Decriminalize Marijuana for the Good of America
Currently, drugs remain high on the lists of concerns of Americans and are considered one of the major problems facing our country today. We see stories on the news about people being killed on the street every day over drugs. To many people drugs are only an inner-city problem, but in reality they affect all of us - users and non-users. I believe that the negative affects we associate with drugs would be greatly reduced if the United States adopted a policy towards the total decriminalization of marijuana. The current drug policy of our government is obviously failing. Drug laws have created corruption, violence, increased street crime, and disrespect for the criminal justice system. Current drug legislation has failed to reduce demand. It's just too hard to monitor illegal substances when a significant portion of the population is committed to using drugs. (Inciardi and McBride 260)
Marijuana comes from the hemp plant, which can readily be grown on fields across the nation and was cultivated heavily in colonial period. After 130 years of being legal, the potential problems of marijuana were brought into the public eye by Harry J. Anslingler, the commissioner of the Federal Bureau of Narcotics and author of Marijuana: Assassin of Youth (Goldman 88). In his book, Anslinger portrayed images of Mexican and Negro criminals, as well as young boys, who became killers while under the influence of marijuana. With the added public pressure, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt signed into law the Marijuana Tax Act of 1937. This law made the use and dale of marijuana federal offenses. At this point marijuana was removed from the public eye, and heavy users included poor Negroes, migrant Mexicans, and Jazz Musicians (Himmelstein 3).
Marijuana reappeared in the mid 1960's with the emergence of the "Hippie." Widespread objection to the use of marijuana remained because of the set of valued and lifestyles associated with it, but use appeared in colleges and among middle-class youths in the suburbs (Himmelstein 103). Marijuana became a symbol of a counter-culture, and youthful rebellion. As a consequence, marijuana use rose for the next ten years. Marijuana was becoming more accepted across the nation. As the users of Marijuana changed, the attitudes about the danger of Marijuana broke down. In 1970, the Comprehensive Drug Abuse Prevention and Control Act reduced the classification of simple possession and non-profit distribution from felonies to misdemeanors (Himmelstein 104). This was a good start.
However, President Richard Nixon declared a war on drugs in 1973 and over the next 20 years, each succeeding president continued to escalate the drug war. This policy has obviously done nothing to stop the recreational use of drugs in this country; on the contrary it is causing great harm. It's time to try something new.
When most people imagine the legalization of marijuana, they fear a marijuana free-for-all with everybody constantly getting high. Legalization would be a burdensome task for the U.S. Government. In fact, the legal process would include a law passed by Congress allowing the government to control the content, quality, and distribution of marijuana. The laws would be similar to the current laws regulating alcohol, including laws governing age, limits for driving, and distribution ("Bring" 13). A thorough investigation of the costs and benefits of legalization must be examined before any policy is implemented, but I believe it will show that the benefits far outweigh the detriments. The three general areas where people are opposed to legalization of marijuana center their arguments on health care, increased crime, and social aspects. Marijuana is more dangerous than cigarette smoking. Two Marijuana joints create more airway impairment than do an entire pack of cigarette (Miner 44). One joint contains three times more tar than do cigarettes and is considered four times more dangerous (Courtwright 54). It dramatically increases the pulse rate and blood pressure during use. If marijuana is legalized, many projects that lung cancer will increase as the amount of marijuana use increases (Miner 44). These are all valid arguments, but cigarette smoking is legal, a booming business, and causes the same exact problems.
There are a number of myths associated with the use of marijuana and its effects on your body that people who are opposed to its decriminalization repeatedly cite. One of these in that Marijuana causes brain damage. Dr. Robert Heath bases this claim on a study of the rehus monkey in the late 1970's. Heath's work was criticized for its insufficient sample sizes (only four monkeys), its failure to control experimental bias, and the misidentification of normal monkey brain structure as "damaged" (Hager 1). Actual studies of human populations of marijuana users have shown no evidence of damage to the brain (Hager 1). In fact, the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA) conducted two studies in 1977 and they showed no evidence of brain damage in heavy users of marijuana (Hager 1). Later that same year the AMA came out in favor of the decriminalizing of marijuana (Hager 1). That seems to me that the AMA wouldn't do that if it thought marijuana was damaging to the brain.
Another myth is that marijuana damages the reproductive system. This is based on the work of Dr. Gabriel Nahas, who experimented with tissue cells isolated in petri dishes. The cells were dosed with near lethal levels of cannibinoids (the intoxicating part of marijuana). The scientific community as being invalid has rejected Nahass generalizations from the petri dishes to human beings. Studies of actual human populations have failed to demonstrate that marijuana adversely affects the reproductive system. (Hagar 1).
A persistent myth about marijuana is that it is a gateway drug, leading to the use of harder drugs. The Dutch partially decriminalized marijuana in the 1970's since then the use of heroin and cocaine has sharply decreased. The opposite of this gateway affect is also present the United States. In 1993 a study by the Rand Corporation compared drug use in states that have decriminalized marijuana and those that have not. It found that in states where marijuana was more available, hard drug abuse as measured by emergency room episodes decreased. What science and real experience tells us is that marijuana tends to substitute for much harder drugs like alcohol, cocaine, and heroin (Hagar 1).
Another misconception is that marijuana is more dangerous than alcohol. Extremely high doses of cannibinoids cause death. An extremely high dose is the key word here. Scientists have concluded that the ratio of cannibinoids needed to get a person intoxicated (stoned) relative to the amount necessary to kill him is 1 to 40,000. That means that to overdose on marijuana you would need to consume 40,000 times as much as you would to get stoned. The ratio of alcohol varies between 1 in 4 and 1 in 10. Over 5000 people die of alcohol overdoses each year, and no one has ever died from overdosing on pot (Hagar 2).
These are just a few of the myths used various groups in order to keep marijuana illegal. Along with these myths come the false belief that crime will increase if marijuana is legalized. Allen St. Pierre, Assistant National Director of the National Organization for the Reformation of Marijuana Laws (NORML), says that legalization will wipe out the already 60-billion dollar black market by placing marijuana in the open market (NORML information pack 3). It is the enforcement of the laws criminalizing the possession, use, manufacture, and distribution of marijuana that is causing the violent crime. This war on drugs is wasting the money, as well as the lives of American people. The widely recognized opinion maker William F. Buckley, Jr. writes:
...The time devoted to tracking down, arresting and then trying marijuana users and then trying marijuana users is perhaps the greatest exercise in lost time in contemporary activity. In the last two years, approximately 750,000 arrests were made in our mad, quixotic effort to stamp out marijuana. What this adds up to is millions of police hours spent on bootless missions, millions of hours of court time wasted, and millions of months in jail, using up space sorely needed to contain people who can't wait to get out in order to resume mugging and murdering (Buckley 39A).
The drug laws imprison a multitude of otherwise law abiding people, a disproportionate number of them who are poor or minorities, for non violent acts that are directed at no one but themselves (ACLU 1). Instead of eliminating drugs, the prohibition of them just fosters an illegal industry able to inflate prices. This is hauntingly familiar to the prohibition era of gangsters present when alcohol was illegal in the 1920's. Because drugs are sold on the black market, they cause violence, deaths due to no quality regulation, and diseases from sharing illegal drug paraphernalia (ACLU 1).
The American Civil Liberties advocates the full decriminalization of the use, possession, manufacture, and distribution of drugs (ACLU 1). It does this for constitutional reasons. The following is an excerpt from their policy on drugs which was adopted in 1994: Criminalizing the use, possession, manufacture, and distribution of drugs violates the principle that the criminal law may not be used to protect individuals from the consequences of their own autonomous choices or to impose upon those individuals a majoritarian conception of morality and responsibility...Enforcement of laws criminalizing possession, use, manufacture of distribution of drugs engender violations of civil liberties. Because drug enforcement is aimed at behavior which is inherently difficult to detect and does not involve a complaining "victim," it necessarily relies on law enforcement techniques -- such as use of undercover operations, arbitrary or invasive testing procedures, random or dragnet seizures, and similar measures -- that raise serious civil liberties concerns. These enforcement techniques lead in practice to widespread violations of civil liberties guarantees, including those secured by the Fourth, Fifth and Sixth Amendments (ACLU 1).
The supporters of legalization believe that it will benefit society in three ways, including revenue enhancement, medical benefits, and hemp production. The ingest argument for marijuana legalization is revenue enhancement for the U.S. Government. Much of the money will be saved due to less law enforcement, court time, and the cost of incarcerating prisoners who's only crime is possession. (Schmoek 3). The U.S. spent roughly one billion dollars on marijuana enforcement last year and the DEA has proposed a 400% increase in anti-pot spending, yet domestic marijuana production has been reduced by only 10%. Further in 1989, 314,552 arrests were made for simple possession (NORML 2).
Considering America's annual marijuana harvest was worth 50.7 billion in 1989 and 41.4 billion in 1988, $28 billion greater than corn at 31.4 billion, marijuana could become the leading agricultural product in the United States (NORML 2). With trade regulations, industry regulations and consumption taxes on he product NORML has estimated that legalization would produce over $40 billion in taxable revenue (NORML 3). As Congress debates the national debt, legalization would provide the needed funds to help our economy. Legalization advocates constantly tout marijuana's medicinal benefits. For cancer patients, marijuana reduces nausea and increases the appetite (Cauchon 4A). Marijuana also reduces epileptic seizures and reduces nerve disorders in multiple sclerosis patients (NORML 3). If it helps patients get extra quality time out of their lives, then attempts to decriminalize it should be supported. Legalizing marijuana for medical purposes, as California recently did, could provide answers about diseases and allow research to be conducted for future purposes.
An area that does not gather too much publicity in the legalization issue is hemp production. Marijuana comes from the top leaves and flowers of the female hemp plant. The fiber from the top can be used to make clothing, paper, rope, and methanol fuel. Hemp is a plant that can be grown in poor soil, thus not taking up any valuable agricultural land (NORML 4). Hemp now grows in the U.S. because of its heavy production in the 18th and 19th centuries. Seventy-Five to Ninety percent of all paper used before 1883 was hemp paper, including the first two drafts of the Declaration of Independence (Young 25). Hemp is safer for the environment. Hemp requires 40% fewer chemicals to produce paper, and, over twenty years, one acre of hemp can produce four times as much pulp as can an acre of trees (NORML 4). The production of hemp would save trees and clean up the air.
The push for legalization of Cannabis is making news across America just as it did in the 60's. Shirts are being worn with slogans like "Keep America Green." Marijuana use is glorified in movies like Dazed in Confused and by music groups like Cypress Hill and the Black Crowes. Increasing public support and media attention will slowly force the legalization issue into the forefront of the political arena. If the widespread acceptance continues among the powerful new voting block -- college students, the policy towards marijuana could change in the near future. Weighing both the costs and the benefits the decriminalization/legalization of marijuana seems inevitable. Many of the purported myths about its harmful effects have been proven false. The current war on drugs is clearly failing, and costing too many lives and too much money. There are many benefits to be gained from the Cannabis plant: increased tax revenue, safety due to governmental regulation, decreased crime and use of hard drugs, and the environmental benefits of hemp to name a few. With all these reasons taken into consideration the decriminalization/legalization of marijuana seems like a very good idea.
"Bring drugs within the law." The Economist 15 May 1995: 13.
Buckley, William F., Jr. "Crime is the Big Issue, But it Doesn't Separate Parties." Dallas Morning News 9 December 1994.
Cauchon, Dennis. "Marijuana: Medical Enigma." USA Today 1 Oct. 1996, national ed. 4A.
Courtwright David T. "NO!" American Heritage Feb. - March 1995: 43, 50-56.
Goldman, Albert. Grass Roots. New YorkHarper & Row 1979.
Hager, Paul. "Marijuana Myths." ICLU drug task force literature. Available
Himmelstein, Jerome L. The Strange Career of Marijuana sic. Westport Connecticut Greenwood Pres, 1983.
Incardi and McBride. "Legalization: A high risk Alternative" American Behavioral Scientist 32 (1989): 233-243.
Miner, Brad. "How Sweet is Mary Jane?" National Review 25 June 1996: 44.
National Association for the Reformation of Marijuana Laws (NORML). "Marijuana: Facts and Figures." Information Pack. Washington, DCNORML,
Rosenfield, Jim. ACLU Drug Policy, adopted Arpil 1994: "Decriminalization of Drugs."
Board Minutes, April 8-9, 1994 A available
Schmoek, Kurt L. Back to the FutureThe public health system's lead role in fighting drugs. Available:
Young, Jim. "It's Time to Reconsider Hemp." Pulp and Paper Y5 (1994)25.

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