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On the Legalization — or Not — of Marijuana

I have a favorite thought exercise: look at an issue that’s important, complex, and interesting — something like healthcare, education, or electoral politics — and pretend that you could rebuild the system from scratch, without the convoluted histories and incentives that currently exist.

What would the new system look like? How differently would you think about key issues if there were no precedent or blueprint?

So here’s an example. Pretend that humankind made it all the way to the 21st century without alcohol or marijuana. (Perhaps this would not have been possible?) Now pretend that alcohol and marijuana are simultaneously discovered, and think about what kind of laws would be put in place, if any, to govern their use.

My guess is that the alcohol laws might be tougher than they are now and that the marijuana laws might be more lenient — but, again, I am only guessing.

The alcohol vs. marijuana question is so speculative as to be nearly useless beyond a thought experiment. So we assembled a group of folks with expertise in this area and asked them a much more targeted pair of questions:

Should marijuana be legalized in the U.S.? Why or why not?

You will find that their replies routinely contradict one another, even on statements of fact. This is a limitation of nearly any debate of this sort, and while these contradictions illustrate what makes the issue a potent one, you may also be frustrated (as I was) by them.

That said, there is a lot of good and thoughtful information and argument in the following answers, and I thank everyone for participating.

Dr. Lester Grinspoon, associate professor of psychiatry at the Harvard Medical School, author of Marihuana Reconsidered, and coauthor of Marijuana, the Forbidden Medicine:

I began my study of marijuana in 1967 because I was concerned that young people were harming themselves by ignoring authorities’ warnings about a dangerous drug. I had hoped to write a paper that would definitively establish a scientific basis for this concern, and publish it in a widely read medium.

It was not long before I realized that despite my training in science and medicine, I had, like almost every other citizen of this country, been brainwashed by the United States government into believing that cannabis is a terribly dangerous drug. By 1971, the year Harvard University Press published Marihuana Reconsidered, I knew that, far more harmful than any inherent psychopharmacological property of this substance, was the way we as a society were dealing with its use. While marijuana is, in fact, remarkably free of toxicity, the consequences of annually arresting 300,000 mostly young people were not. Once I grasped the absurdity of this prohibition, I became devoted to the cause of changing these laws.

The development of marijuana laws began with the Marijuana Tax Act of 1937, which was based on the same myths as the movie Reefer Madness — myths which have long since been abandoned. The prohibition itself should have been discarded after the publication in 1972 of the report of the Nixon-appointed National Commission on Marihuana and Drug Abuse. The report was titled “Marihuana, A Signal of Misunderstanding,” and it affirmed the lack of a sound basis for prohibition. The Commission recommended the elimination of all penalties for personal possession and use of marijuana by adults, and for the not-for-profit transfer of small amounts of marijuana between adults. Instead, marijuana laws and their enforcement have become increasingly severe, buttressed by “new” myths dressed in scientific costume such as the present notion, developed largely in England and Australia, that marijuana causes schizophrenia.

The marijuana sector of the Drug War has seen annual increases in both its cost (now estimated to be about $11 billion) and the number of arrests. Marijuana arrests now constitute nearly 44 percent of all drug arrests in the U.S. The Uniform Crime Report figures for 2006 reveal that 829,625 people were arrested on marijuana charges, nearly a 15 percent increase from 2005. Nine out of ten were arrested for mere possession. More than 10 million people have been arrested on marijuana charges since 1990, and 75 percent of them were 30 or younger at the time of arrest.

Despite the increasing number of arrests, the growing demands of employers for urine tests, and the ubiquity of misinformation purveyed by the government and anti-marijuana organizations, the number of Americans who experiment with or regularly use this substance continues to grow. A December 2002 CNN/Time magazine survey found that 47 percent of American adults had tried marijuana. The number of people who use it regularly has increased to about 15 million.

This expanding use can no longer be dismissed as simply a youthful fad. It is a clear sign that adults who have a desire or need to stretch their consciousness are discovering that the least costly agent of this kind of experience is offered by marijuana. If used properly, it leads to a gentle alteration of consciousness, there is very little risk to health, the experience does not lead to any kind of antisocial behavior, and it is relatively (or would be, without the prohibition tariff) inexpensive. Marijuana has become part of our culture, and it is here to stay.

There are two other categories of use as well: medicine and enhancement, both of which overlap to some extent with each other and with recreational uses. Enhancement refers to that capacity of the marijuana high to add to the strength, worth, beauty, or other desirable qualities of experiences ranging from food and sex to creativity and appreciation of the natural world (see here for more information). So many people in the last decade have discovered its remarkable and versatile uses as a medicine that twelve states have now adopted legislation or initiatives which allow for its medicinal use. Unfortunately, the federal government, insisting that it has no medical utility, continues its merciless crackdown on patients, their doctors, and the people who grow this medicine within the legal limitations specified by the particular state.

The many thousands of patients who use marijuana for the treatment of a number of symptoms and syndromes do so because they find it to be as or more effective, and generally less toxic, than the conventionally prescribed medicines it replaces, plus it is less expensive, even at prohibition-inflated prices. Despite the federal government’s insistence that marijuana is more of a poison than a medicine, more states are now considering legislation or initiatives to make it available as a medicine, and some are considering initiatives to decriminalize it by reducing penalties for possession of small quantities.

Whatever interim changes we decide to take, ultimately we will have to cut the knot by giving marijuana the same status as alcohol — legalizing it for all uses, and largely removing it from medical and criminal control systems.

Dr. Robert L. DuPont, president of the Institute for Behavior and Health and former director of the National Institute on Drug Abuse:

Legalization of marijuana would solve the marijuana problem the way legalizing speeding would solve the speeding problem: it would remove the legal inhibition of a dangerous behavior, and thereby encourage the behavior.

Criticism of current marijuana policy typically starts by limiting the calculation of marijuana’s societal costs to the costs of arresting and imprisoning marijuana users. This way of calculating the costs minimizes those produced by use of the drug itself (i.e., the costs of treatment, drugged driving crashes, and lost productivity). When the costs related to the use of marijuana are minimized, the legalization of marijuana gives the appearance of reducing marijuana-related social costs in the same way that counting only the costs of enforcing the speeding laws and ignoring the high social costs of speeding would make legalizing speeding look like a smart idea.

Just as many people who speed do not have accidents, many people who smoke marijuana do not have problems as a result of their use, especially those who use the drug for brief periods of time and/or infrequently. The same is true for drunk driving — it is estimated that the drunk driver’s risk of an accident is about one in 2,000 episodes of drunk driving. Nevertheless, speeding and drunk driving are punishable by law because of the serious consequences of these behaviors. In all of these cases, legal prohibition serves as a reasonably effective deterrent to the behavior. For those who are undeterred by prohibition, the enforcement of the law produces escalating consequences for repeated violations.

Today in the U.S., the criminal penalties for marijuana use are mild, far more so than for speeding and drunk driving, and are usually limited to the payment of a small fine. The few people now in prison solely for marijuana use have almost all been charged with more serious offenses, and then pleaded guilty to this lesser offense.

The most remarkable aspect of the debate on marijuana legalization is the failure of legalization advocates to define the precise nature of legalization. Is marijuana to be prescribed by doctors, and dispensed by pharmacies like a medicine? If so, for what purpose, and at what dose? Doctors are not in the habit of negotiating with drug users over which drugs they would like to use for recreational purposes, and how much of the drugs they want. Does legalization of marijuana mean its sale to any willing buyer should be legal? What about the sale of legal marijuana to youth? We have not done a good job of keeping alcohol and cigarettes out of the hands of young people. There is a simple reason that it is rare to hear a description of the mechanics of marijuana legalization: all of the ways marijuana can be made legal are either ridiculous, or frightening, or both. In addition, the U.S. has international treaty obligations not to legalize marijuana, or any other illegal drug, for non-medical use.

As a public health physician, I am convinced that keeping marijuana illegal — messy as this sometimes appears to be — is in the public interest. Legalization of marijuana would lead to more marijuana use, and undermine the current prevention efforts which are reinforced by the force of law. Because more marijuana use means more marijuana-caused problems, removing legal prohibition against marijuana use would have adverse effects on the public health.

Allen St. Pierre, executive director of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws (NORML):

Regardless of one’s view of marijuana use as normal or immoral, healthy or unhealthy, the fact is that over 70 years of government prohibition has done little to nothing to achieve the long-stated public goals of increasing youth perception of harm from marijuana use, reducing youth access to untaxed and unregulated marijuana, increasing treatment for marijuana abuse and marijuana-related emergency room visits, and incarcerating users and dealers. In 2003, the Office of Management and Budget presented the Drug Enforcement Administration with a zero rating on a hundred-point scale for achievement of the bureau’s stated goals — an utterly failing grade.

Hundreds of billions of taxpayer dollars have been spent by the government since 1937 to both enforce and prolong marijuana prohibition. Meanwhile, over 19 million people have been arrested since 1965 (830,000 marijuana-related arrests in 2006 with 89 percent on possession-only charges), and an estimated 45,000 to 65,000 marijuana-only prisoners are currently incarcerated. There are more marijuana arrests annually than arrests for all violent crimes combined. As such, the moral and economic imperatives are clear in seeking logical and pragmatic alternatives to prohibition.

If prohibition is such a desirable policy, why is marijuana America’s number one cash crop? Prohibition is an abdication of policy making, leaving an otherwise popular commodity to the problems and vagaries of contraband markets. In a country where alcohol and tobacco products are legal and taxed by all levels of government, what are the common sense, social, economic, public health, and safety reasons not to legally control marijuana in the same manner as other so-called “vice” products for responsible adults?

The fact is that our government can’t muster better than an “F” in its marijuana control efforts even after employing mandatory minimum sentences, civil forfeiture, ineffective school campaigns such as DARE, high-tech interdiction methods, and controls on the borders and ports, while at the same time overtly discriminating against patients who possess a physician’s recommendation to use medical marijuana and American farmers who, absent prohibition, would cultivate and prosper from industrial hemp (i.e., non-psychoactive marijuana, which is lawfully grown in most of the world including Europe and Canada). As such, it’s worth it to ask: why not adopt low-tech but otherwise effective control mechanisms such as tax stamps and other government controls, similar to how we currently control alcohol and tobacco products?

There is nothing wrong with the responsible use of marijuana by adults — reformers and prohibitionists alike concur that marijuana is not for children, and that logical and reasonable civil and criminal sanctions are necessary for non-compliant sellers and abusers. However, the continued arrests and legal harassment of adults who responsibly use marijuana punishes behavior where there is no discernible victim, and therefore should be of no public concern or cost to the taxpayer.

The U.S. Treasury houses the well-known Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms, which regulates and taxes three far more problematic and deadly products than marijuana. Rather than vilify and criminalize the producers, sellers and consumers of these products, the ATF, through taxation, controls these dangerous consumer goods from the point of production to consumer use.

After 70 years of laboring through another failed prohibition (interestingly, both the religious and medicinal use of alcohol were permitted during prohibition), arguably a far better and more effective public policy regarding marijuana is control and regulation of marijuana via taxation. Hopefully, in our lifetimes there will be a new division at the Treasury: the ATF & M.

Dr. David Murray, chief scientist of the Office of National Drug Control Policy:

Marijuana is legally a Schedule I Controlled Substance under a federal law that evaluates the balance of risks and benefits of drugs, with input from the Food and Drug Administration and the Drug Enforcement Administration. The reason for legal restrictions on controlled substances is to protect public health and public safety. Simply put, marijuana is a substance that intoxicates those who use it, injuring their health and the well-being of those around them.

Marijuana potency has grown steeply over the past decade, with serious implications in particular for young people, who are not only being placed at increased risk for schizophrenia, depression, cognitive deficits and respiratory problems, but are also at significantly higher risk for developing dependency on other drugs, such as cocaine and heroin.

While marijuana is the most prevalent controlled substance, with an estimated 15 million users on a monthly basis, researchers agree that if legal disincentives were not in place, the number of users would soar, leading to far greater negative social impacts on everything from school performance to roadway and workplace accidents to the prevalence of serious mental illness and the rising numbers of emergency room visits.

Marijuana use is currently the leading cause of treatment need for those abusing or dependent on illegal drugs, is the second leading reason for drug-induced emergency room episodes, and has surpassed alcohol for young people in addictive risk and impact on dependency requiring treatment.

Some have argued that keeping marijuana illegal does damage, since people run the risk of arrest if they break the law. But this purported damage is much overstated. Though there are many arrests for marijuana use, increasingly the legal system is referring such arrestees to drug courts, where they received supervised drug treatment at the discretion of the court. A review of those actually convicted and sentenced for marijuana offenses shows that they are overwhelmingly drug traffickers or multiple, often violent, offenders, and not those arrested for simple possession or use.

The reason that marijuana is, and should remain, illegal is that the drug itself is harmful to the individual and to the community. This is the assessment of the medical and the law enforcement community. Increasingly, this is the assessment of young people as well, since marijuana use has plummeted by 25 percent over the past five years. Young people apparently agree with Australian researchers, who recently characterized marijuana, based on their comparative studies of youths who used versus those who did not, as “the drug for life’s losers.” Removing legal penalties would only make this drug more accessible, its use more prevalent, and its damage more widespread, and would swell the number of those at risk for becoming “life’s losers.”

Richard Lawrence Miller, historian and author of The Case for Legalizing Drugs, The Encyclopedia of Addictive Drugs, and Drug Warriors and Their Prey: From Police Power to Police State:

Fifteen or twenty years ago, I was active among drug policy reformers. I’ve participated in conferences, given public talks (including testimony before legislative committees), done radio call-in shows, and written three scholarly and thoroughly documented books on the topic. Skeptics would demand statistics and scientific studies, which I supplied aplenty in The Case for Legalizing Drugs and The Encyclopedia of Addictive Drugs. When confronted by such materials, skeptics would simply shift the topic.

In all of my studies, I concluded that the “war on drugs” masked a war on democracy. I explained my conclusion in Drug Warriors and Their Prey, and then retired from reform activity.

At the risk of being long-winded, I wanted to let you know why I’m not citing any studies here. Reformers know about studies, and opponents disregard them, so I see no benefit in mentioning any. If my previous documented writings fail to establish me as someone whose word is credible, reproducing two or three of my footnotes would hardly be sufficient either.

On these and other points, in my books on drug use I cite scientific studies aplenty. But opponents of reform are no more interested in the mainline scientific consensus than are persons who oppose taking protective steps to reduce risk of climate change. There is no debate, merely theater. Discussing drug policy is like discussing gun control or abortion: facts are irrelevant.