Legalize it? Better think first!

Contributed  by Warren Mowry

Having been involved in the criminal justice field for nearly all of my professional life (either trying to put the bad guys in jail as a prosecutor or teaching others how to do it), I have been following the slow but seemingly relentless advocacy to legalize marijuana in California.  Yes, there is still a statewide referendum in November and there will potentially be a ton of litigation regarding the conflicts between state and federal laws on the subject should the referendum pass.   But since California is often a precursor for social change, good or ill, perhaps now is a good time to discuss the pros and cons of whether this should happen at all.

Granted, there are legitimate arguments in favor of legalization – not the least of which is the fact that, since a majority of Americans polled have either tried marijuana or continue to use it on a regular basis, we may be breeding contempt for the rule of law in general by having a statute on the books that is so routinely ignored.  I counter this by asking whether we would like to see a repeal of speed laws, in spite of the fact that many of us fudge – or outright shatter – speed laws on a regular basis.  But because the United States actually had NO controlled substances until the 1906 Pure Food and Drug Act, marijuana’s continuing illegality bears scrutiny.

There are two particular reasons that I have seen proposed, prominently and consistently, for legalization:  medical reasons and monetary ones.  Both are pretty much fallacies.  Advocates of legalization almost always rely on anecdotal evidence of cancer, AIDS, or glaucoma victims who use the drug as a means of reducing symptoms or pain from the illnesses.   Additionally, they almost invariably cite the allegation that marijuana is “no worse than alcohol or tobacco.”  But there is considerable disagreement among health care professionals about this declaration, and, in any event, do we really want to legalize a substance whose level of harm is on par with undeniably two of the biggest, albeit legal, offenders against the health of Americans?  And how do the advocates countenance the legalization of marijuana when the same groups are doing their dead level best to bar the use of tobacco at every turn?

I am hardly a medical expert, but I have heard from those who are that there are already legally obtainable medications that will deal satisfactorily with the conditions that are supposed to be “cured” by marijuana.  And, be careful what you wish for, because the legalization crowd seems to ignore the many dangers and side effects of marijuana use.

Ironically, the use of marijuana by those undergoing chemotherapy for cancer or to assuage nausea in AIDS treatment may be doing considerably more harm than good.  Studies show that regular marijuana use suppresses the production of the “killer” t-cells that combat viruses or cancers.  AIDS sufferers carefully monitor their t-cell levels as a gauge of the effectiveness of their medication.  In other words, marijuana damages the immune systems of these users at a time that they are most in need of as much enhancement as they can get.  Marijuana has considerably more tar than tobacco – in fact, a single joint had about as much tar as 7-10 cigarettes.  Marijuana, not surprisingly, damages bronchial passages and increases the susceptibility for lung cancer in just the same way that tobacco does.  And we’ll leave for another time the prospects of decreased worker productivity, greater health problems, and the likelihood that more children will have greater access to marijuana than before.

All right, then, how about the money arguments?  Yes, legalization will create jobs, whether in agriculture, processing, or retail, and may well remove marijuana from the black market.  In fact, there are some who argue persuasively (but incorrectly) that a marijuana tax is the silver bullet for California’s pending governmental insolvency.  In all candor, California is way too far around the bend to be saved by the “marijuana tax.”  So far, California’s Assembly has not exactly dealt with the “spending cuts” side of the ledger, so the new drug tax is not going to be their salvation.  Perhaps they should slash the budget that’s loaded with every pie-in-the-sky item imaginable before they start looking at such a dubious means of increasing revenues.

I do not argue that the release of law enforcement officers from the policing of marijuana will free them up to deal with other pressing criminal justice matters, and that is not a minimal point for discussion.  But since marijuana has long been recognized as a “gateway” drug toward other, more dangerous substances, and since the removal of the stigma of illegality will logically create a mushrooming of users, is that really a tradeoff we want to make?  And what happens when we are faced with the advocates for legalization of cocaine?  Heroin?  I recognize that this might be reaching the point of absurdity.  But, to take the argument the other way, 50 years ago when the majority of American adults smoked cigarettes, did we foresee the restrictions placed on tobacco at every level?

Maybe these concerns are overblown.  Maybe the benefits of legal marijuana will greatly outweigh the costs.  But we need carefully to consider the concerns at every angle, because one thing is sure:  Once the genie of legal marijuana is out of the bottle, we’d have a heck of a time getting it back in if we see we’ve made a mistake.

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3 Comments to “Legalize it? Better think first!”

  1. Warren,

    This is a great post. I really enjoyed it.

    Vince Williams

  2. Very good article.

    I think we should review Alcohol Prohibition and how the Federal Ban directly led to the Mafia’s increase in power. We should legalize the drugs, do an anti-drug ad campaign, treat the addicts, and take the money and power from the gangs.

    Smart people drink responsibly. Smart people do not smoke cigarettes or abuse prescription drugs. Smart people can live in a society where illegal drugs are available. Our police should be focused on more important issues

  3. Very good article, Warren. As for me, I just don’t see the point of criminalizing some things. I’ve heard all the arguments for and against but I just come down on the side of let folks do it if they want to, as long as it doesn’t interfere with my right to do whatever I want. Still a libertarian at heart I guess.

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