Since the 1970 Controlled Substances Act, marijuana use, regardless of amount, has been prohibited. The federal Drug Enforcement Administration classifies marijuana as a schedule I drug: the most restrictive classification, reserved for drugs with a high potential for abuse and no accepted medical value. Well over 80 percent of those arrested on marijuana charges were nonviolent people who possessed low amounts and were not involved in the trafficking or sale of the banned substance.
The nation’s 40-year war on drugs costs $40 to $50 billion a year with no dampening effect on availability or consumption. Instead, the illegality of pot has resulted in more criminal activity, a failure to reduce the addiction or violence associated with the drug trade, skyrocketing incarceration rates because of harsh punishment for possession, and racial profiling.
In recent years, an increasing number of states are demanding a new approach to the nation’s marijuana law thanks to an energized base of reformers and an increasingly open-minded public. Several states have approved medical marijuana, decriminalization and even legalization. Eighteen states and the District of Columbia now authorize medical marijuana and fourteen have rolled back criminal penalties for possession of small amounts of pot.
In last November’s elections, Colorado and Washington passed ballot initiatives making them the first states to decriminalize and regulate the possession of an ounce or less of marijuana by adults over 21. The Washington Post editorial board supports these new legalization measures and argues for civil fines rather than imprisonment.
Now the national conversation turns on the obvious conflict between federal and state authority. Recent polls show a majority of Americans want to end cannabis prohibition and move toward a system of limited legalization, regulation, and taxation. Almost two-thirds of poll respondents think the federal government should respect states that choose to legalize the use of marijuana for medical or recreational purposes.
Still, the argument rages on between those who support the current prohibitionist policy and those who want to replace it. Reformers label the war on drugs as an absurdly costly and colossally ineffective program. Defenders call pot a dangerous psychoactive substance.
What is really at stake is the ongoing conflict over the science of marijuana. There remain serious reservations about the safety of cannabis, its negative impact on cognitive performance and its potential to induce psychosis. Yet many pot users only experiment with the drug, quit, and suffer no long lasting effects. Compared to alcohol or tobacco, cannabis is less addictive, less dangerous, and causes far fewer serious health consequences than the two legal drugs cause. Whereas pot users tend to be nonviolent, homicides are often alcohol-related.
Several studies confirm the therapeutic value of pot in easing pain and nausea, generating appetite, encouraging sleep, and generally comforting those with cancer, glaucoma and other serious afflictions. Although the U.S. Department of Justice has held back on prosecuting medical marijuana patients, U.S. Attorneys have enlisted the help of the DEA and the IRS to crack down on dispensaries in states with legal medical marijuana programs.
What is needed is a broad new review of the federal government’s marijuana policies. At the same time, more resources should be devoted to research, prevention, and treatment.
Cannabis consumption should be treated as a public health problem, not as a serious crime. Nonviolent offenders should be diverted from prisons to treatment programs.
The current federal “all use is abuse” should be replaced with a new drug policy that sets reasonable boundaries for marijuana use by establishing guidelines similar to those already in place for alcohol. Marijuana, in short, should be regulated as we already do with the most commonly abused substance, alcohol.
Ralph Scharnau teaches U. S. history at Northeast Iowa Community College, Peosta. He holds a Ph.D. from Northern Illinois University. His publications include articles on labor history in Iowa and Dubuque. Scharnau, a peace and justice activist, writes monthly op-ed columns for the Dubuque Telegraph Herald.