Support Question 7

 

 

Once again there will be another ballot issue on marijuana in Nevada.  As readers know, I have consistently been an outspoken critic of the drug war and so it should come as no surprise that I support this ballot measure.

            Let me be up front about my feelings about drug use.  I don’t advocate the regular use of marijuana or any other drug as there are possible harmful effects (my “drug of choice” is wine).  However, as I have stated many times before, the most harmful drugs in the world are legal – namely, tobacco and alcohol, which together cause several million lives each year around the world (more than 500,000 in the US alone).  One question I always ask students is: why are some drugs legal and others not?  The simple answer is that if corporations see a profit from producing and selling a drug, then it will be legalized.  The cases of both alcohol and tobacco, not to mention the hundreds of potentially harmful prescription drugs, are obvious examples.

            Before I go any further, let me clarify another point: to advocate the legalization of a drug does not mean it is 100% legal.  As with alcohol, tobacco and prescription drugs, there are restrictions – age being one primary example.  So it would be with marijuana.  In the case of Question 7, it would still be prohibited for those under 21 (I personally would advocate 18, since you are old enough to vote and die in a war).  Also, as with both tobacco and alcohol, there would be tight government regulation and taxes imposed.

            Many arguments will be made against this question, as there always have been when it comes to pot.  I will address some of these shortly.  Before I do this I should mention a few historical facts.

            The cultivation of marijuana in the United States goes back at least 400 years, although it was called Hemp at the time - it was even grown by Thomas Jefferson and used to make a variety of products, even the American flag.  Apparently sometime in the 1920s a few people discovered that you could get a “high” from smoking the stuff and in an era of hysteria and prohibition (remember the 18th Amendment?) “Reefer madness” took over.  The first “drug czar” (a curious title in a democracy!), Harry Anslinger, began a campaign to outlaw the drug.  More than the qualities of the drug itself caused the first prohibition (the Marijuana Tax Act of 1937); rather, it was the issue of who used it and what such usage represented.  Among Anslinger’s public statements included this racist gem: “Most marijuana smokers are Negroes, Hispanics, jazz musicians, and entertainers. Their satanic music is driven by marijuana, and marijuana smoking by white women makes them want to seek sexual relations with Negroes, entertainers, and others. It is a drug that causes insanity, criminality, and death -- the most violence-causing drug in the history of mankind.”  Fear and racism always seem to be in the forefront, as one can easily see in public statements from the drug warriors today.

            As everyone knows, such attitudes did not change much until the 1960s when white, middle class youth discovered pot.  Although the extreme attitudes displayed by Anslinger eventually led to a forced retirement, various myths continued to spread.  I have written about some of these myths before (the latest was “Drug war myths and facts,” Las Vegas City Life, 4/27/06), so I will limit my comments here to just a few (the reader is encouraged to consult a variety of web sites, such as www.drugsense.org). 

        Probably the leading myth is that pot is a “gateway drug.”  Simple logic can easily dispel this myth.  According to the latest (2005) survey by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) on drug use among those 12 or older, about 112 million have used some illegal substance in their lifetime, with the vast majority (97 million) using pot; about 33 million who have used cocaine (about 8 million have used crack); an estimated 4 million have used heroin in their lifetime; in contrast, about 172 million have used tobacco and 195 million have used alcohol. If there are any “gateway drugs” they are alcohol and cigarettes; in fact, this was the conclusion of the Institute of Medicine in their report “Marijuana and Medicine: Assessing the Science Base” (http://newton.nap.edu/html/marimed/notice.html). What the research has found is that because of prohibition, regular users of illegal drugs take part in a lifestyle that brings them into contact with a variety of illegal drugs.  The SAMHSA survey also found that among those 12-17 the rate of consumption of illegal drugs was 8 times greater if tobacco was also used and about 11 times greater for those who consumed alcohol.

            Two other common myths are that pot is dangerous and addictive.  First, there have never been any recorded instances of a death attributed to pot.  Second, among the five most commonly used drugs, tobacco ranks first in addictive properties and marijuana ranks last, just below caffeine (http://www.drugwarfacts.org/addictiv.htm).

            The reader by now may be thinking of a common argument against legalization, which is part of another persistent myth: if we legalize pot, then more people will use it. A counter-argument would begin by referring to the above estimated number of lifetime users of marijuana – prohibition did not prevent them from experimenting.  However, even more important, actual research has shown that when pot has been decriminalized or otherwise treated more leniently, pot use did not increase.  (See “Drug War Crimes” by Jeffrey Miron or visit his web site: http://econ.bu.edu/miron/).

            Another objection – which is perhaps more important – is that the use of illegal drugs has become a moral issue so that prohibiting a drug represents society’s disapproval.  If pot or other drugs are made legal, it means society approves of the drug and its use.  One counter to this argument is that American society has clearly disapproved of tobacco use and in some cases liquor consumption (with warnings on both cigarette packages and alcohol labels).  What is often unsaid in such arguments is that society disapproves of the kinds of people that use these drugs – in the 1960s it was the “hippies” and in the current era it is various minority groups (e.g., blacks and crack).  In fact, the history of drug legislation has proven that virtually every kind of drug prohibition has focused on drugs used by racial and ethnic minorities or otherwise “dangerous classes” of people – starting with opium and the Chinese in the 19th century.  However, when a drug is used by all social classes (especially the upper classes) then it will be legalized (albeit with some restrictions). 

            The moral argument can also be countered by noting some of the horrible consequences of prohibition.  Prohibition is strongly associated with: (1) increased violence (as in inner-city drive-by shootings or bombs in places like Columbia); (2) the large number of children born HIV-infected because of the prohibition against using clean needles (or reluctance to provide funding); (3) medical use of marijuana for desperately ill people; (4) keeping a small group of big-time criminals extremely rich (the illegal drug business is a $300 billion world-wide industry); (5) the enormous costs of enforcement, reaching $50 billion last year, including about $12 billion to enforce marijuana laws; (6) the ruined communities and families because a breadwinner is sent to prison (at a cost of around $50 billion to house prisoners – around $30,000-40,000 each, plus an estimated $25,000 loss to the community per prisoner); (7) enormous profits for various companies selling products to prisons, plus private prisons operated by Corrections Corporation of America and others; corruption of police and other criminal justice officials.

            A vote in favor of Question 7 will not immediately solve all of our drug problems but it will be a step in the right direction.

 

© 2006, Randall G. Shelden. All rights reserved. No part of this may be reproduced without permission from the author.