Saturday, April 25, 2009
SHOULD THE U.S. DECRIMINALIZE MARIJUANA?
Marijuana prohibition is unique among American criminal laws. No
other law is both enforced so widely and harshly and yet deemed
unnecessary by such a substantial portion of the populace.
Police made about 870,000 arrests for marijuana in 2007 (the latest
year national data is available). Roughly 775,000, or 88 percent, of
those arrests were for nothing more than simple possession of small
amounts of marijuana. Millions of Americans have never been arrested
or convicted of any criminal offense except this.
Punishments range widely across the country, from modest fines to a
few days in jail to many years in prison. Even being incarcerated for
just one day can cause a person to get fired from his or her job. And
in today's economy, losing a job can lead to months of unemployment.
A parent's marijuana use can be the basis for taking away his or her
children and putting them in foster care.
It's no wonder that so many Americans support decriminalizing and
even legalizing marijuana. Seventy-two percent say that for simple
marijuana possession, people should not be incarcerated, but fined:
the generally accepted definition of "decriminalization." Even more
Americans support making marijuana legal for medical purposes.
Support for broader legalization is around 40 percent, although it
depends on how one asks the question. Support is around (and in some
polls greater than) 50 percent in some Western states and among
Americans age 18 to 30.
This is, in some respects, no surprise. More than 100 million
Americans have tried marijuana, including almost 60 percent of those
aged 45 to 49. The vast majority know it didn't kill them or anyone
else they know, or derail their lives, or even lead to regular use.
That includes three presidents in a row; Barack Obama, when asked if
he had inhaled, responded "I inhaled frequently" and "that was the point."
Critics say decriminalizing marijuana will increase availability and
use. Really? Close to 100 million Americans have already used
marijuana. Half of all teens try marijuana before graduating from
high school. Almost anyone who wants to use marijuana can do so now.
Moreover, studies around the world have found that the relative
harshness of drug laws matters surprisingly little. After all, rates
of illegal drug use in the United States are the same as, or higher
than, Europe, despite our more punitive policies. And 13 U.S. states
have decriminalized marijuana, but marijuana use rates in those
states go up and down at roughly the same rates as in other states.
Other claims by opponents of reform don't stand up either. The
Institute of Medicine and other research bodies have concluded there
is no evidence that marijuana is a "gateway" drug -- certainly no
more so than alcohol or tobacco. While some people use marijuana to
excess, most people who smoke marijuana never become dependent. And
unlike alcohol, no one has ever died from a marijuana overdose,
marijuana is not associated with violent behavior, and marijuana is
only minimally associated with reckless sexual behavior.
There are, of course, some risks associated with using marijuana.
These risks, however, should be weighed against the harms associated
with current marijuana policy. Every comprehensive, objective
commission that has examined marijuana throughout the past 100 years
has concluded that criminalization of adult marijuana use does more
harm than marijuana use itself, including President Nixon's 1972
marijuana commission, the National Academy of Sciences' 1982
marijuana report, and recent government reports in Canada and the
As drug war violence rises in Mexico and along the U.S.-Mexican
border, more and more policymakers are calling for a national debate
on reforming our country's failed marijuana policies. Many parts of
Mexico today are like Chicago during the days of alcohol Prohibition
and Al Capone -- times 50. The U.S. Joint Forces Command recently
warned that the Mexican government is in danger of becoming a weak
and failed state and could descend into chaos, which could cause
tens, perhaps hundreds, of thousands of Mexicans to flee into the
In the border city of El Paso, Texas, where several Mexican mayors
live and commute to work out of fear their families will be killed if
they live in Mexico, the city council passed a resolution in January
calling on Congress to debate drug legalization as a way of reducing
In February, the Latin-American Commission on Drugs and Democracy, a
high-level commission co-chaired by former presidents of Brazil,
Colombia and Mexico, called for a "paradigm shift" in global drug
policy, including decriminalizing marijuana and "breaking the taboo"
on open and robust debate about all drug-policy options.
The attorney general of Arizona, citing evidence that Mexican drug
trafficking organizations get 60 percent to 80 percent of their
revenue from marijuana, has suggested that national policymakers
debate legalizing marijuana as a way to cripple both Mexican and U.S.
gangs. Although he was careful to say he wasn't advocating
legalization, he nevertheless asked the right question: Should
marijuana be taxed and regulated like alcohol?
It's a question being debated almost weekly now on CNN, MSNBC and Fox
News. It's starting to pop up in congressional hearings, too. With
strong poll numbers in support of reform, rising state and federal
deficits, overflowing prisons, and a national security crisis on our
southern border, we may very well be at a tipping point on this
issue. Now is the time for policymakers, columnists and leaders in
both the conservative and progressive movements who support reform to
Hundreds of thousands of Americans a year are arrested for marijuana.
Doors are kicked in. Children are put into foster care. Cars, houses
and bank accounts are seized without trial. Yet it's hard to find a
presidential candidate or Supreme Court justice who hasn't smoked
marijuana. Reform will happen. It's just a question of how many tax
dollars will be wasted before elected officials catch up with the