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.
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