A GATEWAY DRUG PROGRAM?
When Mississippi’s medical marijuana program went live with Gov. Tate Reeves’ signing of the Mississippi Medical Cannabis Act in February 2022, the state was flooded with industry entrepreneurs who traveled south in hopes of not only turning a profit through the medical program, but also positioning themselves should recreational cannabis use eventually be legalized as well. All 22 states where cannabis is legal for recreational use had medical marijuana programs first. These speculators are banking on Mississippi being no different.
Setting aside the question of whether that will happen in Mississippi, there are ancillary considerations: Does cannabis use increase when a state goes recreational? Do criminal charges, such as driving under the influence, increase as well? And what does a recreational cannabis program mean for young people — the group that is most likely to use marijuana?
Mississippi’s marijuana program is fresh: There’s no telling where the state’s feet will land. But looking to other states that have further developed their medical programs into recreational ones can give an idea of where we may wind up.
WHAT HAPPENED IN NEVADA
As in Mississippi, a ballot measure spurred progress toward limited legalization of marijuana in Nevada — although they did it more than two decades sooner. Cannabis was legalized for medical use in Nevada in June 2001. The next year, the state voted on another ballot measure to legalize recreational use. It failed, as did another ballot measure in 2006. It wasn’t until 2016 with the Initiative to Regulate and Tax Marijuana that cannabis became legal for recreational use in Nevada.
Today, the marijuana business flourishes in Nevada. Las Vegas, an internationally renowned tourist destination, is awash with dispensaries selling the flower and all its derivative forms. Despite this, a researcher at the University of Nevada-Las Vegas noted that cannabis use did not seem increase following the shift from medical to recreational.
“We were just curious if there was an immediate effect of recreational legalization,” Sean Neiswenter, associate professor in residence in the Department of Life Sciences at UNLV, said. “We assumed that you probably would see a little jump in use.”
For the purposes of his research, Neiswenter defined “use” as an increase in positive toxicology reports or an increase in the amount of THC present in the reports. To conduct this research, Neiswenter collected data from postmortem toxicology reports from the Clark County Coroner’s office over five years. In total, the research included data from nearly 50,000 reports.
“So, it may not be that more people are using, but the people that do use, use more as it becomes more readily available,” he said. “Both of those are readily predicted hypotheses and literature about what happens when you legalize something. We actually didn’t see either of those, which is kind of interesting.”
Neiswenter entertained a number of possible explanations for the findings of his research, including the fact that marijuana already had been legal for medical use for more than a decade prior to the state’s inclusion of recreational use. In other words, it wasn’t new. Additionally, in looking at postmortem toxicology reports exclusively, the millions of tourists who visit Nevada, use marijuana and then leave aren’t included in the sample.
“We were just trying to get some data out there so that we could kind of get the ideas rolling — it’s something relatively new. We really didn’t know what to expect and were a little surprised that we didn’t see a bump,” he said. “Or, at least, not a significant one. There was a small change, that we attributed more to the general increasing trend that you see nationwide.”
As the drug is destigmatized, and more states legalize marijuana in some fashion, marijuana use has trended upwards in recent years. According to a study published in the National Institutes of Health, marijuana use among college-age students reached an all-time high in 2020. The number of college students who report having used marijuana within the past year jumped to 44% in 2020 from 38% in 2015.
STUDENTS FEEL SAFER
While Nevada’s shift to recreational use may not have significantly changed the behavior of the average Clark County resident, it has altered the lives of some students in the area. The University of Nevada, Las Vegas is situated in the middle of the city from which it takes its name, a mere walking distance from the famous Las Vegas strip.
Students at UNLV, some out-of-state students and others lifetime residents of the state, spoke about their marijuana consumption habits and how things have changed as the state’s rules regarding marijuana have changed.
One of the most positive changes that UNLV students noted is the ease with which they can acquire product that they know is safe.
“A lot of younger people, especially college students, buy weed from sketchy people they don’t know. They don’t know what it’s laced with,” Erin Henderson, a UNLV student who works at a local marijuana dispensary, said. “Whether it’s legal or not, people are going to use it. So for people to have access to a safe supply I feel is overall better for society.”
While many students noted that it’s still cheaper to purchase from an illegal dealer, some like Hailey, a UNLV sophomore and Las Vegas native, refuse to use anything but marijuana purchased from a dispensary.
“When I illegally used marijuana in high school, there was a dealer that I knew through friends,” she said. “Now, I get it from people who can actually go to the dispensary and purchase it. I refuse to get it from anywhere but a dispensary now.”
At 20 years old, Hailey is one year shy of being able to go to a dispensary and purchase marijuana for herself. She attributes her decision to use products from dispensaries exclusively to safety concerns.
“I’m a big safety person,” she said. “And in this day and age, you just don’t know what to expect. A lot of dealers themselves don’t even know specifically what they’re dealing with. I’d rather not have it at all than not be safe.”
Alex, a UNLV freshman, explained that while he only uses marijuana purchased from a dispensary, there is still a robust black market that is cheaper.
“In terms of where I purchase it, I just get it from dispensaries,” he said. “But prior to that and even now there’s still a very large scene of people who are selling in the black market. But in my experience, I find that a lot of black market brands are really just brands that cannot afford to deal with legalization, and they still want to keep selling and make a living.”
Allister Dias, UNLV economics major and managing editor for UNLV’s student newspaper, the Scarlet and Grey, offered his perspective on the student body’s relationship with marijuana.
“It’s kind of seen as a regular drug. It’s almost like an Adderall at this point,” he said.
Adderall is a Schedule II stimulant commonly prescribed to people with ADHD to improve focus and concentration.
“It’s kind of been socially accepted,” Dias said. “Whereas beforehand it was looked down upon and scrutinized, if that makes sense. That’s been a huge component of the shift, socially, when it comes to marijuana.”
Dias described a campus culture that does not shy away from marijuana use. The drug is a ubiquitous presence at parties, as well as in the daily lives of some students.
“I would probably say that a lot of students use it,” Dias said.
Erin Henderson shared a similar sentiment.
“At least 60 to 70% of people who I’ve met probably smoke. You meet more people who smoke than don’t smoke, to be honest,” she said.
DISPENSING FOR PAIN AND PARTIES
Henderson is a budtender and store supervisor at Pisos, a dispensary mere blocks away from campus.
“I feel a lot of local people tend to go to different places around the valley. There’s a lot of different deals for students and stuff everywhere,” she said. “We definitely do get a lot of college students, though.”
Henderson explained that Pisos began as a medical marijuana dispensary before shifting into a recreational one with the legalization of marijuana in 2016.
“Edibles are our most popular thing, especially since some people can’t smoke due to medical reasons, and a lot of people are kind of scared of it,” she said. “And then just the smell factor and stuff. Edibles are usually the easiest, most convenient, most straightforward. It’s like a Tylenol.”
Henderson described a variety of reasons for people stepping in the door.
“We get a lot of older people as much as we do younger people. Older people, we get a ton of them looking for stuff to help with pain relief, stuff to help with anxiety, relaxing, sleep and things like that. And with younger people, it’s more people just wanting to have fun. They’re coming on vacation. It’s kind of a party, a little bit,” she said.
LEGAL OFF CAMPUS, ILLEGAL ON
Unlike many universities across the country, UNLV and three other institutions in southern Nevada are serviced by the same consolidated police department, known as University Police Services. Across all four institutions, the department serves 80,000 students, faculty and staff.
Adam Garcia is the vice president of public safety for University Police Services. When asked how the University Police Services has adapted to the state’s shifting relationship with marijuana, he offered a simple answer: They haven’t.
“I’ll tell you why — because under federal law, marijuana is still illegal, even medically,” he said. “So, because these are institutions of higher education that receive federal funding, we can’t violate federal law. Therefore, marijuana on any of our campuses and facilities is still illegal, unless it’s some kind of a research project or something. But beyond that, you still can’t have it here, even if it’s legal, even if you buy it legally. Even if you have a medical card, you know, it’s still illegal in the eyes of the federal government right now.”
Though university policy prohibits possession and use of marijuana on campus and in campus facilities, Garcia described a moderate approach to policing cannabis on campus.
“If you have a medical marijuana card and you have marijuana, we’re not going to arrest you. But we will advise you that you can’t have it here,” he said.
In the evidence locker of University Police Services Southern Command, there is a Pisos bag among the many bags containing various amounts of marijuana. The university confiscates that and other contraband, keeping it locked away in their evidence room for safekeeping and further testing.
For students in possession for recreational purposes, the severity of the infraction is determined by their age. Students who are younger than 21 — most of UNLV’s residential population — can face criminal charges for being in possession of marijuana on campus. All students found with marijuana on campus face student conduct violations, where the university deals with the infraction.
“If they’re over 21, it’s actually considered property. But it’s not allowed in school. So we take it for safekeeping. And we store it until they go and see some conduct and figure out how they’re going to retrieve their property and get it off the campus,” Sgt. Javier Hernandez said. “If they’re under 21, then it’s a misdemeanor. So they have to be charged accordingly. So that becomes evidence. We take what they have as it is, then it stays here as evidence, and then we send it to the lab to get it tested to verify that it is marijuana. And then we get it back. And then it goes to student conduct and stuff like that.”
Despite relatively easy access to marijuana and a student body that seems to embrace its use, University Police Services’ crime log for the UNLV campus of roughly 30,000 students, faculty and staff shows a small number of drug offenses. Garcia attributes this to the fact that UNLV is a largely commuter campus.
“I think Mississippi is probably one place where you have a huge Greek life. You know, you have houses and you have all of this stuff,” Garcia said. “We don’t have that here. People come here, and they go to work or do their thing, and then they go home.”
Garcia said that at other institutions where the campus community is more centralized and residential, such as the University of Nevada, Reno, the number of drug offenses is a lot higher. But UNLV sees, in Garcia’s estimation, 50 drug offenses or fewer every year. And he attributes a lot of those to unruly visitors at events like concerts and sporting events.
Garcia explained that campus DUI offenses haven’t been a significant issue. But for other officers of the law, legalization of marijuana has had a significant impact.
“On campus, no. But I will tell you just generally speaking, interacting with my colleagues, it’s pretty critical. It’s had a significant impact. Marijuana is not something that you can test for on the street. It all has to be through blood draws,” he said. “It’s easy to recognize what a drunk driver looks: how they’re driving, the breath test is pretty immediate. With marijuana, it takes weeks, maybe months to get back the results of a blood draw.
Though there is a wealth of knowledge around using standardized field sobriety tests to detect alcohol use, research has yet to catch up in any significant way in regards to detecting marijuana use.
“I think that the number of marijuana DUI incidents are underreported a great deal for that reason. So, have I seen it? Not on campus. But empirically speaking, throughout the state? Yeah, I think it’s huge,” he said.
MARIJUANA AND ALCOHOL
People identify marijuana as the reason a lot of folks drink less or do not drink at all.
“There’s a lot of people who don’t drink that will come to use weed and stuff just because it’s a lot healthier for you than drinking,” Henderson said. “Some people don’t drink at all just for personal reasons. It’s a really good alternative for a lot of people like that.”
Though marijuana has been proven in many studies to have more health benefits and fewer health risks than alcohol, excessive use of either can come with risks.
Neiswenter noted that many breweries in the area have started brewing non-alcoholic beers. He believes an increase in accessibility and popularity of marijuana has played a role in this.
“More and more breweries are making non-alcoholic beers so that people can hang out with their friends and drink beer but not get intoxicated with alcohol,” he said. “At least some of that presumably is because they’re using marijuana and hanging out.”
While Dias does not use marijuana, he sees it as a benefit for the students who do.
“I know for a lot of students, they use marijuana as kind of an outlet to relieve some stress. A lot of students would, I guess, not necessarily be in the best state if they didn’t have something to kind of ease the nerves,” he said. “I think it would be much more difficult for some students to really get a grip on themselves.”
Dias sees marijuana as the better alternative to something worse.
“Realistically, what’s the alternative? Because a lot of students still get alcohol. And alcohol is worse, right? It’s kind of a better alternative to using something like hard liquor,” he said.
It’s not all perfect, though. Health professionals are increasingly recognizing dependency on marijuana as an issue. Alex, the UNLV freshman, shared his personal experiences with this.
“I would say that my consumption of it is probably a byproduct of the fact that it was originally painted out to be this terrible thing,” he said. “And then once I realized that it wasn’t, it was almost like how they say, ‘When you try to repress something, it comes back with a vengeance.’ So I do feel like that has played into my consumption.”
At the time of interview, Alex was on a tolerance break, which cannabis users deliberately take to “reset” their cannabinoid receptors and optimize the effects of cannabis.
“I also do feel, in many ways, I did become dependent at one point,” Alex said. “So, my relationship with marijuana has changed over the time that I started using it, which was probably three years ago.”
Still, it is the perception of some students that dependency isn’t that much of a problem.
“I find that it usually doesn’t affect the average person’s daily life. If anything, it’s as simple as having a beer or a glass of wine after work,” Hailey, who was 13 when recreational marijuana was legalized in Nevada seven years ago, said. “I think most people are very safe with their usage.”
There are no crystal balls to tell us what would happen if Mississippi were to legalize cannabis for recreational use. But with 22 states and counting having recreational programs, looking to other states clears some of the smoke surrounding a possible recreational marijuana program in Mississippi.
Story by Violet Jira.