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 3:30 AM EDT, Sun September 21, 2014
John Sutter boarded a leaky oyster boat in Connecticut with a captain who can't swim as he set off to get world leaders to act on climate change
updated 7:22 PM EDT, Fri September 19, 2014
Is ballet dying? CNN spoke with Isabella Boylston, a principal dancer at the American Ballet Theatre, about the future of the art form.
updated 5:47 PM EDT, Fri September 19, 2014
Sally Kohn says it's time we take climate change as seriously as we do warfare in the Middle East
updated 9:02 AM EDT, Fri September 19, 2014
Dean Obeidallah says an Oklahoma state representative's hateful remarks were rightfully condemned by religious leaders..
updated 3:22 PM EDT, Fri September 19, 2014
No matter how much planning has gone into U.S. military plans to counter the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, the Arab public isn't convinced that anything will change, says Geneive Abdo
updated 11:44 AM EDT, Fri September 19, 2014
President Obama's strategy for destroying ISIS seems to depend on a volley of air strikes. That won't be enough, says Haider Mullick.
updated 9:03 AM EDT, Fri September 19, 2014
Paul Begala says Hillary Clinton has plenty of good reasons not to jump into the 2016 race now
updated 11:01 AM EDT, Fri September 19, 2014
Scotland decided to trust its 16-year-olds to vote in the biggest question in its history. Americans, in contrast, don't even trust theirs to help pick the county sheriff. Who's right?
updated 9:57 PM EDT, Thu September 18, 2014
Ruben Navarrette says spanking is an acceptable form of disciplining a child, as long as you follow the rules.
updated 11:47 AM EDT, Fri September 19, 2014
Frida Ghitis says the foiled Australian plot shows ISIS is working diligently to taunt the U.S. and its allies.
updated 3:58 PM EDT, Fri September 19, 2014
Young U.S. voters by and large just do not see the midterm elections offering legitimate choices because, in their eyes, Congress has proven to be largely ineffectual, and worse uncaring, argues John Della Volpe
updated 9:58 PM EDT, Thu September 18, 2014
Steven Holmes says spanking, a practice that is ingrained in our culture, accomplishes nothing positive and causes harm.
updated 2:31 PM EDT, Thu September 18, 2014
Sally Kohn says America tried "Cowboy Adventurism" as a foreign policy strategy; it failed. So why try it again?
updated 10:27 AM EDT, Thu September 18, 2014
Van Jones says the video of John Crawford III, who was shot by a police officer in Walmart, should be released.
updated 10:48 AM EDT, Thu September 18, 2014
NASA will need to embrace new entrants and promote a lot more competition in future, argues Newt Gingrich.
updated 7:15 PM EDT, Tue September 16, 2014
If U.S. wants to see real change in Iraq and Syria, it will have to empower moderate forces, says Fouad Siniora.
updated 8:34 PM EDT, Wed September 17, 2014
Mark O'Mara says there are basic rules to follow when interacting with law enforcement: respect their authority.
updated 9:05 AM EDT, Tue September 16, 2014
LZ Granderson says Congress has rebuked the NFL on domestic violence issue, but why not a federal judge?
updated 7:49 AM EDT, Tue September 16, 2014
Mel Robbins says the only person you can legally hit in the United States is a child. That's wrong.
updated 1:23 PM EDT, Mon September 15, 2014
Eric Liu says seeing many friends fight so hard for same-sex marriage rights made him appreciate marriage.
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT