This column was written by Ethan Nadelmann, founder executive director of the Drug Policy Alliance
Marijuana should never have been made illegal in the first place.
Ask why it was made illegal - by many state governments and eventually the federal government during the first four decades of the past century - and the answer cannot be found in expert medical testimony or any objective assessment of the costs and benefits of prohibiting marijuana.
In many western states, it was simply a matter of prejudice against Mexican-Americans and Mexican migrants, with whom marijuana was popularly associated. Rancid tabloid journalism also played a role, as did Reefer Madness-like propaganda and legislative testimony.
We know the result. Marijuana became dramatically more popular after its prohibition than it ever was before. Over one hundred million Americans have tried it, including the three most recent occupants of the Oval Office. Billions, perhaps tens of billions, of dollars are spent and earned illegally on it each year. Marijuana is routinely described as the first, second or third most lucrative agricultural crop in many states. And taxpayers are obliged to spend billions of their own dollars each year in support of futile efforts to enforce an unenforceable prohibition.
Clearly marijuana prohibition is unique among American criminal laws. No other law is both enforced so widely and harshly yet deemed unnecessary by such a substantial portion of the populace. Police made roughly 800,000 arrests last year for possession of marijuana, typically tiny amounts. That's almost the same number as are arrested each year for cocaine, heroin, methamphetamine, Ecstasy and all other drugs. Meanwhile recent polls show that over 40% of Americans think that marijuana should be taxed and regulated like alcohol; and it's closer to 50% among Democrats, independents, adults under age 30, and voters in a growing number of western states.
This is an issue on which politicians can be counted on to follow, not lead, public opinion. But some at last are saying publicly that legalizing marijuana needs to be on the table. For California Governor Schwarzenegger, it's the prospect of new tax revenue and costs savings when the state's budget deficit has never been larger. For Arizona Attorney General Terry Goodard and the City Council of El Paso, Texas, it's the realization that legalizing marijuana would help reduce the violence and profits of Mexican drug gangs.
Others point to the fact that marijuana prohibition is a remarkable failure in the eyes and ways of young people. Over eighty percent of high school seniors say that marijuana is easy to obtain - and even easier to buy than alcohol. It's hard to see how making marijuana legal for adults would make it any more available to young people than it is already.
Is marijuana addictive? Yes, it can be, in that some people use it to excess, in ways that are problematic for themselves and those around them, and find it hard to stop. But marijuana may well be the least addictive and least damaging of all commonly used psychoactive drugs. Most people who smoke marijuana never become dependent. Withdrawal symptoms pale beside those of other drugs. No one has ever died from a marijuana overdose, which cannot be said of most other drugs. Marijuana is not associated with violent behavior and only minimally with reckless sexual behavior. And even heavy marijuana smokers smoke only a fraction of what cigarette addicts smoke. Lung cancers involving people who smoke marijuana but not tobacco are virtually nil.
It's no surprise that the Drug Enforcement Administration's own administrative law judge, Francis Young, came to the conclusion in 1988 that "marijuana may well be the safest psychoactive substance commonly used in human history."
But when all is said and done, the principal, and most principled, argument in favor of ending marijuana prohibition is this: whether or not I or anyone else consume marijuana should be none of the government's business-so long as I'm not behind the wheel of a car or otherwise putting others at risk. It's time to get the government off my property and out of both my pockets and my body when it comes to marijuana. Enough is enough.
By Ethan Nadelmann
Special to CBSNews.com
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