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Legal weed isn't living up to all of its promises. We need to shut it down

  • Legalizing marijuana not only harms public health and safety, it places a significant strain on local economies and weakens the ability of the American workforce to compete in an increasingly global marketplace.

Today, a growing class of well-heeled lobbyists intent on commercializing marijuana are doing everything they can to sell legal weed as a panacea for every contemporary challenge we face in America. Over the past several years we've been barraged by claims that legal pot can cure the opioid crisis, cure cancer, eliminate international drug cartels, and even solve climate change.

One seemingly compelling case made by special interest groups is that legal marijuana can boost our economy too: after all, marijuana businesses create jobs and bring in millions of dollars in much-needed tax revenue.

Yet, a closer look at the facts reveals a starkly different reality. The truth is, a commercial market for marijuana not only harms public health and safety, it also places a significant strain on local economies and weakens the ability of the American workforce to compete in an increasingly global marketplace.

We already know that drug use costs our economy hundreds of millions of dollars a year in public health and safety costs. The last comprehensive study to look at costs of drugs in society found that drug use cost taxpayers more than $193 billion – due to lost work productivity, health care costs, and higher crime.

A new study out of Canada found that marijuana-impaired driving alone costs more than $1 billion. Laws commercializing marijuana only make this problem worse and hamper local communities' ability to deal with the health and safety fallout of increased drug use.

"So far in Colorado, marijuana taxes have failed to shore up state budget shortfalls. The budget deficit there doubled in the last few years, despite claims that pot taxes could turn deficit into surplus."

This isn't just a theory - it's already happening. As marijuana use has increased in states that have legalized it, so has use by employees, both on and off the job. Large businesses in Colorado now state that after legalization they have had to hire out-of-state residents in order to find employees that can pass a pre-employment drug screen, particularly for safety-sensitive jobs like bus drivers, train operators, and pilots.

And now drug using employees - supported by special interest groups - are organizing to make drug use a "right" despite the negative impacts we know it will have on employers and the companies that hire them.

And what about that promised tax revenue? So far in Colorado, marijuana taxes have failed to shore up state budget shortfalls. The budget deficit there doubled in the last few years, despite claims that pot taxes could turn deficit into surplus.

Collected pot taxes only comprise a tiny fraction of the Colorado state budget— less than one percent. After costs of enforcement and regulation are subtracted, the remaining revenue used for public good is very limited.

Even viewed solely in the context of Colorado's educational needs, pot revenue is not newsworthy. The Colorado Department of Education indicates their schools require about $18 billion in capital construction funds alone. Marijuana taxes do not even make a dent in this gap.

In Washington State, half of the $42 million of marijuana tax money legalization advocates promised would reach prevention programs and schools by 2016 never materialized. We've seen this movie before: witness our experience with gambling, the lottery, and other vices.

We should also care about the human fallout of increased marijuana acceptance. Recent evidence demonstrates that today's marijuana isn't the weed of the 1960s. It is addictive and harmful to the human brain, especially when used by adolescents.

Moreover, in states that have already legalized the drug, there has been an increase in drugged driving crashes and youth marijuana use. States that have legalized marijuana also continue to see a thriving black market, and are experiencing a continued rise in alcohol sales despite arguing users will switch to a "safer" drug.

Over the past several months, the Trump Administration has signaled it is considering a crackdown on marijuana in states where it is legal. We don't yet know what this policy change may look like, but one thing we know for sure is that incarcerating low-level, nonviolent offenders in federal prisons is not the answer. Individual users need incentives to encourage them to make healthy decisions, not handcuffs.

But we do need to enforce federal law. Indeed, by reasserting federal control over the exploding marijuana industry, we know we can make a positive difference in preventing the commercialization of a drug that will put profits over public health and fight every regulation proposed to control its sale and use.

Marijuana addiction is real, and simply ignoring this health condition will only cost us down the road. We should assess marijuana users for drug use disorders as well as mental health problems, and assist those into recovery. This can't happen in a climate that promotes use.

Commentary by Kevin Sabet, president of Smart Approaches to Marijuana (SAM) and a former White House drug advisor for presidents Clinton, Bush and Obama. He cofounded SAM with former Congressman Patrick Kennedy who is currently an honorary board member. Follow Sabet on Twitter @kevinsabet.

For more insight from CNBC contributors, follow @CNBCopinion on Twitter.

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Gary Johnson (Libertarian) on the subject of pot