One of the scariest legacies of the War on Drugs is the deliberate narrowing of the national debate about drug use. Beginning with Jimmy Carter's second drug czar, it has been the openly admitted goal of that office to forbid certain terms and concepts. "Recreational drug use" is one, a distinction between "hard" and "soft" drugs another. Science and nuanced discussion have been sacrificed to "just say no" orthodoxy to the point where we can"t rationally define our real drug problems, let alone debate our way toward solutions. Just ask Joycelyn Elders. The War on Drugs and its disparate political agendas depend on marijuana prohibition. The war on marijuana keeps the full fury of the War on Drugs -- with its drug testing, mandatory sentences and asset forfeiture -- aimed at the widest possible segment of the population. Without marijuana prohibition, our 12-million-person "drug problem" shrinks to about 2 million at most; drug policy shrinks from Cabinet-level jihad to sideshow. Marijuana prohibition depends in turn on the drug's demonization. In the name of sustaining the drug war, we are taught that marijuana is lethal, carcinogenic and addictive. While marijuana has its risks, especially for children, none of this is true. Neither is it true that marijuana has no accepted medical use; in 1991, almost half the oncologists who answered a Harvard Medical School survey said they would prescribe marijuana for relief of chemotherapy side effects were it legal, and most had already recommended it to their patients. Now come the citizens of California and Arizona, who on November 5 voted to allow patients to use a physician"s recommendation that they smoke pot as an element of their defense if prosecuted in state marijuana cases. The initiatives put the federal government in an excruciating bind. The Feds are the only legal owners of marijuana in the country, which means Washington has three options: It can dispense the marijuana; it can turn a blind eye; or it can send the D.E.A. into Arizona and California to arrest patients and their physicians on federal marijuana charges. Before the votes, drug czar Barry McCaffrey said he would send in the federal anti-drug cops.
Don't bet on it. Televised images of skeletal patients arrested for
using a state-sanctioned, doctor-recommended medicine would be
explosive. If anything, such images would likely widen acceptance of
medical marijuana. And if Washington takes either of the other two paths
-- complying with the initiatives or ignoring them -- the walls start
tumbling down. Marijuana will no longer be an instrument of the
Antichrist; it will be a medicine. The absurdity of confiscating houses
and sending users to prison for five years in non-medical cases will be
thrown into sharper relief. The initiatives' opponents argue that
medical marijuana is the narrow edge of the legalization wedge, and they may be right.
Will an increase in recreational use follow the acceptance of medical marijuana?
Recent history suggests not. Back in the seventies, California joined ten other states in decriminalizing marijuana possession.
From 1976 possession of less than an ounce was a
parking-ticket-type offense in California, and marijuana use went up
zero percent (and the state saved more than $950 million in police and prison costs).
The medical marijuana initiatives are an important step. But these
measures had billionaire backers; the next might not. And the
initiatives will certainly galvanize the formidable interests dependent
on keeping the drug war alive. So the long-term significance of the
medical marijuana votes depends on the ability of drug-policy reformers
to seize the moment. The War on Drugs hasn't suffered a hit this big in
two decades. Let's see what the reform movement can do with it.
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