Marijuana Legalization Means More Drug Testing

by Rick Cusick


A Gallup Poll released at the end of 2017 reported that 64% of Americans now favor marijuana legalization. That’s up four points from the prior year. For the first time ever, a majority of self-identified Republicans (51%) supported full-blown legalization, a nine-point increase from 2016. Current support for medical marijuana is even more robust. A 2018 Quinnipiac poll found that a whopping 91% of Americans now favor legalizing the medical use of cannabis.

Clearly, the chickens are coming home to roost but when they get to the barnyard the farmer wants to make them to put their peckers into cups. One would think that with all this legalization and medicalization going on, the gross weapons of a failed drug war would fall from our view, but politics will make that impossible.

Consider this: after a hundred years of hyperbole, propaganda and lies, reasonable people can eye marijuana law reform with suspicion and might worry that legal weed could make their children less safe. While it is a false equivalency to say that legalizing marijuana intrinsically endangers young people  – in fact, the opposite is true – reasonable parents who have never smoked a joint in their lives will need to be reassured that marijuana legalization or medicalization will not have a negative impact on their kids. Reasonable parents will never surrender unreasonable concerns for their children, and I don’t blame them

Driving Under The Influence of Drugs (DUID) is another sticky wicket of cannabis law reform where reasonable people can strongly disagree. The Drug Law Industrial Complex will always maintain that widespread cannabis legalization really means a host of inexperienced newbie stoners barreling down the nation’s highways, caroming off the guard rails. That’s ridiculous. With few exceptions, almost everyone who wants to smoke weed is already smoking weed, and they’ve been barreling down the roads for over forty years. The truth is much more prosaic. A pair of DUID studies released in 2017 came to slightly opposite conclusions. One found that legalization led to a small spike in insurance claims for all car crashes in Colorado, Washington and Oregon while another concluded that marijuana legalization in Colorado and Washington had no effect on fatal crashes at all. More: a third study that analyzed over a million traffic fatalities nationwide from 1985 through 2014 seemed to show that states with medical marijuana laws are not associated with increased auto fatalities and may, in fact, have fewer fatal accidents.

Of course, these different studies study slightly different things so it should come as no surprise when they yield slightly different results. But, truthfully, warriors like Jeff Sessions and reformers like myself will take the same results and spin them in different directions, and all of that adds up to a very confused parent who doesn’t smoke weed but who does know bullshit and, most importantly, doesn’t want their kid to get in trouble. We need those parents on our side if we are ever going to achieve a national referendum for cannabis law reform.

The drug test industrial complex is, by now, a de facto American institution made up of drug warriors, drug test companies, law enforcement agencies and school administrators who all seem to agree that the best weapon against weed is a specimen cup. Those of us who know better insist that drug testing has no solid base of evidence and offers no proof at all that it works.  After all these years we’re still not sure if drug testing increases productivity or just intimidation. We do know that workplace drug testing – which is 90% urinalysis – does not reliably indicate impairment; but they still do it anyway as if it makes a difference. They do it in support of an existing $5 billion per year drug test industry that is predicted to swell up to $9 billion by 2023. As legalization and medicalization laws kick in, the drug test industrial complex has already shown it is more than willing to play Chicken Little and shout, “The sky is falling!”

Reasonable concern about teenage drug use and DUID are not going to go away (nor should they), but the anti-weed warriors will make sure those concerns will increase unreasonably with legalization and medicalization. Reasonable parents who have never smoked weed will hear the sky is falling and will want some kind of assurance that the kids are being protected if we expect them to support reform. And reasonable adults who have never smoked weed will need to be reassured that a bunch of newbie stoned drivers aren’t flying down the highway caroming off the guardrails, as ridiculous as that sounds.

To answer these concerns the marijuana law reform community will be asked more and more to trade expanded drug testing for their legalized cannabis. Improved roadside drug testing and suspicion-based testing in the schools and workplace will sound like reasonable answers to reasonable questions, and we should be willing to concede those points if we are ever going to get the nation jazzed up to legalize weed. At the same time, we need draw a line and continue to resist – vigorously – any version of random, suspicionless drug test programs in our schools, at the workplace and on the road. That’s what the drug test industrial complex wants to promote – vigorously – because that’s the only way they’re going to hit that $9 billion mark by 2023.

Drug testing can be useful in helping people with drug problems, but marijuana consumers don’t have a problem with drugs. They have a problem with the law.

Photograph by the Oregon Department of Transportation