The case for legalizing pot

Tomorrow, three states will decide whether or not to end marijuana prohibition. Here's why it's a no-brainer

Topics: Oregon, The Fix, marijuana, Colorado, Congress, California, Business, Bill Clinton, Marijuana Legalization, , ,

The case for legalizing pot (Credit: Reuters/Cliff DesPeaux)
This article originally appeared on The Fix.


the fix It’s been nearly a century since the first state level bans on marijuana were enacted, and precisely 75 years since Congress enacted marijuana prohibition at the federal level. Since then, millions of Americans have been arrested for marijuana offenses—overwhelmingly for possession of small amounts—and billions of dollars have been spent trying to stop people from growing, selling, and smoking pot.

It hasn’t worked. Cannabis is now used by millions of people in the United States, and has been for decades. It is culturally accepted, the stuff of knowing TV sitcom references and sophomoric press puns. Police chiefs say that they have better things to do than bust people for smoking pot (even though they somehow still manage to arrest more than 850,000 a year). Even the commander-in-chief commanded his very own stoner crew, the Choom Gang, in his younger days, while his two immediate predecessors either issued artful non-denials of youthful use (George W. Bush) or famously tried to have it both ways by ridiculously claiming to have toked but not inhaled (Bill Clinton).

Medical marijuana is now the law in 17 states and the District of Columbia, and in some of those states, most notably California and Colorado, it has generated a cannabis industry, complete with commercial production and retail sales. The sky has not fallen. And public support for full—not just medical—marijuana legalization is trending ever upward, hitting an all-time high of 50% in a Gallup poll last year, and it is higher in the West.

Tomorrow that support will be put to the test at the polls. Three Western states—Colorado, Oregon, and Washington—have versions of marijuana legalization on the ballot. They deserve to win because marijuana prohibition cannot be justified on any reasonable basis. It is a misbegotten policy rooted in racism, hysteria, and demagoguery—not science or medicine—and it results in inordinately more harm to society than marijuana use itself.



Let’s concede that, while among the most innocuous of psychoactive substances, marijuana is not harmless. Its most common form of ingestion, smoking, introduces crap into the lungs that’s probably not good for you. Other common negative effects include the impairment of short-term memory, concentration, and coordination as well as increased appetite (although obesity is less prevalent in users than non-). Pot use seems to have a tenuous link with the onset of schizophrenia in a small number of teenagers and, more important, can have a deleterious effect on the development of adolescent brains—an effect that is not reversible upon quitting. And as with alcohol and other substance abuse, some stoners become so dependent on weed that their habit has serious negative consequences on their own lives and those of their partners and families. Driving while high, while not nearly as dangerous as driving while drunk, raises serious concerns.

That’s about it, as far as reefer’s risks go.

Unlike users of illegal stimulants, such as methamphetamine or cocaine, marijuana users have little tendency to binge and therefore little likelihood of undergoing loss of control and the unpredictable, destructive behaviors associated with bingeing—or the miserable post-binge depression or compulsive cravings. Unlike with opiates, such as heroin or Oxycontin, or barbiturates, there is no danger of fatal overdose or painful physical withdrawal. Some recent evidence suggests that pot is physically addictive, but the reported withdrawal symptoms—headaches, irritability, insomnia—are more akin to those associated with not missing your morning joe than going off smack cold turkey. In addition, pot is less harmful than many prescription medications.

Above all, marijuana has far fewer negative consequences than the nation’s two most popular psychoactive substances, alcohol and tobacco, which are of course legal for adults. Alcohol abuse and addiction lead to everything from stupidity, being a bore at parties and otherwise making a fool of yourself to accidents, violence, suicide, DUIs and chronic diseases that kill an estimated 100,000 people a year. Tobacco use, nicotine addiction and secondhand smoke, while not associated with altered states of consciousness, result in not only the majority of lung cancer cases but in other chronic disease—for a total of 400,000 annuals deaths.

It should not be forgotten that people use drugs because they receive some benefit from doing so. Opiates relieve pain, both psychic and physical. Stimulants make you feel productive and energetic—at least at first. Alcohol is a disinhibiting social lubricant, and moderate doses instill relaxation and camaraderie. Cigarettes soothe the nerves.

So it is with marijuana. A cost-benefit analysis of prohibition has to include the rewards of the drug. The benefits of recreational use of cannabis—especially the enhancement in perception and improvement of mood—go far in explaining why an estimated 4% of the world’s population uses it annually. Whereas most addictive substances can be classified as a depressant, a stimulant, or a hallucinogen, marijuana’s main active ingredient, THC, has properties of all three. As a result, the effects of getting high are variable and subjective. How do you assess the value of an enhanced music listening experience? A fit of hilarity induced by stoned humor? Taking the edge off a hard day at work? The social cohesion of sharing a joint? However hard to measure, these positives are essential to any calculus that purports to assess marijuana policy.

To justify prohibition, most anti-pot advocates claim that marijuana intoxication has no or few benefits; they also exaggerate—often wildly—the harms. But for those of us who use (or have used) the drug, being stoned can be a good thing, just like having a beer or two down at the bar with buddies. Public health policymakers tend to ignore the undeniable fact that people smoke marijuana—and have since 3,000 B.C.—because they find pleasure, creativity, even spirituality in it.

One of the main pillars of anti-pot laws has long been the theory—by now almost completely debunked—that marijuana is a “gateway drug” to the use of harder drugs. Most studies have shown that tobacco is a far greater predictor than pot in terms of movement on to more serious drug use. While it is true that cannabis smokers are more likely than nonusers to do harder drugs, factors including wealth, unemployment status and psychological stress are more closely correlated to drug progression.

It is not the use of marijuana but its prohibition that causes serious harms. As with booze during Prohibition, the criminalization of cannabis has spawned black markets, drug trafficking and the violence (and other illegal trade) that accompanies them. It creates opportunities for the corruption of law enforcement. By imposing heavy burdens of time, money, and labor on law enforcement and the criminal justice system, the policing and prosecution of people who use or sell small amounts of herb diverts these resources from violent crimes and other more dangerous activities. It also fails to collect government revenue raised by the regulation and taxation of the trade—with conservative estimates in the hundreds of millions a year.

The most disturbing consequences of anti-pot laws reside less in the waste of resources than in the human costs. Prohibition makes criminals out of millions of citizens who pose no danger to persons or property. The majority of pot smokers never get arrested, but the 850,000 a year who do are saddled with criminal records for the rest of their lives; they can lose access to state and federal benefits, from public housing to student loans, and to educational and professional opportunities. We have criminalized more than 10 million people with our pot laws in the past 20 years.

Predictably, the enforcement of these laws reveals our society’s endemic racism. Whether in Denver or New York City, marijuana arrests happen disproportionately to minorities. This fact alone is proof that enforcing pot prohibition is less about public health or safety than about the social control and disenfranchisement of black and brown Americans—the “underclass” widely misperceived by the white majority as “dangerous.” To the degree that these targeted communities see pot law enforcement as aimed at keeping them down, prohibition has an additional corrosive impact on their already tense and fraught relationship with law enforcement, criminal justice and the entire political system.

In fact, the imperatives of enforcing prohibition have led to the loss of rights and liberties for all of us. Pot smokers and teetotalers alike now may undergo the invasive and humiliating ritual of providing a urine sample under supervision in order to get a job, play high school athletics, or gain access to public benefits. Neighborhoods may be riddled with informers, eager to make a bust to get out of their own troubles. And under the infamous “drug war exception” to the Fourth Amendment of the US Constitution, our right to be secure against SWAT raids of our homes is much reduced.

To put it somewhat callously, we need to separate the police from marijuana users, except to clean up their messes, as we do with alcohol. Police arrest alcohol abusers who get in bar brawls, beat up their wives, or drive drunk, but they leave well-behaved boozers alone. So it should be with marijuana—with the bonus that there will be far fewer messes to clean up.

At its heart, the legalization of marijuana is matter of morality. Given that any impartial cost-benefit analysis favors access to marijuana, there is no justification for using the coercive power of the state to impel abstinence. It is inconsistent with our Western values of individual freedom and liberty, and it is hypocritical when compared to the vast commercialization of alcohol and tobacco, especially for use by minors. Legalizing marijuana is not only the efficient and expedient measure—it’s the right thing to do.

The voters in Colorado or Oregon or Washington will, I hope, start us down that path. In turn, the federal government should get out of the way and let, in the words of Justice Louis Brandeis, “a single courageous State…serve as a laboratory; and try novel social and economic experiments without risk to the rest of the country.”

But the Obama administration has already signaled it will steadfastly enforce federal marijuana prohibition no matter what the states do, and a Romney administration would likely be even worse. Winning legalization battles in one, two, or three states tomorrow will not be the end of pot prohibition. But will mark the beginning of the end—and of rational and humane drug policy.

More the Fix

  • Junkies in the hurricane


    As Hurricane Sandy menaces the eastern seaboard, addicts will have their own concerns. An ex-heroin user recalls the 13 dark days she stayed on in New Orleans after Katrina hit
  • Ask Maia: Switching addictions


    Turning on a new addiction in order to turn off an old one may be the right move if you are reducing potential harm. This how-to will help

More Related Stories

Featured Slide Shows

  • Share on Twitter
  • Share on Facebook
  • 1 of 11
  • Close
  • Fullscreen
  • Thumbnails

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Beautiful Darkness by Fabien Vehlmann & Kerascoët
    Kerascoët's lovely, delicate pen-and-watercolor art -- all intricate botanicals, big eyes and flowing hair -- gives this fairy story a deceptively pretty finish. You find out quickly, however, that these are the heartless and heedless fairies of folk legend, not the sentimental sprites beloved by the Victorians and Disney fans. A host of tiny hominid creatures must learn to survive in the forest after fleeing their former home -- a little girl who lies dead in the woods. The main character, Aurora, tries to organize the group into a community, but most of her cohort is too capricious, lazy and selfish to participate for long. There's no real moral to this story, which is refreshing in itself, beyond the perpetual lessons that life is hard and you have to be careful whom you trust. Never has ugly truth been given a prettier face.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Climate Changed: A Personal Journey Through the Science by Philippe Squarzoni
    Squarzoni is a French cartoonist who makes nonfiction graphic novels about contemporary issues and politics. While finishing up a book about France under Jacques Chirac, he realized that when it came to environmental policy, he didn't know what he was talking about. "Climate Changed" is the result of his efforts to understand what has been happening to the planet, a striking combination of memoir and data that ruminates on a notoriously elusive, difficult and even imponderable subject. Panels of talking heads dispensing information (or Squarzoni discussing the issues with his partner) are juxtaposed with detailed and meticulous yet lyrical scenes from the author's childhood, the countryside where he takes a holiday and a visit to New York. He uses his own unreachable past as a way to grasp the imminent transformation of the Earth. The result is both enlightening and unexpectedly moving.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Here by Richard McGuire
    A six-page version of this innovative work by a regular contributor to the New Yorker first appeared in RAW magazine 25 years ago. Each two-page spread depicts a single place, sometimes occupied by a corner of a room, over the course of 4 billion years. The oldest image is a blur of pink and purple gases; others depict hazmat-suited explorers from 300 years in the future. Inset images show the changing decor and inhabitants of the house throughout its existence: family photos, quarrels, kids in Halloween costumes, a woman reading a book, a cat walking across the floor. The cumulative effect is serene and ravishing, an intimation of the immensity of time and the wonder embodied in the humblest things.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Kill My Mother by Jules Feiffer
    The legendary Pulitzer Prize-winning cartoonist delivers his debut graphic novel at 85, a deliriously over-the-top blend of classic movie noir and melodrama that roams from chiaroscuro Bay City to Hollywood to a USO gig in the Pacific theater of World War II. There's a burnt-out drunk of a private eye, but the story is soon commandeered by a multigenerational collection of ferocious women, including a mysterious chanteuse who never speaks, a radio comedy writer who makes a childhood friend the butt of a hit series and a ruthless dame intent on making her whiny coward of a husband into a star. There are disguises, musical numbers and plenty of gunfights, but the drawing is the main attraction. Nobody convey's bodies in motion more thrillingly than Feiffer, whether they're dancing, running or duking it out. The kid has promise.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    The Motherless Oven by Rob Davis
    This is a weird one, but in the nervy surreal way that word-playful novels like "A Clockwork Orange" or "Ulysses" are weird. The main character, a teenage schoolboy named Scarper Lee, lives in a world where it rains knives and people make their own parents, contraptions that can be anything from a tiny figurine stashable in a pocket to biomorphic boiler-like entities that seem to have escaped from Dr. Seuss' nightmares. Their homes are crammed with gadgets they call gods and instead of TV they watch a hulu-hoop-size wheel of repeating images that changes with the day of the week. They also know their own "death day," and Scarper's is coming up fast. Maybe that's why he runs off with the new girl at school, a real troublemaker, and the obscurely dysfunctional Castro, whose mother is a cageful of talking parakeets. A solid towline of teenage angst holds this manically inventive vision together, and proves that some graphic novels can rival the text-only kind at their own game.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    NOBROW 9: It's Oh So Quiet
    For each issue, the anthology magazine put out by this adventurous U.K.-based publisher of independent graphic design, illustration and comics gives 45 artists a four-color palette and a theme. In the ninth issue, the theme is silence, and the results are magnificent and full of surprises. The comics, each told in images only, range from atmospheric to trippy to jokey to melancholy to epic to creepy. But the two-page illustrations are even more powerful, even if it's not always easy to see how they pertain to the overall concept of silence. Well, except perhaps for the fact that so many of them left me utterly dumbstruck with visual delight.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Over Easy by Mimi Pond
    When Pond was a broke art student in the 1970s, she took a job at a neighborhood breakfast spot in Oakland, a place with good food, splendid coffee and an endlessly entertaining crew of short-order cooks, waitresses, dishwashers and regular customers. This graphic memoir, influenced by the work of Pond's friend, Alison Bechdel, captures the funky ethos of the time, when hippies, punks and disco aficionados mingled in a Bay Area at the height of its eccentricity. The staff of the Imperial Cafe were forever swapping wisecracks and hopping in and out of each other's beds, which makes them more or less like every restaurant team in history. There's an intoxicating esprit de corps to a well-run everyday joint like the Imperial Cafe, and never has the delight in being part of it been more winningly portrayed.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    The Shadow Hero by Gene Luen Yang and Sonny Liew
    You don't have to be a superhero fan to be utterly charmed by Yang and Liew's revival of a little-known character created in the 1940s by the cartoonist Chu Hing. This version of the Green Turtle, however, is rich in characterization, comedy and luscious period detail from the Chinatown of "San Incendio" (a ringer for San Francisco). Hank, son of a mild-mannered grocer, would like to follow in his father's footsteps, but his restless mother (the book's best character and drawn with masterful nuance by Liew) has other ideas after her thrilling encounter with a superhero. Yang's story effortlessly folds pathos into humor without stooping to either slapstick or cheap "darkness." This is that rare tribute that far surpasses the thing it celebrates.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Shoplifter by Michael Cho
    Corinna Park, former English major, works, unhappily, in a Toronto advertising agency. When the dissatisfaction of the past five years begins to oppress her, she lets off steam by pilfering magazines from a local convenience store. Cho's moody character study is as much about city life as it is about Corinna. He depicts her falling asleep in front of the TV in her condo, brooding on the subway, roaming the crowded streets after a budding romance goes awry. Like a great short story, this is a simple tale of a young woman figuring out how to get her life back, but if feels as if it contains so much of contemporary existence -- its comforts, its loneliness, its self-deceptions -- suspended in wintery amber.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Through the Woods by Emily Carroll
    This collection of archetypal horror, fairy and ghost stories, all about young girls, comes lushly decked in Carroll's inky black, snowy white and blood-scarlet art. A young bride hears her predecessor's bones singing from under the floorboards, two friends make the mistake of pretending to summon the spirits of the dead, a family of orphaned siblings disappears one by one into the winter nights. Carroll's color-saturated images can be jagged, ornate and gruesome, but she also knows how to chill with absence, shadows and a single staring eye. Literary readers who cherish the work of Kelly Link or the late Angela Carter's collection, "The Bloody Chamber," will adore the violent beauty on these pages.

  • Recent Slide Shows

Comments

0 Comments

Comment Preview

Your name will appear as username ( settings | log out )

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href=""> <b> <em> <strong> <i> <blockquote>