The Benefits of Decriminalization
HARRY J. Anslinger headed the Federal Bureau of Narcotics during the
1930s and supervised the campaign to make marijuana illegal under
state and federal laws. In "Marijuana: Assassin of Youth" and similar
articles Anslinger led readers to believe that the drug rendered its
users homicidal, suicidal, and insane. Amid the anxieties of the Great
Depression, marijuana use was linked to poor Mexicans and blacks,
"inferior" races whose alleged sexual promiscuity and violence stemmed
partly from smoking pot. "The dominant race and most enlightened
countries are alcoholic," one opponent of marijuana use claimed,
expressing a widely held belief, "whilst the races and nations
addicted to hemp ... have deteriorated both mentally and
physically." Marijuana was the "killer weed," a foreign influence on
American life that was capable of transforming healthy teenagers into
sex-crazed maniacs. Anslinger later admitted to the historian David F.
Musto that the FBN had somewhat exaggerated the dangers of marijuana.
Anslinger had hoped to make marijuana seem so awful and so terrifying
that young people would be afraid to try it even once.
Marijuana's "un-American" reputation has made it immensely appealing
to rebellious, disaffected youth. Lurid propaganda films like Reefer
Madness, Devil's Harvest, and Marijuana: Weed With Roots in Hell,
which promised a glimpse of not only the horrors but also the "weird
orgies" caused by the drug, no doubt encouraged more than one brave
soul to take a puff. The huge difference between the alleged and the
actual effects of marijuana has long provided young people with
grounds for distrusting authority. Praised by rebels and artists as
diverse as Cab Calloway, Jack Kerouac, Arlo Guthrie, and Snoop Doggie
Dog, marijuana has attained a lofty symbolic importance. A distinct
culture has evolved around marijuana, one championed by proud
outcasts. The laws aimed at that culture have only perpetuated it,
enshrining the cannabis leaf as a symbol of adolescent protest.
In 1970 President Richard Nixon appointed a commission to study the
health effects, legal status, and social impact of marijuana use.
After more than a year of research the National Commission on
Marijuana and Drug Abuse concluded that marijuana should be
decriminalized under state and federal laws. The commission
unanimously agreed that the possession of small amounts of marijuana
in the home should no longer be a crime. "Recognizing the extensive
degree of misinformation about marijuana as a drug, we have tried to
de-mythologize it," the commission explained. "Viewing the use of
marijuana in its wider social context, we have tried to de-symbolize
it." The commission argued that society should strongly discourage
marijuana use while devoting more resources to preventing and treating
heavy use. "Considering the range of social concerns in contemporary
America," it said, "marijuana does not, in our considered judgment,
rank very high."
President Nixon felt betrayed by the commission and rejected its
findings. A decade later the National Academy of Sciences studied the
health effects of marijuana and concluded that it should be
decriminalized, a finding that President Reagan rejected.
Nevertheless, ten states have largely decriminalized marijuana
possession, thereby saving billions of dollars in court and prison
costs - without experiencing an increase in marijuana use. Ohio
currently has the most liberal marijuana laws in the nation:
possession of up to three ounces is a misdemeanor punishable by a $100
fine. In July of last year, with little fanfare, Ohio decriminalized
the cultivation of small amounts of marijuana for personal use.
The change in the laws was backed by the state's conservative Republican
governor, George V. Voinovich.
There seems to be little correlation between the severity of a nation's marijuana laws and the rate of use among its teenagers.
In the United Kingdom, where drug penalties are harshly enforced, the rate of marijuana use among 15 and 16 year-olds is the highest in Western Europe - one and a half times the rate in Spain and the Netherlands, where the drug has been decriminalized.
The UK rate is six times as high as the rate in Sweden, a nation that has single-mindedly pursued a public-health approach to
drug control. Sweden now has the lowest rate of marijuana use in Western Europe. Under Swedish law the maximum punishment
for most marijuana traffickers is a prison term of three years.
Cultural factors exert far more influence on a country's rate of
marijuana use than any changes in the law. The Netherlands
decriminalized marijuana in 1976 - and yet teenage use there declined
by as much as 40 percent over the next decade. The rate of use among
American teenagers peaked in 1979 and had already fallen by 40 percent
when Congress passed the Anti-Drug Abuse Act, in 1986. As young
Americans became more health conscious, their use of alcohol and
tobacco also declined. Since 1979 the rate of alcohol use among
American teenagers has fallen by 52 percent - without any life
sentences for selling beer.
The conclusions of the National Commission on Marijuana and Drug Abuse are as valid today as they were twenty-five years ago:
the United States should decriminalize marijuana for personal use; possessing small amounts of it should no longer be a crime;
growing or selling it commercially, using it in public, distributing it to young people, and driving under its influence
should remain strictly forbidden. The decriminalization of marijuana - including, as in the Ohio model, the cultivation of
small amounts - could be the first step toward a rational and sensible drug-control policy. The benefits would be felt
immediately. Law-enforcement resources would be diverted from the apprehension and imprisonment of marijuana offenders to
the prevention of much more serious crimes. The roughly $2.4 billion the United States spends annually just to process its
marijuana arrests would be available to fund more-useful endeavors, such as treatment for drug education and substance abuse.
Thousands of prison cells would become available to house violent criminals. The profits from growing and selling marijuana
commercially would fall, as would the incentive to bribe public officials. But the decriminalization of marijuana is only
a partial solution to the havoc caused by the war on drugs.
Mandatory-minimum sentences for drug offenders should be repealed, allowing judges to regain their time-honored powers
and ensuring that an individual's punishment fits the crime. The asset-forfeiture laws should be amended so that criminal
investigations are not motivated by greed - so that assets can be forfeited only after a conviction, in amounts proportionate
to the illegal activity. The use of professional informers should be limited and carefully monitored. The message sent
to the nation's teenagers by these steps would be that our society will no longer pursue a failed policy and needlessly ruin
lives in order to appear tough.
Decriminalizing marijuana would also help to resolve the current
dispute over its medicinal use. Seriously ill patients would no longer
risk criminal prosecution while trying to obtain their medicine.
Although heavy marijuana use may exacerbate underlying psychological
problems and may harm the respiratory system through the inhalation of
smoke, marijuana is one of the least toxic therapeutically active
substances known. No fatal dose of the drug has been established,
despite more than 5,000 years of recorded use. Marijuana is less toxic
than many common foods. Denying cancer patients, AIDS patients, and
paraplegics access to a potentially useful medicine that is safer than
most legally prescribed drugs is inhumane. Some of the claims made in
the 1970s and 1980s about the effects of marijuana - that it causes
brain damage, chromosome damage, sterility, infertility, and even
homosexuality - have never been proved. Marijuana use may pose dangers
that are still unknown. And yet the British medical journal The
Lancet, in a recent editorial calling for the decriminalization of
marijuana, felt confident enough to declare, "The smoking of cannabis,
even long-term, is not harmful to health."
Although marijuana does not turn teenagers into serial killers or
irreversibly destroy their brains, it should not be smoked by young
people. Marijuana is a powerful intoxicant, and its use can diminish
academic and athletic performance. Adolescents experience enough
social and emotional confusion without the added handicap of being
stoned. If marijuana use does indeed exert subtly harmful effects on
the reproductive and immune systems, young people could be at greatest
risk. Lying to teenagers about marijuana's effects, however, only
encourages them to doubt official warnings about much more dangerous
drugs, such as heroin, cocaine, and amphetamines. The drug culture of
the 1960s arose in the midst of tough anti-drug laws and simplistic
anti-drug propaganda. In a nation where both major political parties
accept millions of dollars from alcohol and tobacco lobbyists, demands
for "zero tolerance" and moral condemnations of marijuana have a
hollow ring. According to Michael D. Newcomb, a substance-abuse expert
at the University of Southern California, "Tobacco and alcohol are the
most widely used, abused, and deadly drugs ingested by teenagers."
Eighth-graders in America today drink alcohol three times as often as
they use marijuana. Drug-education programs should respect the
intelligence of young people by promoting drug-free lives without
scare tactics, lies, and hypocrisy. And drug abuse should be treated
like alcoholism or nicotine addiction. These are health problems
suffered by Americans of every race, creed, and political affiliation,
not grounds for imprisonment or the denial of property rights.
At the Alabama penitentiary where Douglas Lamar Gray is imprisoned,
perhaps half a dozen inmates are serving life without parole for
marijuana offenses. One was given a life sentence for loading his
pickup truck with ditchweed, a form of wild marijuana that is not
psychoactive.Another was given a life sentence for possessing a
single joint. Hundreds of inmates may be serving life sentences for
marijuana-related offenses in prisons across the United States. The
pointless misery extends from these inmates to their families and to
the victims of every crime committed by violent offenders who might
otherwise occupy those prison cells. A society that punishes marijuana
crimes more severely than violent crimes is caught in the grip of a
deep psychosis. For too long the laws regarding marijuana have been
based on racial prejudice, irrational fears, metaphors, symbolism, and
political expediency. The time has come for a marijuana policy calmly
based on the facts.
Mark Graffis /
232 Little LaGrange
Frederiksted, U.S. Virgin Islands 00840
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