A strong majority of Californians appear ready to legalize cannabis for personal use, a new independent poll found last week. A handful of TV stations hired the reputable Survey USA to ask 500 random Californians this question:
"Should the state of California legalize the use of marijuana? Or not?" Fifty-six percent said "yes," 42 percent said "no," with 3 percent undecided.
But don't get too worked up. The margin of error on the poll was around 4 percent, and the poll did not account for mid-term voters, who tend to be older and more conservative. The last independent survey — a 2009 Field Poll — had the same problem.
Still, there are some interesting findings in the numbers. A supermajority of those under 34 favor legalization, which means time is on reform's side. Californians age 35-49 are slightly against legalization (50-46 percent) yet legalization is a dead heat (49-49 percent) in the 50-64 bracket. Those 65 and older are still staunchly in the "no" camp (54-39 percent). And since these are the folks who like to vote early and often in mid-terms, reformers must turn out enough youth to rock grandma's vote. Well, are you, kids?
Racially: whites, blacks, and Asians are for legalization, but 53 percent of Hispanics are against it. Politically: independents are solidly for legalization, as well as Democrats. Republicans appear to be against it. They would vote "no," 46 to 53 percent, although that's within the margin of error.
In other poll news, ABC News did a national poll that claims to have found 55 percent of Americans oppose legalization. But This Is Your Country on Drugs author Ryan Grim, a Huffington Post reporter covering health in Washington, DC, dug into the numbers and noted that "when pot is compared to alcohol, support for reforming the laws surges. Forty-four percent of respondents said that 'the regulations on marijuana [should] be the same as those for alcohol.' Another 12 percent said they should be 'less strict,' meaning that a full 56 percent support the policy change — perhaps the highest [national] number ever recorded in favor of legalization. (Alcohol is, after all, legal.)"
Quitting Hard Drugs with Cannabis
East Bay residents are enrolling in twelve-step-like classes that use cannabis to quit heroin, pills, cigarettes, alcohol, and other addictive substances, defying decades of Narcotics Anonymous and Alcoholics Anonymous tradition.
Even though NA and AA both mandate abstinence from all illegal drugs, that one-size-fits-all approach doesn't work, said Harm Reduction Clinical Consultant Jennifer Janichek. For the last six weeks, Janichek, along with two other clinicians, have been running pro-cannabis mental health and addiction services for a handful of people out of the Harborside Health Center in Oakland. The free services paid for by the area's largest cannabis dispensary explain the safest way to smoke pot — which is not physically addictive — and use it to combat depression, anxiety, and addiction.
For years, there've been anecdotal reports about people using cannabis to quit harder drugs. The process is called "substitution," and it's a tactic that's beginning to be endorsed by the "harm reduction" philosophy of mental health. Janichek said harm reduction is most popularly associated with needle exchanges, condom disbursement, ecstasy pill testing, and seat-belt laws. Harm reduction accepts that some people will engage in risky behavior, and clinicians should seek to reduce the harms associated with such risks. That might include endorsing a little pot over a lot of OxyContin. "A lot of these folks go to NA or AA and can't talk about their medical cannabis use because it's frowned upon," Janichek explained. "NA and AA wouldn't view users as being sober. I've talked to folks who've had a really good experience in NA except they couldn't share that piece of their life."
Harborside crafted a program that's similar to traditional twelve-step programs, but ignores the pot smoking. This concept of substitution is cutting edge, with new research just coming out. According to a poll of medical cannabis users by UC Berkeley's Dr. Amanda Reinman, published in the Harm Reduction Journal in December: "Forty percent [of those polled] have used cannabis as a substitute for alcohol, 26 percent as a substitute for illicit drugs and 66 percent as a substitute for prescription drugs. The most common reasons given for substituting were: less adverse side effects (65 percent), better symptom management (57 percent), and less withdrawal potential (34 percent) with cannabis."
With that reality in mind, Janichek designed a Substance Use & Misuse Clinical Services Program at Harborside Health Center that is currently at capacity. The program includes information sharing sessions, depression forums, social skills groups, online support groups, and one-on-one counseling. She says most of the clients who sign up report depression, anxiety, and mostly a lot of questions. "A lot of folks are DARE generation at this point and they haven't been given honest information on the basics of different drugs and what they do to your body," Janichek said.
Kids want to know if it's okay to break up Adderall and snort it, or which is healthier — smoking out of a bong or hitting a joint, she said. She consults the literature and tells them. And she would never order someone with a problem to simply quit smoking pot. Harm reduction inverts the AA model where users must admit their powerlessness. Addicts aren't powerless, they're smart enough to make their own choices, she said.
Janichek is tracking the outcomes of Harborside's free, cannabis-positive mental health services, with the goal of extrapolating the data into guidelines and replicating the services in other dispensaries.