Skip to main content

Banning fake pot won't make it go away

By Jag Davies, Special to CNN
updated 3:32 PM EST, Tue February 5, 2013
Products sold under many brand names as
Products sold under many brand names as "potpourri" are often synthetic marijuana.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Emily Bauer suffered a debilitating stroke after consuming synthetic marijuana
  • Jag Davies: These chemicals wouldn't exist if it weren't for the prohibition of marijuana
  • Each time one form of fake pot gets banned, he says, another is designed to fill its place
  • Davies: Regulate real and fake pot, instead of driving them to the illicit market with no controls

Editor's note: Jag Davies is publications manager for the Drug Policy Alliance. The group calls itself the nation's leading organization working to end the war on drugs and advocates new drug policies based on "science, compassion, health and human rights."

(CNN) -- CNN reported Monday on the heart-rending story of Emily Bauer, a teenager from Houston, who suffered a debilitating stroke after consuming what has come to be known as "synthetic marijuana."

Although the role that synthetic marijuana played in Emily's medical condition is not yet clear, what is clear is that these new chemicals might not even exist if it weren't for the prohibition of marijuana, a plant that has been widely consumed throughout the world for thousands of years. A few years ago, people started using synthetic marijuana to evade drug tests -- and it caught on, once news reports publicized its existence.

Jag Davies
Jag Davies

And even though President Obama and 41 governors have signed legislation criminalizing various forms of synthetic marijuana, this stuff isn't going away -- that is, until we legally regulate marijuana itself.

To understand drug use by teenagers, we must acknowledge that they have grown up with drugs everywhere. We urge young people to be "drug-free," but Americans are bombarded with messages encouraging us to imbibe and medicate with a variety of substances: We use caffeine to boost our energy, we drink alcohol to relax, and we use prescription and over-the-counter drugs to help us work, study and sleep. And despite the draconian punishments associated with illegal drugs, 44% of today's teens will try them before graduating from high school.

Become a fan of CNNOpinion
Stay up to date on the latest opinion, analysis and conversations through social media. Join us at Facebook/CNNOpinion and follow us @CNNOpinion on Twitter. We welcome your ideas and comments.



Marijuana itself is the most widely consumed illegal drug -- more than 100 million Americans have used it and 20 million have been arrested for it since 1965.

Not surprisingly, given the laws of supply and demand, enterprising chemists have discovered an endless array of marijuana-like chemicals that can be sprayed onto potpourri-like plant matter and sold as "incense." People who have tried synthetic marijuana often report psychoactive effects that are comparable to marijuana, but notably less pleasurable.

Almost no one would touch this synthetic stuff -- actually, it wouldn't even exist -- if it weren't for the criminalization of the marijuana plant itself. Attempting to ban one new substance after another is like a game of whack-a-mole: Each time one gets banned, another untested and potentially more dangerous drug pops up to replace it.

The synthetic marijuana that Emily Bauer consumed was likely one of the "second generation" of synthetic marijuana chemicals. Since Congress and state legislatures banned a host of them over the past two years, the companies producing these products have simply changed their chemical formulations to one of thousands of slightly different chemicals with marijuana-like effects.

Fake pot sends teen to ICU
Cops: Dad forced kids to smoke fake pot

These new synthetic marijuana products are not an example of effective legal regulation, but an example of underregulation. Like aspirin or soft drinks, they are not subject to age, licensing, or other restrictions.

Oddly enough, the rush to criminalize synthetic marijuana and other synthetic drugs comes at a time when public opinion is dramatically shifting in favor of decriminalizing, and even legally regulating, marijuana.

More than three-quarters of American voters believe marijuana should be decriminalized, which 14 states have done. They also believe it should be available for medical use, which 18 states and the District of Columbia now allow; and about half think it should be legally regulated more or less like alcohol, as Colorado and Washington are doing. After decades of marijuana prohibition, elected officials and the public are finally realizing that regulating the production and sale of marijuana is the best way to reduce the harms of the illicit marijuana market and the harms of marijuana use itself.

It's important to note that the marijuana legalization initiatives overwhelmingly passed by voters in Colorado and Washington last November create strictly regulated regimes -- with age restrictions (21 and older) accompanied by meticulous government oversight of producers and retail distributors. On the other hand, synthetic marijuana -- whether underregulated or outright prohibited -- hasn't ever been subject to an appropriate level of regulation.

Before rushing to criminalize a new drug, legislators ought to ask: What specific regulatory options would help to reduce the harm to individuals, families and society? We need to ask what's the best way to solve the problem -- how to reduce drug abuse and addiction -- and use the best evidence to guide us.

And the evidence clearly shows that effective, legal regulation reduces the harm of drugs better than prohibition ever does. We have already learned a lot from regulating other substances, such as alcohol and tobacco. Product labeling requirements, as well as marketing, branding and retail display restrictions, are proven to reduce youth access to tobacco products and impulse tobacco purchases.

Tobacco has contributed to more deaths than alcohol and illicit drugs combined. As a result of education initiatives and marketing and age restrictions, smoking has declined dramatically over time -- despite its legality for adults -- in one of the greatest public health success stories of the last generation.

Outright criminalization only drives the demand for the drug to the illicit market. Under prohibition, regulators have no control over where the product is sold, who sells it, or to whom they sell it. Arresting young people, moreover, often causes more damage than drug use itself.

After 40 years of the "war on drugs," the evidence clearly shows that it is ineffective to use the criminal justice system to send public health messages. Prohibition simply creates new public health problems and maximizes the harm associated with illegal drug use.

Indeed, drugs, whether marijuana or synthetic marijuana, should not be legally regulated because they are safe -- they should be legally regulated precisely because they can be harmful.

Follow us on Twitter @CNNOpinion.

Join us on Facebook/CNNOpinion.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Jag Davies.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
updated 5:22 AM EST, Fri December 19, 2014
President Obama has been flexing his executive muscles lately despite Democrat's losses, writes Gloria Borger
updated 2:51 PM EST, Thu December 18, 2014
Jeff Yang says the film industry's surrender will have lasting implications.
updated 4:13 PM EST, Thu December 18, 2014
Newt Gingrich: No one should underestimate the historic importance of the collapse of American defenses in the Sony Pictures attack.
updated 7:55 AM EST, Wed December 10, 2014
Dean Obeidallah asks how the genuine Stephen Colbert will do, compared to "Stephen Colbert"
updated 12:34 PM EST, Thu December 18, 2014
Some GOP politicians want drug tests for welfare recipients; Eric Liu says bailed-out execs should get equal treatment
updated 8:42 AM EST, Thu December 18, 2014
Louis Perez: Obama introduced a long-absent element of lucidity into U.S. policy on Cuba.
updated 12:40 PM EST, Tue December 16, 2014
The slaughter of more than 130 children by the Pakistani Taliban may prove as pivotal to Pakistan's security policy as the 9/11 attacks were for the U.S., says Peter Bergen.
updated 11:00 AM EST, Wed December 17, 2014
The Internet is an online extension of our own neighborhoods. It's time for us to take their protection just as seriously, says Arun Vishwanath.
updated 4:54 PM EST, Tue December 16, 2014
Gayle Lemmon says we must speak out for the right of children to education -- and peace
updated 5:23 AM EST, Wed December 17, 2014
Russia's economic woes just seem to be getting worse. How will President Vladimir Putin respond? Frida Ghitis gives her take.
updated 1:39 AM EST, Wed December 17, 2014
Australia has generally seen itself as detached from the threat of terrorism. The hostage incident this week may change that, writes Max Barry.
updated 3:20 PM EST, Fri December 12, 2014
Thomas Maier says the trove of letters the Kennedy family has tried to guard from public view gives insight into the Kennedy legacy and the history of era.
updated 9:56 AM EST, Mon December 15, 2014
Will Congress reform the CIA? It's probably best not to expect much from Washington. This is not the 1970s, and the chances for substantive reform are not good.
updated 4:01 PM EST, Mon December 15, 2014
From superstorms to droughts, not a week goes by without a major disruption somewhere in the U.S. But with the right planning, natural disasters don't have to be devastating.
updated 9:53 AM EST, Mon December 15, 2014
Would you rather be sexy or smart? Carol Costello says she hates this dumb question.
updated 5:53 PM EST, Sun December 14, 2014
A story about Pope Francis allegedly saying animals can go to heaven went viral late last week. The problem is that it wasn't true. Heidi Schlumpf looks at the discussion.
updated 10:50 AM EST, Sun December 14, 2014
Democratic leaders should wake up to the reality that the party's path to electoral power runs through the streets, where part of the party's base has been marching for months, says Errol Louis
updated 4:23 PM EST, Sat December 13, 2014
David Gergen: John Brennan deserves a national salute for his efforts to put the report about the CIA in perspective
updated 9:26 AM EST, Fri December 12, 2014
Anwar Sanders says that in some ways, cops and protesters are on the same side
updated 9:39 AM EST, Thu December 11, 2014
A view by Samir Naji, a Yemeni who was accused of serving in Osama bin Laden's security detail and imprisoned for nearly 13 years without charge in Guantanamo Bay
updated 12:38 PM EST, Sun December 14, 2014
S.E. Cupp asks: How much reality do you really want in your escapist TV fare?
updated 1:28 PM EST, Thu December 11, 2014
Rip Rapson says the city's 'Grand Bargain' saved pensions and a world class art collection by pulling varied stakeholders together, setting civic priorities and thinking outside the box
updated 6:10 PM EST, Sat December 13, 2014
Glenn Schwartz says the airing of the company's embarrassing emails might wake us up to the usefulness of talking in-person instead of electronically
updated 5:33 PM EST, Fri December 12, 2014
The computer glitch that disrupted air traffic over the U.K. on Friday was a nuisance, but not dangerous, says Les Abend
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT