With pot on the ballot, an expert answers questions on stoned driving, Mexican cartels and more

Beau Kilmer, a senior researcher at RAND Corp., specializes in drug policy. As a co-author of the book “Marijuana Legalization,” he has been thinking a lot lately about California’s upcoming ballot initiative to allow all adults to use pot and its implications for public policy, including health, safety and criminal justice.

For people still trying to make up their minds about Proposition 64, I thought it would be helpful to have a chat with Kilmer, a voluble 40-year-old with a PhD in public health from Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government. We met in Santa Monica, across the street from RAND, where Kilmer, who commutes from Oakland, has worked for 20 years.

His enthusiasm for his subject is hard to contain; he told me about his discovery that between 2006 and 2010 cocaine consumption has plummeted 50% in the U.S. though no one knows why, and about how the government of Uruguay has legalized cannabis — over the objections of its citizens.

Mostly, though, we stuck to the topic at hand.

I wanted to hear his best argument for and against 64. Unfortunately for me, Kilmer’s thinking is far too nuanced to give the glib answers I was hoping for.

“So much of this comes down to your personal values and your preferences for risk,” he said. “Some people are opposed to intoxication, others are opposed to the government telling them what they can put in their bodies. Some people are so frustrated at the Drug War that they will vote to chip away at it.”

Will we see more crashes due to stoned driving?

Last week, AAA announced its opposition to legalization efforts in California and Maine.  The Auto Club said it examined drug tests and accidents in Washington, which legalized marijuana in 2012, and found an increase in drivers involved in fatal crashes who had recently used marijuana.

Yet even the Auto Club couldn’t nail down the argument. “While the data analyzed for the study did not include enough information to determine which driver was at fault in a given crash,” it said, “the trend is troubling.”

Kilmer heaved a sigh.

“The bulk of the research suggests that driving drunk is worse than driving stoned, but driving stoned is worse than driving sober,” he said. “The research suggests that when people are under the influence of both marijuana and alcohol, it does increase the probability of getting into a crash.”

But, he added, “If you are going to be objective about this and you really want to know how marijuana legalization is going to affect traffic safety, you don’t just look at the number of people in crashes who are testing positive for THC. You want to look at total crashes and total accidents. It might be the case that yeah, more people are driving stoned, but some of them are now less likely to drive drunk.”

Studies, he said, are not definitive.

Will more children accidentally ingest cannabis?

The No on 64 campaign has released an ad that plays on this fear, featuring a toddler reaching for a colorful bag of gummies. Proposition 64 forbids the sale of products “designed to be appealing to children or easily confused with commercially sold candy or foods that do not contain marijuana,” and requires all marijuana to be sold in containers that are child resistant, i.e. “significantly difficult for children under five years of age to open.”  

Still, it’s naïve to think that some children will not get their hands on cannabis products. The question of course: Is the risk worth it?

“That’s a great point, because this is all about trade-offs,” Kilmer said. “In Colorado, you hear about this large increase in kids coming to emergency rooms, but the actual numbers are quite low.”

Indeed, a paper published in JAMA Pediatrics said that Colorado’s Regional Poison Control Center reported nine pediatric cases in 2009, before legalization. Six years later, that number had jumped to 47.

Will legalization hobble Mexican drug cartels?

In 2010, when California voters defeated Proposition 19, an earlier legalization measure, Kilmer tried to figure out how much money those cartels were making. His best estimate at the time: Cartels were making between $6 billion and $8 billion a year moving marijuana, heroin, cocaine and meth across the border. Pot, he estimated, accounted for only 15% to 20% of the revenue.

“These organizations have portfolios,” he said. “Not just moving drugs across the border, but kidnapping and extortion.”

How will legalization affect communities of color?

For many California voters, legalizing cannabis is a social justice issue. African Americans and Latinos have been punished disproportionately for drug offenses.

Kilmer pointed out that after pot was decriminalized by California voters in 2011 (possession of less than an ounce is an infraction, punishable by a fine of $100 and substantial fees), arrests dropped precipitously, from about 70,000 per year to about 15,000.

Yet in May, the Drug Policy Alliance, a major backer of Proposition 64, and the ACLU reported that despite similar rates of use, blacks and Latinos in L.A. and Fresno were issued citations at higher rates than whites — four times the rate for blacks and 1.5 times the rate for Latinos.

Proposition 64 removes marijuana possession penalties and, for minors, replaces them with drug treatment and education. Besides eliminating or reducing most criminal marijuana offenses (it will still be a felony to provide marijuana to a minor), people who are serving time for offenses that are no longer a crime can apply to have their sentences reduced, and those who have finished their sentences will be able to ask to have their records cleared.

Will consumption increase, and if so, is that bad?

“If you have an increase in advertising and a reduction in the retail price, we would expect that consumption will go up,” Kilmer said. “It’s hard to predict how much. Much is going to depend on how legalization influences the use of other substances, such as alcohol, tobacco and prescription opioids. That’s where the research needs to go.”

More Robin Abcarian columns on cannabis »

robin.abcarian@latimes.com 

Twitter: @AbcarianLAT

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