There is a question that has and very likely will puzzle college students (and some quite esteemed economists) for a long time, one that has much salience to us all: Why has Marijuana not yet been legalized?
Now I hope to set a few things straight before I proceed on a bit of a diatribe. I do not possess any particular conflict of interest in writing this article and intend to be as objective as possible. In other words, I am not a stoner. I am not disgruntled with President Obama for not sticking up for my civil liberties (read: stoner’s rights) and am not presumably hoping to vote for Ron Paul. I am more or less an objective observer. My interest is in emptying out our prisons and raising our tax revenue.
Before I proceed, however, perhaps a few facts: Tobacco, an addictive carcinogen with the potential to give non-smokers cancer, is a legal substance. According to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention, Tobacco causes upwards of 443,000 deaths per year (49,000 of which are caused by secondhand smoke). Alcohol, another addictive favorite of many a college student, is dangerous enough to claim 75,000 lives per year according to MSNBC. Marijuana? Zero. Not one death by Cannabis alone. Gang-related deaths involving Marijuana might be a high number; however, this can be blamed on the criminalization of the substance rather than the substance itself.
Let’s face it: Marijuana is just not the kind of substance that should be illegal, especially in a world where tobacco and alcohol aren’t, and especially in the supposedly free land of America.
There are probably many reasons why Marijuana was illegalized to begin with. I’ve heard theories ranging from racism against Mexicans, who were the first group associated with the plant, to Richard Nixon’s hatred of those damn subversive hippies — and it is likely that both origins have some amount of truth to them. In my view, it was likely something of a mix of these two ideas. I do not place any validity on the idea that cannabis was classified as illicit purely for medical reasons.
Why is Marijuana to this day still illegal then? Because Americans have another, perhaps not entirely unfair, association in mind: Marijuana and laziness. If there is anything particularly un-American in this world (apart from Socialism, Nazis, Radical Islam and France) it is laziness. There is a likelihood that at the heart of every weed-hating American is the idea that this funky-smelling plant is leading everyone to be too relaxed, too smug and satisfied to do anything with themselves.
As Robin Williams put it, “If they legalize it, they’re gonna have to regulate it and they’re gonna have to put a warning sticker on a pack of joints. And it’ll say: ‘Surgeon General has determined … this will make your music … AWESOME.’”
This is more important than racism and far more important than medicine. It hits at our very culture as Americans, at what sociologist Max Weber famously called the “Protestant Ethic,” the moral ethic of work for work’s sake. Marijuana may just not be a very “American” drug. Weed may not be dangerous at all, but it might make you choose your iTunes visualizer and a bucket of Cherry Garcia over your problem set — at least that is the perception.
With this in mind, it is no surprise at all that tobacco and alcohol are not illegal. The fact of the matter is they are simply part of our culture. Tobacco may be an American economic institution, though arguably so is marijuana. What tobacco and alcohol have that weed doesn’t is a connection to the psyche of Americans of all walks of life, conservative and liberal, rich and poor. Fat cat CEOs smoke cigars while construction workers share a smoke on their break. Manhattan aristocrats have their fancy wines while ’Mericans in the heartland drink their all-American lagers. Marijuana, on the other hand, still has a majority of Americans against it, even in liberal-as-all-hell California. Whereas alcohol and tobacco are perceived as the substances of working people, marijuana is perceived as the substance of slackers, who could use a swift kick in the ass followed by a subsequent, “Get a job!”
Don’t hold your breath on nationwide marijuana legalization. If I am wrong about the primacy of culture over practice in this debate — and I hope I am — I will look forward to the day when one can buy a pack of Marlboro No. 420s or Entenmann’s “Special Recipe” Chocolate Chip Cookies at the local corner store. That will be a trip.
Ian Cohen is a sophomore in the College of Arts and Sciences. He may be reached at email@example.com. Guest Room appears periodically this semester.