Written by: Michael Baharaeen
With politicians in constant mud fights, the threat of a double-dip recession still looming, and the placement of issues such as gays in the military, immigration and Bush tax cuts at the forefront of public debate, one referendum that seems to be receiving less attention than it deserves is California’s Proposition 19. For those who are unfamiliar with this particular ballot initiative, it “Changes California Law to Legalize Marijuana and Allow It to Be Regulated and Taxed.” California is one of a handful of states that has already legalized marijuana for medicinal purposes; however, there may be some people who find the thought of completely decriminalizing marijuana (which would be the case should the majority of Californians cast a “yes” vote for Prop 19) to be very disturbing. I will admit that I was a member of this camp for a while until I did an extensive, thorough look into the issue, which led me to become a fervent supporter of Prop 19. Disclaimer: if anyone believes that my advocating this issue is simply because I am champing at the bit to smoke pot, they are sorely mistaken. My position on this derives completely from my own studying and research and was not taken for the sake of making the lives of recreational users easier.
Before explaining why this specific proposition’s passage is so important, we must examine the ramifications of actually decriminalizing marijuana. Even with this referendum on the ballot, many are still unaware of the positive effects that lie ahead should the initiative pass. Some may simply think that politicians are pushing for legalization in an attempt to appease pot users – maybe if we let them have their weed, they’ll get out and vote for the party who spearheads the movement for legalization. Others see the act of decriminalization as taking a “weak” position on crime. I ask those in the latter camp, what would a strong position be? To continue our failed drug policies? The only things our current course of action has given us is a costly (both in money and lives) “war on drugs,” unnecessarily imprisoned citizens and a thriving black market. Moreover, arguments in opposition to legalization are frequently made based on the premise that it would pave a path for attitudes of apathy to become more prevalent in Americans’ daily lives. In fact, according to Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development, the Netherlands – a country that has legalized marijuana – is ranked third in global productivity, behind Luxembourg and Norway and just ahead of the United States.
Prohibition in Two Different Eras
To begin a serious discussion on this issue, we should note that history has a funny habit of showing us inconvenient truths. When the 18th Amendment to the Constitution was passed, alcohol was immediately driven to the black market, making way for thugs such as Al Capone and Bugs Moran to come to power. What ensued from the outright prohibition of this product was brutal violence between rival gangs competing for a monopoly of the product and a thriving underground marketplace, very reminiscent of the more recent conflicts between Mexican drug cartels. If we are looking for ways to end the “war on drugs,” legalization would eradicate a large chunk of drug cartels whose main supply is marijuana. Foreign Deputy Foreign Minister of Mexico, Andres Rozental, states that 60% of money going to drug cartels is from marijuana exports and sales in the US. The fewer cartels there are to fight equals less money being spent on the senseless war against them. The moral of the story, from history’s perspective, is that trying to place an absolute ban on products that are widely used will inexorably lead to an increase in violence and crime, among other problems.
Fear of Health Concerns
Many people fear that decriminalization will lead to significant health issues. To put this argument into perspective, let us look at the comparison of marijuana to other harmful (yet legal) drugs. Alcohol is one that people often overlook, and it is, in fact, a drug. The only reason for not classifying as such seems to be that people drink it instead of shooting, smoking or snorting it. Marijuana is shown to be less detrimental than alcohol. Not only is alcohol addictive, but it also does more bodily damage than marijuana. In 2007, 14,406 people died as a direct result of liver damage from alcohol consumption. Another example of a legal drug is tobacco. Years of research, including the 1988 surgeon general’s (SG) report, indicate that cannabis is far less detrimental for one’s body than tobacco because it is natural and does not contain all of the added chemicals that cigarettes do, such as nicotine. The number of people that have ever died from direct marijuana use? Zero. The SG’s report states that there are no documented marijuana user fatalities — “despite its 5,000 year-long history of use and the extraordinary high numbers of social smokers, there is simply no credible medical report to suggest that consuming marijuana has caused a single death” — and no amount of marijuana that a person could possibly eat or smoke would constitute a lethal dose. This is not to say that while the aforementioned drugs are addictive marijuana is not; although people may not have a physical dependence on it, it is still addictive psychologically. But marijuana is simply not going to kill you, not even over the long run. It is less of a threat than foods containing high amounts of fat. And if society has come to the conclusion that the best way to deal with alcohol and tobacco (drugs that can kill people) is to make them legal, though heavily regulated, there is simply no reason that marijuana should not be legal as well.
Another common argument made against legalization is founded on the grounds that it is a gateway drug. The theory suggests that people who use marijuana will get bored and look for a “better” high. But what is to say that marijuana is the only gateway drug? Again, what about alcohol? Cigarettes? Maybe we should ban alcohol because of its potential to be a “gateway drug.” Ah, but history has steered us clear of that path. The argument could be made that any number of things will lead people to try harder drugs, not just marijuana. Another flaw in this theory appears when people resort to the black market to purchase pot. The dealer they buy from will most likely be in possession of other types of drugs, giving the buyer more options. Were marijuana to be sold in stores and legitimate businesses, users would not have to be exposed to the more injurious substances or the criminals selling them. This provides major cognitive dissonance for believers in the gateway theory. Finally, in 1999, the congressionally-chartered Institute of Medicine conducted a study on this theory and determined that there was no conclusive evidence that the effects of marijuana use are directly linked to the subsequent abuse of other illicit drugs. The gateway theory simply does not have enough concrete evidence.
Some have also expressed the concern that, should marijuana become available to the public for recreational use, it will generate more new users. The Australian Department of Health and Aged Care conducted research on states in the US that had legalized marijuana for medicinal purposes. Surveys taken in California and Ohio did show an increased use in cannabis after its decriminalization, but not at a greater rate than in states where it still remained illegal. Data was also reviewed from two large US national surveys that looked at drug use in the 1970s and compared rates of cannabis use in both states which had legalized it and states that had not. The results showed that “the prevalence of cannabis use increased in all states, with a larger increase in those states which had not decriminalized [it].”
The Judicial Aspect
Besides the obvious arguments given for and against the substance itself, another factor in this debate derives from the judicial point of view. Locking up people for possessing a substance of little detriment damages the futures of otherwise upstanding citizens. If a citizen is even carrying an ounce of marijuana, they can be arrested. And consider the effect this has on prison overpopulation: roughly 800,000 people are arrested each year on marijuana charges. There’s no reason that someone who has an ounce of pot should be spending months in the same prison as a convicted burglar, rapist or murderer. In fact, Ana Matosantos, the California State Director of Finance cited that there would be savings of up to several tens of millions of dollars annually to state and local governments “from the costs of incarcerating and supervising certain marijuana offenders” that would no longer exist if marijuana was a legal drug.
The arrest of someone in possession of cannabis will leave a scar on their permanent record as well. Imagine trying to apply for jobs with that conviction in one’s past, no matter how long ago the incident took place. A top aide to Senator Barbara Boxer (D-CA) was caught by Capitol Hill police with an ounce of pot in his bag a few weeks ago, and, considering the fact that Senator Boxer is against legalization, he was asked to resign or face termination…all over an ounce of weed. This should not be the case, no matter who is caught with it. Should he have been reprimanded? Perhaps. But losing his job is a step too far for something that is, in reality, very petty. Now it’s on his record forever, as well.
Benefits to the States
The examinations of all aspects of the debate must be taken into account when discussing Proposition 19. The goal should be for this referendum to be a catalyst needed to pull the rest of the country in the direction of toning down drug laws. Recently, critics of Prop 19 have stated that it would have little impact on drug traffickers in California. Many Californians already choose to grow their own marijuana because medical marijuana is legal in that state. While the point may be legitimate, I prefer to look at the long run: other states that have not already legalized it for medicinal purposes will begin to see the positive impacts that follow as a result of this proposition. They may ultimately decide that legalization will lead to lower crime rates, more efficient use of police resources and an increase in revenue from the new taxes that would be placed on the drug. My hope is that they will begin to follow suit, and, once a large scale effort to decriminalize is underway, there will be tremendous strain on the black market. Whether or not this specific initiative has a major impact, the process must start somewhere. A smaller-scale referendum would have better chances of initiating long-term change than a federal law might.
Why Opponents Should Reconsider their Stance
There is one thing that everyone should take into consideration when dealing with this issue: why should the government be able to dictate personal aspects of our lives? So long as what someone is doing is not harming others, it is not my business to control their morals or actions. That being said, it is necessary to extend a hand of compromise to opponents of this issue when possible. While one of my main focuses is to make penalties less stringent on those who use marijuana, I do not want to convey a sense of letting legalization lead to a free-for-all – there is nothing wrong with tough regulation. It is reasonable to control marijuana distribution in the same way the government regulates tobacco, alcohol or guns. If cannabis were to be legalized, that would be one more item that could be taxed and another source of revenue for the government. In this sense, Prop 19 would have obvious benefits for California – a state that is reaching new depths of economic pain – and the title of the referendum suggests that the state is aware of how rewarding its passage could be for them. The Pew Foundation estimates that marijuana will be sold at about $38 an ounce, down from roughly $380 an ounce in the black market, at a tax rate of 50%.
President Obama and company seem to be behind the times on this policy. Just last week, Attorney General Eric Holder stated that “[the federal government] will vigorously enforce the [federal law] against those individuals and organizations that possess, manufacture or distribute marijuana for recreational use, even if such activities are permitted under state law.” Where is the logic behind this? It may not have been popular among conservatives for the administration to sue Arizona over its immigration law, but with this stance they are now alienating their own base. Liberals and some moderates are more likely to support marijuana legalization than conservatives. According to a 2009 Gallup poll, 78% of liberals and 54% of Democrats support legalization, and a whopping 48% of Independents/moderates support the legalization of it. What happened to adhering to the wishes of the people who elected you, Mr. President?
I am not oblivious to the fact that the president and others are concerned about what an outright repeal of tough drug laws might result in. But this proposition does not allow for just anyone, anywhere, to smoke pot. In fact, the language of Prop 19 states that people are prohibited from possessing marijuana on school grounds, using it in public, smoking it while minors are present, or providing it to anyone under 21 years old. It also maintains current prohibitions against driving while impaired. The administration and other critics can take comfort in knowing that the matter is being handled in a responsible manner. However, they should also realize that this is not a drug that will cause the downfall of society as we know it; it is something that can actually contribute to society. Think of the economic benefits that will come from the passage of Prop 19 – not just from revenue in taxes but also from the money that will be saved from lessening the combative operations in our “war on drugs.”
We Need to Grab this Opportunity
Why does Prop 19 matter? The passage of this referendum is not a radical notion; rather, it is a step toward helping heal our nation in places where we are currently hurting the most and toward giving people second chances. When juxtaposing marijuana use to that of alcohol and tobacco, it should be evident that Prop 19’s passage would be no more detrimental to society than when the 21st amendment was passed. This ballot measure not only aims at modernizing our society but at strengthening it as well, and it attempts to do so in a responsible manner. And, in my humble opinion, the ramifications this proposition will have on the drug war outweigh the potential “health risks” that may ensue. Putting drug dealers out of business, lowering federal spending on fighting this battle and lessening the number of lives being lost should be essential priorities, and making marijuana legal will help initiate the betterment of US drug policy.
Inevitably, there will be those who seek to aggrandize the effects of this measure for unnecessary (mostly political) reasons, such as a politician wanting to convey a sense of being tough on crime and painting those who advocate for legalization as pushovers. But prohibition only perpetuates many problems that our country still deals with. Our police resources are being allocated to gratuitous tasks, ones that often times lead to the arrests of curious high school students. These minors go on to have a permanently tainted record, taking away many opportunities that may have otherwise been given to help contribute to society. And, of course, prolonging this repeal only ensures that there will continue to be heinous acts of violence committed in the name of “business” in our neighboring country of Mexico. It’s time to think logically and responsibly and to do what is best for our nation. California, you became a leader in this field when you first legalized medical marijuana; now we are all counting on you to help us take that first step once again.