Skip to main content

Marijuana use is too risky a choice

By David Frum, CNN Contributor
January 7, 2013 -- Updated 1854 GMT (0254 HKT)
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • David Frum: Casual use of marijuana shouldn't be a reason to lock people up
  • He says there are serious risks to brain development, mental health in using marijuana
  • Frum says it's better to send simple message that marijuana is illegal
  • He says too often social rules become so complex many people can't navigate them

Editor's note: David Frum, a CNN contributor, is a contributing editor at Newsweek and The Daily Beast. He is the author of eight books, including a new novel, "Patriots," and his post-election e-book, "Why Romney Lost." Frum was a special assistant to President George W. Bush from 2001 to 2002.

(CNN) -- Last week, I joined the board of a new organization to oppose marijuana legalization: Smart Approaches to Marijuana. The group is headed by former U.S. Rep. Patrick Kennedy and includes Kevin Sabet, a veteran of the Office of National Drug Control Policy under President Obama.

The new group rejects the "war on drugs" model. It agrees that we don't want to lock people up for casual marijuana use -- or even stigmatize them with an arrest record. But what we do want to do is send a clear message: Marijuana use is a bad choice.

David Frum
David Frum

There are many excellent reasons to avoid marijuana. Marijuana use damages brain development in young people. Heavy users become socially isolated and perform worse in school and at work. Marijuana smoke harms the lungs. A growing body of evidence suggests that marijuana can trigger psychotic symptoms that otherwise would have remained latent.

It's possible to imagine a marijuana rule that tries to respond precisely to such risk factors as happen to be known by the current state of science. Such a rule might say: "You shouldn't use marijuana until you are over 25, or after your brain has ceased to develop, whichever comes first. You shouldn't use marijuana if you are predisposed to certain mental illnesses (most of which we can't yet diagnose in advance). Be aware that about one-sixth of users will become chronically dependent on marijuana, and as a result will suffer a serious degradation of life outcomes. As yet, we have no sure idea at what dosage marijuana will impair your ability to drive safely, or how long the impairment will last. Be as careful as you can, within the limits of our present knowledge!"

Yet as a parent of three, two exiting adolescence and one entering, I've found that the argument that makes the biggest impression is: "Marijuana is illegal. Stay away." I think many other parents have found the same thing.

When we write social rules, we always need to consider: Who are we writing rules for? Some people can cope with complexity. Others need clarity. Some people will snap back from an early mistake. Others will never recover.

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.



"Just say no" is an easy rule to follow. "It depends on individual risk factors, many of them unknowable in advance" -- that rule is not so easy.

Richard Branson: War on drugs a trillion-dollar failure

Over the past three decades, and in area after area of social life, Americans have replaced simple rules that anybody can follow with complex rules that baffle large numbers of people.

Consider, for example, the home mortgage. Once the mortgage was a very simple product. Put 20% down, then sign up for a fixed schedule of payments over the next 30 years. In the space of a single generation, these 30-year fixed-rate amortizing mortgages turned what had been a nation of renters into a nation of homeowners.

The goal of public policy should be to protect ... the vulnerable from making life-wrecking mistakes in the first place.

For more sophisticated buyers, however, the standard mortgage was a big nuisance. For them, bankers developed more flexible products: no money down, no documentation, interest-only, adjustable rate. These products met genuine needs. But as they diffused down-market, they became traps for people who did not understand the risks they were accepting.

Consider how we finance higher education. Once, state governments subsidized their universities to offer a low tuition fee to all comers. Fee increases at private universities were constrained by the lower fees at the public institutions: Duke can raise its price only so high above the University of North Carolina. The universities soon realized, however, that by setting their tuition fees low, they were forgoing revenues that might be collected from the most affluent students. Universities rapidly raised their tuition fees, then offered discounts and aid to students in need.

Kevin Sabet: Legalize Pot? No, reform laws

But while anybody could understand a $500 per semester tuition bill, the new system of rebates confuses the very people who most need help.

A few days before Christmas, Jason DeParle of The New York Times reported a depressing example of the toll modern financial aid exacts upon students from less sophisticated backgrounds. He told the story of three bright girls from poor families who had recently tried -- and failed -- to gain college degrees. One of them was admitted to Emory, a prestigious school with a full-ticket price of $50,000, but one that grants very generous financial aid -- if the student can figure out how to make the financial aid work for her.

Private pot club now open in Colorado
Obama's pot problem
Fmr. Pres. Jimmy Carter talks marijuana
New pot law leaves Washington in limbo

The trouble was that students who most need aid are often precisely those who have nobody around them who has ever successfully navigated a complicated bureaucratic institution like a university financial aid office.

"Though Emory sent weekly e-mails -- 17 of them, along with an invitation to a program for minority students -- they went to a school account she had not learned to check," DeParle wrote.

"Angelica reported that her mother made $35,000 a year and paid about half of that in rent. With her housing costs so high, Emory assumed the family had extra money and assigned ... an income of $51,000. ... (Angelica) discovered what had happened only recently."

Unable to cope with the school's e-mail system or to decrypt its rules for imputing family income, Angelica finally dropped out of Emory, burdened by $61,000 in student debt.

In 1943, Vice President Henry Wallace published a book celebrating the coming "century of the common man." That century did not last very long. We have transitioned instead into the era of the clever man and clever woman. We have revised our institutions, our programs, our rules in ways that offer profitable new chances to those with cultural know-how -- and that inflict disastrous consequences on those who are overwhelmed by a world of ever-more-abundant and ever-more-risky choices.

Opinion: The end of the war on marijuana

We're not going to uninvent the no-money-down loan. Universities that receive applications from all over the planet cannot finance themselves like an old-fashioned state land-grant college. But we need to recognize that modern life is becoming steadily more dangerous for people prone to make bad choices.

At a time when they need more help than ever to climb the ladder, marijuana legalization kicks them back down the ladder. The goal of public policy should not be to punish vulnerable kids for making life-wrecking mistakes. The goal of public policy should be to protect (to the extent we can) the vulnerable from making life-wrecking mistakes in the first place.

There's a trade-off, yes, and it takes the form of denying less vulnerable people easy access to a pleasure they believe they can safely use. But they are likely deluding themselves about how well they are managing their drug use. And even if they are not deluded -- if they really are so capable and effective -- then surely they can see that society has already been massively re-engineered for their benefit already. Surely, enough is enough?

Follow @CNNOpinion on Twitter.

Join us at Facebook/CNNOpinion.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of David Frum.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
December 27, 2014 -- Updated 0127 GMT (0927 HKT)
The ability to manipulate media and technology has increasingly become a critical strategic resource, says Jeff Yang.
December 26, 2014 -- Updated 1617 GMT (0017 HKT)
Today's politicians should follow Ronald Reagan's advice and invest in science, research and development, Fareed Zakaria says.
December 26, 2014 -- Updated 1319 GMT (2119 HKT)
Artificial intelligence does not need to be malevolent to be catastrophically dangerous to humanity, writes Greg Scoblete.
December 26, 2014 -- Updated 1505 GMT (2305 HKT)
Historian Douglas Brinkley says a showing of Sony's film in Austin helped keep the city weird -- and spotlighted the heroes who stood up for free expression
December 26, 2014 -- Updated 1303 GMT (2103 HKT)
Tanya Odom that by calling only on women at his press conference, the President made clear why women and people of color should be more visible in boardrooms and conferences
December 27, 2014 -- Updated 2327 GMT (0727 HKT)
When oil spills happen, researchers are faced with the difficult choice of whether to use chemical dispersants, authors say
December 25, 2014 -- Updated 0633 GMT (1433 HKT)
Danny Cevallos says the legislature didn't have to get involved in regulating how people greet each other
December 23, 2014 -- Updated 2312 GMT (0712 HKT)
Marc Harrold suggests a way to move forward after the deaths of NYPD officers Wenjian Liu and Rafael Ramos.
December 24, 2014 -- Updated 1336 GMT (2136 HKT)
Simon Moya-Smith says Mah-hi-vist Goodblanket, who was killed by law enforcement officers, deserves justice.
December 24, 2014 -- Updated 1914 GMT (0314 HKT)
Val Lauder says that for 1,700 years, people have been debating when, and how, to celebrate Christmas
December 23, 2014 -- Updated 2027 GMT (0427 HKT)
Raphael Sperry says architects should change their ethics code to ban involvement in designing torture chambers
December 24, 2014 -- Updated 0335 GMT (1135 HKT)
Paul Callan says Sony is right to call for blocking the tweeting of private emails stolen by hackers
December 23, 2014 -- Updated 1257 GMT (2057 HKT)
As Christmas arrives, eyes turn naturally toward Bethlehem. But have we got our history of Christmas right? Jay Parini explores.
December 23, 2014 -- Updated 0429 GMT (1229 HKT)
The late Joe Cocker somehow found himself among the rock 'n' roll aristocracy who showed up in Woodstock to help administer a collective blessing upon a generation.
December 23, 2014 -- Updated 2115 GMT (0515 HKT)
History may not judge Obama kindly on Syria or even Iraq. But for a lame duck president, he seems to have quacking left to do, says Aaron Miller.
December 23, 2014 -- Updated 1811 GMT (0211 HKT)
Terrorism and WMD -- it's easy to understand why these consistently make the headlines. But small arms can be devastating too, says Rachel Stohl.
December 22, 2014 -- Updated 1808 GMT (0208 HKT)
Ever since "Bridge-gate" threatened to derail Chris Christie's chances for 2016, Jeb Bush has been hinting he might run. Julian Zelizer looks at why he could win.
December 20, 2014 -- Updated 1853 GMT (0253 HKT)
New York's decision to ban hydraulic fracturing was more about politics than good environmental policy, argues Jeremy Carl.
December 20, 2014 -- Updated 2019 GMT (0419 HKT)
On perhaps this year's most compelling drama, the credits have yet to roll. But we still need to learn some cyber lessons to protect America, suggest John McCain.
December 22, 2014 -- Updated 2239 GMT (0639 HKT)
Conservatives know easing the trade embargo with Cuba is good for America. They should just admit it, says Fareed Zakaria.
December 20, 2014 -- Updated 0112 GMT (0912 HKT)
We're a world away from Pakistan in geography, but not in sentiment, writes Donna Brazile.
December 19, 2014 -- Updated 1709 GMT (0109 HKT)
How about a world where we have murderers but no murders? The police still chase down criminals who commit murder, we have trials and justice is handed out...but no one dies.
December 18, 2014 -- Updated 2345 GMT (0745 HKT)
The U.S. must respond to North Korea's alleged hacking of Sony, says Christian Whiton. Failing to do so will only embolden it.
December 19, 2014 -- Updated 2134 GMT (0534 HKT)
President Obama has been flexing his executive muscles lately despite Democrat's losses, writes Gloria Borger
ADVERTISEMENT