Ever feel like you’re one step behind? Massachusetts voted earlier this month to approve the use of so-called “medical marijuana.” Meanwhile, voters in Colorado and Washington state one-upped us, deciding simply to legalize pot altogether. No more games about decriminalization or having to manufacture fake diseases so one could get a fake prescription from a fake doctor. It’s just legal — like beer, wine, or (except in New York City) big sodas.
Coming soon, one suspects, to a future Bay State ballot initiative: full-blown legalization. And in all likelihood, that too will pass. There are, in fact, some risks to pot, especially for kids. So if government officials are truly worried about the consequences of legalization, then the time to start rethinking is now.
Today, pot is “regulated” through the criminal justice system. Under federal law, possession of any amount is a misdemeanor that carries the possibility of one year in prison. And if you’re caught again? Mandatory jail time of 15 days the second time; 90 days the third or subsequent time. Granted, most enforcement of drug laws is handled by state and local authorities, and prosecutors exercise a lot of discretion about whom they charge. Their goal, they’ll say, is to get the dealers. Still, about 859,000 people were arrested for pot-related offenses in 2010 (the latest FBI numbers available). Of those, 750,000 were for possession. That’s more arrests than for any other kind of crime, by the way — even more than for drunk driving.
So how’s criminalization been working? About as well as did Prohibition in the 1920s. Back then, people kept drinking. Today, they’re smoking up. About half of all Americans have tried pot. About 17.4 million use it currently.
And as with Prohibition, the mounting hypocrisy — are half of us really lawbreakers? — is leading to a revolt. While politicians are mostly loath to touch the subject, regular voters are not. Massachusetts is one of 14 states to have passed ballot questions to decriminalize possession of small amounts of marijuana, and one of 18 to allow medical marijuana. Now, with two states voting for outright legalization, it seems pretty obvious where all of this is going. The federal government will for a time hold onto its national ban but, eventually, will follow the model that felled Prohibition: Leave it up to the states.
That will leave state officials, who will have to persuade rather than arrest, with a real problem: they have no credibility.
Pro-pot groups such as NORML say that for many users marijuana is a harmless pleasure. Pot, they argue, tends not to be addicting and on balance is less dangerous than alcohol. On the other hand, the official line is that marijuana is terrible for you. Today’s rhetoric — such as that from the National Institute of Drug Abuse — is not as over-the-top as old time scare films such as “Reefer Madness,” but it’s not that far from it, either. There are, it seems, no redeeming qualities to the stuff. Use it and your brain turns to mush.
NORML’s argument is probably the more accurate. But in truth, we don’t know. As many medical marijuana activists have pointed out, one downside to the national ban on pot is that research into its properties — both pro and con — is largely prohibited. There’s evidence that pot’s effect on the developing adolescent brain is harmful. It may well be that further investigation finds smoking marijuana as hazardous to one’s health as smoking cigarettes. Or it could be that adverse effects are rare.
If — when — marijuana is legal, government officials are going to have to develop some standing on the matter. That means permitting research and being willing to speak honestly about its results. If moderate pot use is harmless, then say so. That will make all the more convincing warnings about circumstances under which there could be danger.
Right now, though, my guess is that among the general populace — and certainly adolescents — groups like NORML are more trusted than is government, whose approach to date has been a mixture of fear-mongering, finger-wagging, and throwing people in jail. That’s going to have to change.
Tom Keane can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.