime achievement award from the Drug Policy Foundation in 1999.

Paul Armentano, a senior policy analyst at the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws, said he isn't surprised by Reinarman's results.

"The results (from similar studies) have been remarkably consistent, whether the study comes from university researchers or the government," he said. "Marijuana use ebbs and flows regardless of marijuana penalties. That's the case in this country and frankly, in countries all over the world. I'd like to think that if the drug policies were based on science, they would change."

But others on the front lines of the war on drugs, like Richard Westphal, commander of the Santa Cruz County Narcotics Enforcement Team, remain opposed to decriminalization.

"There would be increased usage and more people will try it," he said, arguing against decriminalization. Westphal believes criminal punishment does prevent people from using the drug excessively.

Rhonda Jones at Janus of Santa Cruz, a drug treatment center, agreed: "We believe that pot is a gateway drug. If a person smokes a lot of pot, they will likely try something stronger."

Jones also said addicts recovering from harder drugs such as cocaine or heroin will sometimes pick up marijuana, then slide back into their old habits.

Robert MacCoun, a sociologist at UC Berkeley, also has studied marijuana usage in the United States and the Netherlands. He said he saw a rise in marijuana use in the mid-1980s when legal marijuana sellers launched aggressive advertising campaigns. The Netherlands has since restricted these campaigns.

"We think that commercialization has the potential to significantly increase marijuana usage," he said, "but decriminalization poses very little risk.

"What we really need to understand is why countries like Sweden, who have restrictive drug policies similar to the U.S., also have low levels of drug use."

Download the full study, The Limited Relevance of Drug Policy: Cannabis in Amsterdam and in San Francisco (PDF Format)

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