Tuesday, October 12, 2010


Prohibition, the illegal manufacture and sale of alcoholic beverages was overturned by constitutional amendment in 1933 after a 13 year experiment. Now there is a similar widespread movement to legalize another popular drug, marijuana. Currently 14 states and the District of Columbia have legalized the sale of marijuana for “medical” purposes. The Obama Administration has announced that it will not enforce federal laws against the sale of the drug in states where it has been legalized. These policies open the door to some important questions:

1. Is this an unstoppable trend or just a few cases of permissive politics in socially liberal states?
2. Does this mean that the questions about the medical efficacy and side effects of the use of marijuana have been settled?
3. Have the social implications of legalized drug use been sufficiently studied and found to be benign?
4. Will the decriminalization of marijuana have a beneficial effect on primary and secondary crime connected with it’s consumption?
5. Will decriminalization of marijuana lead to increased use of other illegal drugs and/or a movement to decriminalize other drugs?
6. Will a growthProhibition, the illegal manufacture or sale of alcoholic beverages was overturned by constitutional of more conservative government at both the state and national levels retard or reverse the trend?

While 14 of 50 states does not seem to be a large percentage (28%), the number of states legalizing pot has been steadily increasing since California was the first (no surprise there) in 1996. The record shows that new states were added to the list on average every one to two years. The mix seems to be one of recognized “liberal” states besides California i.e. Oregon, Washington, Hawaii, Vermont, Rhode Island and Nevada along with more conservative/libertarian states i.e. Alaska, Montana, Maine. Other states defy simple ideological labels, Colorado, New Mexico, Michigan, New Jersey. So ideology may not be the driving force in the legalization process although it is probably safe to say that some states are so conservative as to be unlikely candidates in the future i.e. Oklahoma, Arkansas.

With respect to the medical issues, both supporters and detractors have expert opinions on their side. Respected medical authorities and research institutes seem to be split on the effectiveness and desirability of cannabis for treatment of the most common medical uses which are the effects of chemo-therapy (nausea) and chronic pain in any of a number of instances but mostly associated with cancer, especially cancers associated with AIDS.

The social implications of increasingly widespread marijuana use don’t seem to have been widely studied. The standard response of advocates is that “it is no worse than alcohol use”. This argument seems to have a built in weakness. While most users of alcohol do so responsibly, alcohol remains a potentially, debilitating, addictive and dangerous drug. Families are destroyed, worker productivity diminished, violence is precipitated and automotive fatalities abound as a result of the use of alcohol. The advocates of legal pot use might have a better argument if marijuana was likely to replace alcohol use. Society might then be no worse off, but that is not the case. Legalizing pot adds another narcotic on top of alcohol use, often in combination with that use, and thus logically increases the problems from irresponsible use.

In addition, it remains to be seen if legalization of drug use changes the public perception of it, making it more acceptable and thus encouraging its use by minors. This issue becomes even more important when combined with the question of marijuana being a “gateway drug” leading to experimentation and eventual addiction to harder and more harmful drugs such as cocaine and methamphetamines. This issue remains unsettled and is irrelevant with regard to actual use of marijuana for medical purposes.

If there is a specific and measurable benefit to legalization, it is going to be the decriminalization of the possession of the drug itself and the reduction, if not the elimination of the crime associated with its importation and sale. Current laws seem virtually unenforceable, because like alcohol prohibition of the 1920’s and 1930’s, demand creates endless supply. In addition, law enforcement efforts have filled U.S. prisons with drug offenders, many of whom plied their trade with marijuana. MJ is also a significant component of the cross border smuggling and drug cartel violence. Cocaine and heroine will still be significant problems in this respect but taking MJ out of the mix should reduce the illegal market and the violence.

Decriminalization of marijuana might indeed give some impetus to the current minority movement to decriminalize harder drugs but since the medical and social arguments supporting marijuana use will not be credible for these drugs, that movement will have to rely on the issue of crime prevention, a serious consideration but a much tougher sell politically.

National politics is now consumed by the issues surrounding the economy but polls show a marked movement of voters to the Right. Conservative politicians in, or supported by the Tea Party, are not only fiscal conservatives but social conservatives. The implications of this for state laws and federal enforcement would seem to indicate a slow down on new states passing marijuana friendly laws. It is too early to look forward with much clarity to 2012 but a Republican president and thus a Republican Department of Justice, might have a very different opinion about enforcing existing federal laws.

In addition, the marijuana legalization movement has some obvious credibility problems. Legalization in the 14 states and District of Columbia is based quite specifically on the “medical use” of the drug. Few people believe that the bulk of the marijuana being consumed in these states is for genuine medical reasons. No doubt, there are actual medical patients using it in connection with AIDS and other debilitating diseases but some statistics show a different trend. In Colorado Springs, CO, the web site WeedMaps identifies 92 retailers of pot (but only 34 MacDonald’s restaurants). This is in a city of less than 400,000 people. Boulder, CO, a city of 100,000 and home of the University of Colorado, boasts 50 marijuana retailers. A recent survey of registered users of medical marijuana in Colorado not surprisingly, finds that the highest percentage of users live in the ski resort areas and college towns, not the usually abodes of the aged and infirm. Applications for state issued user permits is running at 400 per day yet the New York Times reports that less than 1% of those 65 and older nationally, smoked marijuana in 2009 and only 4% of people 50 to 65 used it last year. Also, according to the Times, Dr. Seddon R. Savage, President of the American Pain Society has said that “Under almost al circumstances, there are alternatives that are just as effective.”

Pot shops offer such “medicines” as Skinny Pineapple, and Early Pearl Maui as well as pot laced brownies, lollipops, and butter. Pot is expensive, some types running $375 to $420 per ounce, much more than most prescription pain killers One estimate of “medical users” for the Colorado in 2010 put the figure at 15 thousand. The population of Colorado, consistently cited as one of the healthiest and youngest states in the nation, is only 5.1 million with only 15% over 65 in 2005.. Marijuana stores advertise “early bird specials” and other enticements. Clearly, recreational use is driving the market. Once publicly acknowledged, that fact changes the nature of the debate. It’s that simple and that invites a higher level of political controversy. Still, Prohibition failed and in today’s political environment of reaction against intrusive government, pot shops may someday be as ubiquitous as the aforementioned MacDonald’s.

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