by Paul M Gardner
On Sunday The Sun printed another editorial written by a conservative republican decrying the potential decriminalization of marijuana in Maryland, this latest one by United States Congressman and physician Andy Harris. Dr. Harris makes the point that in states where marijuana is decriminalized use among minors increases. He also notes that most Maryland counties do not currently criminally charge for possession of small amounts of marijuana. Most notably Dr. Harris cites a Columbia University study that states that fatal car crashes involving marijuana use have tripled during the previous decade, and that “If this trend continues, in five or six years, non-alcohol drugs will overtake alcohol to become the most common substances involved in deaths related to impaired driving.”
However the study cited by Dr. Harris attributes this rising rate of traffic fatalities to “non-alcohol drugs” and not specifically marijuana, so the role marijuana plays in increasing this rate becomes muddied by the inclusion of many other, and I’m sure Dr. Harris would agree, far more dangerous drugs than marijuana. Dr. Harris also neglects to mention that these statistics have no way of measuring impairment from marijuana at the time of the accident, no such test exists, but can only say conclusively that the impaired driver had used marijuana at some point prior to the crash, which could have been days or weeks beforehand. So marijuana used by a driver three weeks prior to a fatal car crash can somehow be included as a contributing factor, even if it wasn’t. This fact may have been omitted by Dr. Harris, but it wasn’t left out by the researchers who performed the study, who said “prevalence of non-alcohol drugs should be interpreted as an indicator of drug-use, not necessarily a measure of drug impairment.”
It’s odd that Dr. Harris would cite this paper in particular while omitting key details rather than some of the many, many other studies that have been done on the effects of marijuana use. Particularly studies that show marijuana users drive slower, do not have a greater difficulty driving straight, are less likely to pass other cars, drive at a steady speed, less likely to drive recklessly, have fewer crashes, less likely to take risks, follow other vehicles at safer distances, even studies that show that marijuana smokers are safer and more careful than entirely sober drivers. If he were so inclined Dr. Harris also could have cited a 2011 study that shows that the 16 states that have passed medicinal marijuana laws in the past have experienced an increased use of marijuana among adults, and from that a direct decrease in alcohol consumption, a following decrease in drunk driving, and a resulting 9% overall decrease in automobile fatalities.
As a physician Dr. Harris is free to make the claim that we have more to fear from a drug whose direct use leads to zero deaths each year rather than legal alternatives that have and will continue to kill millions. As a conservative Dr. Harris is free to claim that an expensive war on drugs is actually better for America than the free market, and that it’s alright to keep superfluous laws on the books even if local jurisdictions refuse to enforce them. As a member of the republican party Dr. Harris is free to claim that a massive, intrusive government program that regulates what Americans can put in their bodies or grow in their yards is consistent with his party’s platform, and that the government is better suited to keep drugs away from minors by passing laws than parents are. And as a member of the United States Congress Dr. Harris is free to claim that the racist, hateful, and seemingly random regional legal disparities of marijuana prohibition represent an acceptable status quo that deserves to be protected by the highest levels of government. But to claim any of this, Congressman Harris must first admit that he stands for nothing.