July 24, 2005

Legalize It

Recently, the Supreme Court ruled that state laws which legalized marijuana for certain medical conditions do not trump Federal laws against marijuana use. This is no surprise, and if the Court had ruled the other way hundreds of other Federal laws would’ve been undermined. Shortly thereafter, the House of Representatives in a 264-161 vote rejected a measure that would’ve legalized the use of marijuana for the severely ill. This too is unsurprising, since in our Puritanical and “tough on crime” culture, justice and commonsense all too often fall by the wayside.

The fact is that marijuana use should not be a crime, period.

That marijuana still carries with it the stigma from the “reefer madness” days, and is somehow considered a terrible menace to society, is a product largely of ignorance and historical prejudice. Cannabis (the scientific term that was later substituted for “marijuana” since giving it a Spanish name helped to demonize it) is a relatively mild drug for which there has never been a single documented case of overdose– that’s right, not one person has ever died from consuming too much marijuana at one sitting. The effects of alcohol are much stronger than marijuana, and yet this drug is celebrated everywhere in our culture. In addition, alcohol and tobacco-related deaths are orders of magnitude greater than from cannabis. As far as being a gateway drug, marijuana is almost always preceded by alcohol and tobacco use, which are the two biggest gateway drugs in the world.

None of this is to say that marijuana isn’t a drug or that it doesn’t have ill effects- it is and it does, but our society is filled with dozens of much stronger legal drugs. The onus should always be on those who want to restrict people’s freedom to prove that the act in question is so detrimental to society that the coercive power of the state must be brought to bare to prevent such behavior. In the case of smoking cannabis, this “litmus test” is nowhere close to being met. Alcohol, which is associated with drunk driving, spousal abuse, violent crime, and acute toxicity is a much sounder candidate.

So why is it that a rational assessment of marijuana use cannot occur in American society in the 21st century?

One would expect that Republicans, with their commitment to individual liberty (at least when it comes to guns) would be natural champions of decriminalizing marijuana. Unfortunately, as the Party has become increasingly infiltrated by the religious right, which seeks to legislate the country’s morals, legitimizing cannabis use is not a winning political strategy. As for the Democrats, their aversion to marijuana decriminalization comes from two sources; first, they don’t want to appear “soft on crime” (or the country’s morals), and the second is that marijuana use is associated with hippies and the 1960s, which they have been trying to distance themselves from for decades.

And so locking people up in maximum security prisons with murders and rapists for simple marijuana possession will continue, while we waste billions of dollars on ineffective law enforcement (instead of taxing marijuana and actually making money on it) since marijuana is literally a weed that can grow just about anywhere. As to the cancer and AIDs patients who could greatly benefit from marijuana use (it decreases pain and improves the appetite), they’ll just have to go on relying on synthetic drugs with nasty side-effects that pharmaceutical companies can monopolize and cash in on. And the organized crime syndicates that thrive on the illegal trade (based on high prices due to the illegality) will continue to murder and terrorize people around the world. Adding insult to injury, we will also continue to outlaw the commercial production of hemp (the non-drug component of marijuana), which is an amazing agricultural crop with multiple uses and huge environmental benefits that was once considered a sign of patriotism to cultivate during WW II.

This is the sorry state of drug policy in a society that should be able to rise above this nonsense, but simply can’t. Add this to the list of things that we will all look back on one day and shake our heads in both wonder and sorrow.

J.S.

P.S. For a more optimistic take on this issue check out this article.

Jason Scorse

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