April 20, 2010

Taking a Hard Look At Drug Policy

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Depending on whom you ask, you will probably hear a different reason for the legalization — in some form or another — of marijuana. Many would prefer legalization solely for medical users. Some point out that legalizing and taxing marijuana would help refill depleted state coffers. Others note that marijuana is generally considered to be less dangerous than alcohol and tobacco; that it was outlawed for corrupt, illegitimate reasons to begin with; that marijuana-related arrests (89 percent of which are for possession, not trafficking or selling) now make up half of all drug-related arrests.

The United States’s first experiment with prohibition (1920-1933) was repealed and generally regarded as a failure, and if the smell wafting around Barton Hall on Sunday night was any indication, this ill-conceived experiment has not worked either. Just as surely as moonshine was quaffed in speakeasies 90 years ago, marijuana is still smoked. In the most recent anonymous survey conducted by Gannett Health Services, almost 20 percent of the responding Cornellians said they had smoked marijuana in the past 30 days.

The most convincing and fundamental reason for re-thinking the current federal policy on marijuana use is simple: It would return control to the government. No matter the perceived “problems” with current marijuana usage — and those vary from person to person — one possible solution to is letting the government regulate and benefit from the marijuana industry that can no longer be ignored. But when policymakers stick to their “War on Drugs” guns, march out the police and close their eyes, the problem does not disappear.

There are positive signs: 14 states currently allow medical marijuana, and six allow dispensaries to sell medical marijuana. The cannabusiness is booming. California, despite an impotent and nearly bankrupt government, saw $2 billion of potentially taxable revenue from the medical marijuana industry last year. So, things are not all bad on the bud front. But, policy inertia is notoriously difficult to overcome — marijuana has been illegal for a long time and too many people are content with what they see as a perfectly acceptable status quo. We must consider the ugly side of the status quo — murderous drug wars, inflating rates of incarceration, a steady stream of funding for criminal organizations — to make a reasoned judgment on the many questions surrounding marijuana policy.

As one of the most revered reefers of all time crooned: “None but ourselves can free our minds.”