Tuesday, November 22, 2005

Legalizing Marijuana

In Sunday's San Francisco Chronicle, columnist David Lazarus makes "The case for legal pot use." In a nutshell, our government (federal, state, and local) is wasting an estimated $7,700,000,000.00 annually on enforcement of marijuana laws, with almost 90% of arrests for simple possession. More Americans were arrested for possession of marijuana in 2004 than ever before. Our courts and our prisons are overcrowded with real criminals, and yet we locked up over 650,000 people for no crime except possession of marijuana. Furthermore, if marijuana were legal and taxed at rates comparable to alcohol and tobacco, it would generate revenues of about $6,200,000,000.00 annually. That's a net savings to taxpayers of almost $14 billion per year, which is nothing to sneeze at. If you add in the lost productivity from taxpaying, otherwise law-abiding citizens returned to the workforce instead of going off to jail, I'm sure you could add several billion more to the tally.

The arguments for keeping marijuana illegal simply cannot hold up to scrutiny.

"It would send the wrong message if we legalized marijuana!" Quite the opposite is true. The message we are sending our children right now is that drugs like cocaine, crystal meth, heroin, and PCP are no more dangerous than marijuana. Crystal meth kills people; marijuana just makes them silly. We're also sending our kids the message that somehow it's fine to nurse a bottle of scotch with a pack of Marlboros, but not to smoke a joint. We're also sending the message that it's okay to disregard federal law, because we know that a majority of adults in America have tried marijuana at least once — including such people as Al Gore, George W. Bush, and Arnold Schwarzenegger. In that regard, marijuana prohibition is an even worse mixed message than the 55 mph speed limit was: it's okay, just as long as you don't get caught.

We're also sending our children the message that science and common sense have no place in discussions of public policy. (Of course, that same message is being carried to school boards from Kansas to Pennsylvania.)

Is marijuana dangerous? The answer is clearly "Yes, but..." Marijuana can be physically addictive, but only in extraordinary circumstances. My friend Paul smoked marijuana frequently from age 4 to age 17. When he quit, he had physical withdrawal symptoms. I know lots of people who smoke large quantities of marijuana, including a few who are stoned as often as they're sober, but none of them shows any signs of physical addiction. Furthermore, if we're going to demonize marijuana because of its tiny addictive potential, what message are we sending by allowing alcohol and especially tobacco?

Marijuana can also impair judgment. I certainly don't recommend driving a car while stoned, but I know people who have spent thousands of hours behind the wheel stoned without a single incident. At the very least, it is abundantly clear that driving under the influence of marijuana is far less dangerous than driving under the influence of alcohol. Marijuana can also lower social inhibitions, potentially leading to risky sexual behaviors, but again, less so than alcohol.

Marijuana tends to increase feelings of hunger, possibly leading to overeating, or at least overconsumption of less-nutritious snack foods. It seems a bit hypocritical to prohibit it on that basis, especially when we don't allow chemotherapy patients to treat their nausea with marijuana.

The Netherlands has had quasi-legal marijuana for years, and Canada has pretty much abandoned all enforcement efforts against personal use. The Free State of Christiania has had openly legal marijuana since its inception, and kept it legal even when they banned certain hard drugs. The Dutch, the Canadians, and the people of Christiania understand that draconian laws against marijuana are counterproductive.

President Nixon convened a blue-ribbon panel in the early 1970s to make recommendations on the legal status of marijuana. That report suggested legalization. Every administration since then has been held hostage by a small percentage of fanatics in the population who see the end of the world at hand if we legalize marijuana.

Why are we now, more than a generation later, with a President who has directly admitted to smoking marijuana, still tied up in this debate? The answer is agonizingly obvious: legalize it, regulate it, and tax it. End of story.