Free the Weed? Marijuana Legalization Gains Support but Strong Opposition Remains
By Hugh C. McBride
Not too many years ago, the revelation that a politician had smoked marijuana was seen as a potential career-ender.
As recently as 1992, then-candidate Bill Clinton tried to finesse questions about his use of the drug by offering this now-infamous semi-denial: "When I was in England [in the 1960s] I experimented with marijuana a time or two, and I didn't like it. I didn't inhale it, and never tried it again."
Seventeen years later, the political landscape and public attitudes toward the nation's most popular illicit substance have undergone some significant changes. In addition to being able to admit to "youthful indiscretions" with marijuana and other drugs without fear of voter rejection, a growing number of government officials are openly considering (and, in some cases, even advocating) what was once a radical notion: legalizing marijuana.
A Question of Freedom and Finances
Those who are at the forefront of the effort to legalize marijuana usually cite one or more of the following reasons to support their argument that the drug should be decriminalized:
• U.S. citizens should be as free to use marijuana as they are tobacco and alcohol.
• Marijuana offers many medical benefits.
• Current prohibition has resulted in multi-billion dollar black market and an overburdened legal system.
• Legalization will allow states to raise money through licensing and taxes.
U.S. Rep. Barney Frank (D-Mass), who has long been in favor of legalizing marijuana, expressed many of these beliefs in a June 1 Boston Phoenix article:
I think people have gotten more skeptical of government intervention. And I think people have seen the ineffectiveness of the all-out-war approach to all this. Third, we have concerns about the costs, about overcrowded prisons and overstretched law enforcement. So I think things are moving. But the basic thing is that Americans are better understanding now of personal freedoms.
Historically, efforts to decriminalize or legalize marijuana have been led by individuals of the Democratic or Libertarian political persuasions. However, due to the nation's recent financial crisis, the movement gained a conditional vote of support from one of the nation's most prominent Republicans, California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger.
“I think it’s time for a debate,” Schwarzenegger said in a May 6 New York Times article. “I think all of those ideas of creating extra revenues; I’m always for an open debate on it. And I think we ought to study very carefully what other countries are doing that have legalized marijuana and other drugs. What effect did it have on those countries?”
More Money, Fewer Prisoners, Safer Streets?
Gov. Schwarzenegger's interest in the financial gains of legalized marijuana seems to be due to potential windfalls from licensing and taxation. In a March 29 article in Parade magazine, another political leader, Sen. Jim Webb (D-Va.), noted that the "War on Drugs" has cost the nation millions of dollars, put a significant burden on the criminal justice system and failed to reduce the prevalence of drug use:
- According to data supplied to Congress' Joint Economic Committee, between 1984 and 2002 the percentage of all inmates who were imprisoned for drug offenses rose from 10 percent of the inmate population to about 33 percent.
- Locking up more of these offenders has done nothing to break up the power of the multibillion-dollar illegal drug trade, nor has it brought about a reduction in the amounts of the more dangerous drugs that are reaching U.S. citizens.
- Justice statistics also show that 47.5 percent of drug arrests in 2007 were for marijuana offenses. Also, almost 60 percent of state prison inmates who are serving time for a drug offense had no history of violence or of any significant selling activity.
Sen. Webb also reported that the criminal market in marijuana and other drugs has resulted in the creation of powerful, dangerous and heavily armed criminal cartels that threaten the safety of all citizens. "We are not protecting our citizens from the increasing danger of criminals who perpetrate violence and intimidation as a way of life," Webb wrote, "and we are locking up too many people who do not belong in jail."
Writing in the April 2 edition of Time magazine, Joe Klein commented that reducing criminal punishments for marijuana use could free up funding for more productive purposes:
We spend about $150 billion on policing and courts, and 47.5 percent of all drug arrests are marijuana-related. That is an awful lot of money, most of it nonfederal, that could be spent on better schools or infrastructure – or simply returned to the public.
Hardly a Done Deal
Though the effort to legalize marijuana has gained considerable momentum and broad support in recent years – and though 13 states now allow some form of legal medical marijuana – the argument is a long way from achieving consensus.
On March 26, White House spokesman Robert Gibbs told reporters that President Barack Obama does not support the effort to legalize marijuana. "The president opposes the legalization of marijuana," Gibbs said. "He does not think that’s the right plan for America."
Dr. Nora Volkow, director of the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA), has cited the heightened potency, and thus increased danger, of today's marijuana as among the reasons why the drug should remain illegal.
“It’s like drinking beer versus drinking whiskey,” Dr. Volkow said in a July 17 New York Times article. “If you only have access to whiskey, your risk is going to be higher for addiction. Now that people have access to very high potency marijuana, the game is different.”
In the same article, Times writers Sarah Kershaw and Rebecca Cathcart cited the following concerns among those who desire to see marijuana remain illegal:
- Many public health officials worry that stronger marijuana has increased addiction rates and is potentially more dangerous to teenagers, whose brains are still developing.
- More adults are now admitted to treatment centers for primary marijuana and hashish addictions than for primary addictions to heroin, cocaine and methamphetamine.
- The percentage of those in drug rehab who arrived there seeking treatment for marijuana addiction has increased from 12 percent in 1997 to 16 percent in 2007.
“We need to be very mindful of what we are unleashing out of a Pandora’s Box here,” Dr. Richard N. Rosenthal, professor of clinical psychiatry at Columbia University, told the Times. “The people who become chronic users don’t have the same lives and the same achievements as people who don’t use chronically.”