Legalization of Marijuana is Necessary
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Federal Bureau of Narcotics (now the Drug Enforcement Agency) testified before Congress that “Marijuana is the most violence causing drug in the history of mankind,” and that “Most marijuana smokers are Negroes, Hispanics, Filipinos, and entertainers. Their Satanic music, jazz and swing, result from marijuana usage. This marijuana causes white women to seek sexual relations with Negroes” (Bouril 4).Marijuana has been unfairly villainized and prohibited in America. Legalization offers a practical, effective, and humane approach to dealing with marijuana use. In the following pages I will point out the inconsistency and hypocrisy of America’s marijuana laws, some of the problems with our current methods for controlling illegal drug use, and some of the possible advantages of legalization. It is unclear exactly why the recreational use of marijuana became of such concern to some people in the first place, but much of the information published and testimony made to Congress on the subject in the 1930’s was simply ludicrous. A 1936 article from the American Journal of Nursing claimed that a marijuana smoker “will suddenly turn with murderous violence upon whomever is nearest to him” (Bring Drugs 13). In 1937, Harry Anslinger, then head of the
Some theorize that anxiety over the decline in size and power of the Federal Bureau of Narcotics after the 1933 repeal of Alcohol Prohibition is what caused Anslinger to push so hard for the prohibition of marijuana (4). The preposterous lies told about the effects of marijuana usage by people like Anslinger has led others to believe that there was a hidden agenda behind the Marijuana Tax Act of 1937 - to eliminate hemp. In 1916 the U.S. Department of Agriculture announced, in Bulletin No. 404, that one acre of hemp would produce as much pulp as four acres of trees, and that if a machine for stripping hemp were developed it would be unnecessary to cut down forest to make paper (Bock 3). Shortly before the passage of the Act, state of the art stripping and pulping machines were available and a few were in use. An article written for Popular Mechanics entitled “New Billion-Dollar Crop” discussed how this new technology would make hemp “the most profitable and desirable crop that can be grown” (Bouril 5). Unfortunately, the article was not published until February of 1938 - a day late and a dollar short. There is considerable evidence that the
timber, cotton, and newly created synthetic fiber and plastic industries stood to lose money from the reintroduction of hemp as a major crop, and that these commercial interests helped promote ‘reefer madness’ propaganda and used their political clout to lobby for marijuana prohibition, thereby making it illegal to grow hemp as well (4). Whatever the exact story behind the passage of the Marijuana Tax Act, what is clear is that America’s marijuana laws are founded on lies, prejudice, and ignorance.
I must now digress for a moment from marijuana to illegal drugs in general, and our government’s current methods for controlling their use. United States federal, state, and local governments spend billions (estimates range anywhere from $8 to $25 billion) of tax dollars every year on the War on Drugs and millions more to convict, house, and feed the drug dealers and users whom now comprise about one-third of America’s federal prisoners (Grinspoon 6; Bouril 5). The only problem is that the War on Drugs just doesn’t work. International drug control efforts have, on the whole, been unsuccessful because of the push-down/pop-up effect. For example, when the U.S. pushed down on heroin coming out of Turkey in the 1970’s, it popped up in Mexico. We then pushed it down in Mexico and it popped up in Southeast Asia (Nadlemann 207). This is an endless cycle that only leads to the U.S. having more possible sources for any drug that we attempt to control than there were in the first place. Interdiction efforts have stopped only a very small percentage of illegal drugs from entering the country - a percentage not big enough to significantly decrease the availability of these drugs in the U.S. The exception is marijuana, which is not as easily concealed as heroin or cocaine. Supporters of the War on Drugs chalk this up as a victory and use the example as reason for pouring even more money into the war, but the result of preventing marijuana from entering the U.S. from other countries is that the we have now become the world’s number one producer of pot (207).
Domestic control efforts have also failed to significantly decrease the availability or usage of illegal drugs for basically the same reasons that international efforts have failed. When local police push down on drugs coming out of a particular neighborhood in any given U.S. city, they simply pop up in another area. Along the same lines, when the cops bust dealer #1 in any given area, dealer #2 is right there to fill his shoes (207). Illegal drugs do not operate under a different set of economic laws than any other consumer product - where there is a demand, there will, before too long, be a supply. Lastly, going after individuals for possession of small amounts and/or personal use of illegal drugs has only served to make criminals out of tens of millions of Americans, and to clog our courtrooms and jails with those guilty of nothing more than a victimless crime. Shouldn’t our jail cells be reserved for those who have actually done some harm to another person and/or their property? Moreover, why does our government continue to waste time and money to pursue a drug policy that has proven largely ineffective?
Not only is America’s War on Drugs a failure, but prohibition in general historically creates more problems than it solves. Somehow, over the past 60 years or so, the distinction between the problems caused by personal drug use and those caused by prohibition has become blurred for many Americans. What most people see as the ‘drug problem’ is not that people are using illegal drugs, but the violence, crime, and corruption that are actually a direct result of those drugs being prohibited (Mastrigt 649). Everyone knows about the disaster that was the prohibition of alcohol in the 1920’s, and it’s subsequent repeal in 1933. The ill effects of the Amendment were painfully obvious to anyone who cared to look and it was repealed with good reason. What we should have learned from this historical lesson is that whenever there is a large underground market for something, there is also a large amount of crime associated with it’s distribution. And this holds true for any prohibited substance, not just alcohol. John D. Rockefeller, Jr., who was at first a fierce advocate of alcohol prohibition, wrote the following after seeing the amendment in action:
“That a vast array of lawbreakers has been recruited and financed on a colossal scale; that many of our best citizens, piqued at what they regarded as an infringement of their private rights, have openly and unabashedly disregarded the Eighteenth Amendment; that as an inevitable result, respect for all law has been greatly lessened; that crime has increased to an unprecedented degree - all this I have slowly and reluctantly come to believe (Talking 13).
Supporters of prohibition and the War on Drugs argue that they are trying to keep dangerous drugs out of the hands of America’s youth, but for many teens part of the attraction to illegal drugs (or to any forbidden substance or activity for that matter) is precisely that they are forbidden. For many, there is a kind of built-in thrill derived from doing something socially unacceptable and rebellious. Just as drinking alcohol becomes not such a big deal once young adults come of legal age, any prohibited substance would become boring to many youngsters were it to become legally and socially acceptable (Gettman 244). Our current approach to controlling drug use, however, doesn’t allow the government to impose any sort of age restrictions like those in place for alcohol and tobacco products, and most drug dealers unfortunately have no qualms about peddling their wares to teens and even pre-teens.
What, then, is the ultimate goal of the War on Drugs? Proponents will say that it is to create a drug-free society. However, no society (with the possible exception of the Eskimos) has ever been completely drug-free, and it is preposterous to think that such a goal is actually attainable without completely sacrificing individual liberty (Nadelmann 206). Besides, if the creation of a drug-free society is truly our government’s objective, they would have made alcohol, tobacco, caffeine, and all prescription drugs illegal as well. Very few people seriously advocate the prohibition of these substances and no politician that values his or her career would dare to push for it. So, it seems that the goal is not to create a drug-free society, but actually to create an illegal drug-free one.
Prohibitionists argue that these drugs have been made illegal because they are dangerous and that the government is making legitimate use of it’s power to protect it’s citizens from the possible harm caused by them. Here we must return to the case of marijuana; which Lester Grinspoon, an associate professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical, calls “probably the least dangerous drug used for pleasure;” (47) to see that our ‘harm prevention policy’ is fraught with inconsistency and hypocrisy. Very few medical experts will even pretend anymore that marijuana is physically addictive, whereas all will agree that alcohol is quite addictive, and some argue that nicotine is even more habit forming than cocaine or heroin. Marijuana can be psychologically addictive, but it is no more so than caffeine, alcohol, tobacco, scores of prescription drugs, or even work, food, video games, or gambling (Mastrigt 649). A common argument is that marijuana should remain illegal because it causes brain damage and impairs learning ability. However, a 1996 government-funded study by the National Institute on Drug Abuse on the effects of heavy marijuana use concluded that: 1) learning impairments were subtle, minimal, and may be temporary, 2) long-term memory was not affected by heavy marijuana use, 3) casual marijuana users showed no signs of impaired learning, and 4) heavy alcohol use is more detrimental to the thought and learning process than heavy marijuana use (Bouril 7). In addition, reports from the Bureau of Mortality Statistics of the National Institute on Drug Abuse show the annual number of American deaths caused by tobacco to be around 400,000, alcohol - 100,000, prescription drugs - 20,000, aspirin - 500 (7). Marijuana, on the other hand, has never caused a single death in over 5000 years of use (NORML 2). According to ex-DEA Chief Administrative Law Judge, Francis L. Young, “Nearly all medicines have toxic, potentially lethal side- effects. But marijuana is not such a substance,” and “Marijuana, in it’s natural form, is one of the safest therapeutically active substances known to man” (2). So, it seems that, as Hans Van Mastrigt, a sociologist of law from the Erasmus University in Rotterdam, points out, “the harm paradigm [for developing a national drug policy] has not been used consistently,” and that from a pharmacological point of view tobacco and alcohol must be considered “hard drugs” (648).
Another argument that prohibitionists commonly use as to why marijuana should remain illegal is that it is a “gateway drug” that leads users to try harder drugs. Tom Morganthau, in a February, 1997 Newsweek article entitled “The War Over Weed,” said “That [the theory that marijuana is a gateway drug] isn’t Reefer Madness alarmism: reliable research shows that virtually all heroin and cocaine addicts started out with the pot” (22). Here again we see that Mastrigt’s “harm paradigm” is not used consistently when we consider that alcohol, and particularly tobacco are just as likely (if not even more so) to be “gateway drugs” as is marijuana - virtually nobody starts smoking pot before they smoke a cigarette or drink alcohol. Also, every National Household Survey on Drug Abuse since 1988 has found that about 10 million people smoke marijuana monthly, while only about 600,000 use cocaine frequently, which would illustrate that only a small percentage of marijuana smokers go on to use harder drugs (Massing A17). Dr. Toni Makkai, a Research Fellow at the Australian National University’s Research School of Social Sciences, makes a good point when she says that “it is not cannabis per se that makes an individual try other drugs, but the social environment in which cannabis users are located. Indeed, decriminalization may actually reduce their contacts with users of other types of illicit drugs” (423).
The Chinese emperor Shen-nung recorded the medical use of cannabis in 2737 B.C. (NORML 1). The Native Americans knew about the healing properties of the plant. In 1860 the Ohio Medical Society of Physicians reported that marijuana was effective in treating several ailments, such as stomach pain and chronic cough (1). Yet the U.S. Government classifies marijuana as a “Schedule I” drug - a drug with a high potential for abuse and no apparent medical value. As we mentioned earlier, marijuana is not physically addictive and has a much lower potential for abuse than either alcohol or tobacco. And if marijuana has no medical value, then why do eight seriously ill people receive government-grown pot as part of an otherwise discontinued medical marijuana program (Bouril 4)? There is no question that THC, marijuana’s main psychoactive ingredient, has numerous medical applications. In fact, a synthetic version of THC, called Marinol, is regularly prescribed for nausea and vomiting caused by chemotherapy and for AIDS-related wasting due to loss of appetite (Morganthau 23). After examining all of the existing clinical evidence about smoked marijuana, the National Institutes of Health suggested that doctors should not be allowed to prescribe pot because “there is no scientifically sound evidence that smoked marijuana is medically superior to currently available therapies” (McCaffrey 27). However, doctors like Marcus Conant, who has treated more than 5,000 HIV-positive patients, say the problem is that the government won’t provide the funding or the marijuana for new, honest, in-depth clinical studies needed to ‘clear the smoke’ once and for all (26). Also, more and more of the people who should know best - the cancer and AIDS patients - say that Marinol pills are hard to swallow while nauseous, and that smoked marijuana allows better dose control than Marinol (Morganthau 23). Marijuana has also been found effective in treating pain and muscle spasms associated with epilepsy and multiple sclerosis. Dantrium and Lioresal are both commonly used, FDA-approved treatments for pain and muscle spasms. Dantrium can cause liver damage. Lioresal causes sedation and sudden withdrawal can cause hallucinations and seizures (23). Marijuana has none of these side-effects. Beta-blocker eye drops and carbonic anhydrase inhibitors are approved treatments for glaucoma. The eye drops can cause lethargy and trigger asthma attacks, and the inhibitors can cause numbness and weight loss. Marijuana is effective in reducing pressure within eye caused by glaucoma, but may also reduce blood flow to the eyeball - the last thing a glaucoma sufferer needs (23). Once again, more research - which cannot be conducted because of marijuana’s prohibition - is needed.
So, should people like 77-year old Hazel Rodgers of San Francisco, who regularly smokes pot to relieve the symptoms of glaucoma and her anxiety about having been diagnosed with breast cancer, be considered criminals and possibly imprisoned, while doctors are allowed to prescribe much more dangerous and addictive drugs such as cocaine, morphine, valium, and percodan, to name a few ? (Morganthau 20)
If you still think that the legalization option is out of the question, at least consider the benefits of industrial hemp. The word “canvas” is derived from the Greek and Latin words for hemp, “cannabis.” 50% of all mankind’s textiles and fabrics were made from hemp fibers until the beginning on the 20th century, 75-90% of the world’s paper was made from hemp until 1883, and hemp was even the dominant fiber crop in the U.S. until about 1840 (Bock 3). We already mentioned that 1 acre of hemp produces four times as much pulp as 1 acre of trees, but paper made from hemp also lasts longer than paper made from wood pulp, and can be recycled twice as many times (Maietta 8). Hemp is also stronger, more absorbent, and longer-lasting than cotton, can be grown in all 50 states (cotton can only be grown in moderate climates), is frost-resistant, requires far less fertilizer than cotton, and requires no pesticides or herbicides (50% of all agricultural chemicals are used on cotton). In addition, hemp has a strong, extensive root system that anchors the soil to prevent erosion, grows well in rotation with other common crops, and reproduces itself every 90-120 days (NORML 7; Bouril 1). Hemp is the number-one biomass (the term used to describe all biologically produced matter) producer on earth, yielding ten tons per acre in approximately four months, and it contains 17% more cellulose than wood. This makes it the perfect crop to grow for biomass conversion to fuel, a process by which a technique called pyrolysis is used to convert organic matter into charcoal, fuel oil, acetone, methanol, and more (Osburn 6). In her book called “Energy Farming in America” Lynn Osburn states that “About 6% of contiguous United States land area put into [hemp] cultivation for biomass should supply all current demands for oil and gas” (6). In addition, the hemp plant removes four times as much CO2 from the air during it’s growing cycle as the use of any fuel converted from it would produce, thus it would clean our atmosphere and help reduce the greenhouse effect (NORML 7). Hemp can also be made into either regular or biodegradable plastics, which could even further reduce our use of scarce petroleum (7).
Prohibitionists argue that the ban on hemp should not be lifted because if it were grown everywhere people would have easy access to the THC-containing flowers and buds of the plant. However, the strain of the cannabis plant that is grown for industrial hemp already grows wild in many areas (in abundance in some) and generally produces a low grade of marijuana, with a very low THC content. Also, a 1992 article from the Sydney Morning Herald talked about Australia’s entry into hemp farming using a new strain of the plant that is virtually devoid of THC (Maietta 8; Bouril 2). It is indeed a sad thing for our environment that the commercial interests of a few, and the ignorance of many, have caused this extremely useful plant to be laid by the wayside.
Thus far I have attempted to show that: 1) our marijuana laws are founded on lies, prejudice, and ignorance, 2) the War on Drugs is largely ineffective, 3) history has shown us that prohibition causes social evils far worse than those it is intended to avert, 4) the argument that marijuana should be kept illegal because it is a dangerous drug is hypocritical when one considers the legality of tobacco, alcohol, and many prescription drugs, 5) marijuana has many medical applications that are not being taken advantage of, and 6) there are numerous advantages and benefits of industrial hemp that are also not being taken advantage of. In light of all this evidence, I propose that it is high time to seriously consider a new drug policy - namely, legalization.
There have been many, many different proposals for the decriminalization/legalization of marijuana in the past, and given that there is no way to be sure of the effects of these proposals without actually trying them, the specifics are by no means cut-and-dry. Those in favor of decriminalization, however, generally propose that possession and personal use of marijuana should be decriminalized (punishable by a small civil fine, not jail time, for example) while dealing and purchasing it should remain illegal (Gettman 243). This option, however, would only solve part of the problem with our current prohibitionist policy. Decriminalization doesn’t allow for the sale of marijuana by legitimate businesses, federal regulation, or taxation. Telling people that it’s now OK to use marijuana but not providing them a legal source for it would not remedy the violence and crime caused by warring drug dealers, which is the largest part of the ‘drug problem’. Legalization, on the other hand, argues for treating marijuana the same as alcohol and tobacco, with private enterprise providing the product and handling it’s distribution and sale, and the government regulating and applying a “harmfulness tax” to it.
Holland is the only western country that has had the courage to break away from the criminal- justice approach and to openly tolerate the sale and consumption of marijuana and hashish. It is an excellent, working example of how legalization could be implemented in the United States. In Holland marijuana is grown by Dutch farmers or imported and the hashish is imported from other countries that have legalized cannabis in practice, if not in policy. The products are then subject to governmental regulation and stiff taxation and sold in “coffee shops” that are generally concentrated into one area of the city (Mastrigt 653). Since America is already the number one producer of marijuana, I see no reason why American farmers couldn’t cash in on pot (as we mentioned earlier the cannabis plant grows well in rotation with other common crops), take the profits away from importers, and put them back into the American economy. As far as processing and distributing the marijuana, I’m sure that the already-existing tobacco companies would be more than happy to take over that aspect. Just as the tobacco and alcohol industries are currently subject to government regulation and the products to taxation, so could the marijuana industry.
Prohibitionists argue that legalizing marijuana would suggest that the government advocates it’s use, and that this would be sending the wrong message to our children. However, realizing that many people enjoy smoking marijuana, that they do so even though it is illegal, and that in doing so they are not hurting anyone else and so shouldn’t be treated as criminals is not the same as saying “Hey! - Marijuana is 100% safe and wonderful - we think everyone should use it all the time!” Does our government advocate cigarette smoking and alcohol consumption? No - in fact, they have done much to educate people of the health risks associated with these substances and to discourage their use; but they do realize that trying to outlaw them would not solve anything. And, of course, marijuana would be subject to the same age and advertising restrictions that tobacco and alcohol are.
Perhaps the strongest argument as to why marijuana should not be legalized is that the resulting increase in availability, drop in price, and elimination of the threat of criminal punishment would cause usage to increase significantly. If this is so, then why does Holland report that the percentage of Dutch high school students who use marijuana daily has decreased every year since that country implemented it’s decriminalization policies (Gettman 244)? As we mentioned earlier, as social acceptance of marijuana use increased over time it would likely become boring to many youngsters, legalization would remove the thrill of doing something anti-establishment. Another probable explanation for part of the decrease in marijuana use in Holland is that their legalization and taxation of pot allows for much better drug education programs. Dutch teens are honestly educated as to the pleasures and dangers of using different types of drugs. As far as the drop in price that prohibitionists see as a necessary result of legalization, why couldn’t the government impose enough “harmfulness tax” to keep the price about the same as it is now? Considering that at least 10 million Americans smoke marijuana (according to National Institute on Drug Abuse reports) and that the tax would have to be quite large to keep prices the same, the potential for revenue is considerable. This revenue could be used to promote more thorough and honest drug-education, to make counseling and rehabilitation services more readily available to those who want them, and perhaps to begin to attack the underlying social problems that lead people to drug addiction. Also, by imposing a “harmfulness tax” marijuana users would be paying in advance for any possible social and health costs that their use would incur (Grinspoon and Bakalar 601).
United States Congress members work hard to get to get where they are and they generally want to stay there as long as possible. Since the length of their term in office depends on getting reelected, they are usually very concerned about what their constituents want. If you agree that our current policies towards marijuana are ill-conceived and hypocritical and that legalization is a practical solution, then I encourage you to take action. Write to your representatives, tell them how you feel, and get involved in groups such as NORML (the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws) that are working towards changing the current policies. Your participation, whether it be writing a letter, signing a petition, or joining a group such as NORML, does make a difference!!!
“A fool, if he obeyed, may punish crimes as well as another; But the true statesman is he who knows how to prevent them.” -Rousseau (Grinspoon 46)
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