Debates are designed to emphasize differences, but sometimes areas of agreement can be just as important. This is especially true about debating marijuana. At last month’s Tuerk Conference, I moderated a plenary session debate on the question of marijuana legalization.
Ethan Nadelman of the Drug Policy Alliance argued the pro-legalization position, and Kevin Sabet of Smart Approaches to Marijuana advocated for the decriminalization position. Their disagreements were clear. Each of them was quick to point out the weakness of the other’s arguments, so listening carefully to both was essential to achieving a “balanced” understanding of the complexity of the issue. There were, however, some important issues on which they agreed when debating marijuana.
They both agreed on the importance of minimizing the use of cannabis by youth. They did differ about how to accomplish this. For Kevin, the track record of irresponsible commercialization and advertising by the tobacco and alcohol industry, in their disingenuous youth marketing, demonstrated that avarice was inevitable and ultimately unmanageable. He noted the already increased interest by MBAs and investors in what he thinks would become a new industry that he called “big marijuana.” Ethan, on the other hand, believes that a well-managed regulatory system would provide better protection for consumers and the environment. He has begun working with prospective marijuana entrepreneurs to convince them that the establishment of socially responsible marketing norms is essential for their survival.
Both also agreed about the importance of removing unnecessary government barriers to research on the benefits as well as dangers of marijuana. When debating marijuana, Kevin’s opinion was that one of the processes a previous NIDA director initiated to expedite this research had paradoxically become an additional obstacle.
A third area of agreement was that each of their positions involved tradeoffs. In Kevin’s words, “What are you willing to live with?” For Kevin, decriminalization means living with a continuing, although reduced, underground market, which would offer marijuana at a lower price than the legal market. Ethan, on the other hand, believes that an increase in marijuana use is the tradeoff for the elimination of a criminal black market resulting from full legalization. He argues that any increase in use, however, will occur more among older adults, who currently have more difficulty obtaining it than do youth, who Monitoring the Future reports find marijuana to be readily accessible.
A final similarity was the passion which accompanied their beliefs. This emotional intensity was evident in the audience as well during question and answer interactions during the follow up workshops. Interested readers can get a first-hand sense of this quality from the pictures to be posted on the Tuerk Conference website. I find this level of caring preferable to a cold academic discussion about this complex and important subject. My ongoing concern, however, is the need to prevent the emotional element, as well as ideological commitments, from unduly influencing a balanced evaluation of the evidence on both sides of the issue.