Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Lighting Up an Issue...

The passage of Question 2 is in many ways one of the greatest victories in the history of drug reform in the United States. Say what you will about Massachusetts' leftward political bent, but the results from last November would have been reproduced in all but the most conservative states that have not already decriminalized. Even in those conservative states it would have failed by a close margin, not a lopsided gap such as the one by which the Massachusetts initiative passed.

Just to show, however, that Massachusetts' leftwardness is isolated to a few issues, the ballot question only a few months is already being challenged. No, the legislature is wise enough not to invent a problem for itself there. Rather, many communities, Springfield included have sought to increase the fine or even make it punishable with criminal prosecution. The crime, by definition, would be "smoking marijuana in public" and be fined just as drinking in public would be.

The lunacy of that, however, is the implicit fact that most citations for marijuana use would be issued to those stupid enough to be caught outside with the drug. Admittedly, the fine could not be imposed if a police officer had cause to search and only discovered a small bag of thus-far unsmoked weed.

Boosters of the law in Springfield made the specious argument that Springfield could become a haven for pot smokers. Given that the law is the same everywhere in the commonwealth, it seems unlikely that Bay Staters would truck into Springfield to toke up, because the city just has the stoner feel. Likewise, why would Connecticut residents come to Springfield and not somewhere else in the area? The entire state is up for grabs.

The dubious wisdom of these added punitive measures notwithstanding, the entire issue speaks to the wider problem with marijuana in society. Marijuana decriminalization and legalization groups estimate that 80 million Americans have at least tried pot and fair number of those have done so in the last five years. Millions more do share the notion that marijuana is essentially harmless.

Marijuana is not harmless. Unlike other drugs, the threat is almost entirely to the user. People can become dependent on the feeling when high and not feel they can enjoy life or otherwise function unless high. The compulsion is psychological, rather than physiological. Some extreme cases need and enter rehab. A few others enter rehab out of the fear and confusion of friends and family. Some people experience true burnout, but it is rare; otherwise the greatest threat from continued heavy use, which represents a fraction of marijuana users, is lack of ambition.

It is, therefore, not worthy of the Schedule I narcotic rating given to it by Congress in the 1970s and kept in place by the Drug Enforcement Administration and the Department of Justice. Schedule I drugs, like heroin, ecstasy, LSD, and others have no recognized medical value, represent a direct threat to human health, are incredibly addictive, and other terrible, awful things. Even Cocaine, a very dangerous drug does not fit into Schedule I because of its anaesthetic use as a local, however rare today.

Enough doctors in thirteen states have said marijuana has medicinal uses. Furthermore it is not fatal. The cells in the brain that could be killed by delta-9 tetrahydrocannibinal are not ones that control primary functions. As far as health risks elsewhere, it can mirror some effects of smoking tobacco, but most users do not use it often enough to cause any long-term or corollary effects.

As with Question 2 and other bills in other states, the move to reassess marijuana is underway on the federal level. Eric Holder, President Barack Obama's Attorney General, has said that the DOJ will not overtly pursue marijuana producers, dispensaries, or patients that are sanctioned by state health authorities. In other words, glaucoma patients have a reprieve at last! That should not be confused with approval of marijuana for medicinal purposes. It represents a respect for state laws, essentially ignoring Gonzales v. Raich. Gonzales was a Supreme Court decision in which the court ruled that federal law preempted state law on medical marijuana and the medical marijuana community of California could not stop the Feds from enforcing federal law. Holder's position may sit well for now; however, absent a change in law, regulation, or even policy, that respect for state law is conditional, based on the mood of the DOJ and the Oval Office.

That being said, there could be hope elsewhere. Pres. Obama's nominee for Director of National Drug Control Policy, Seattle Police Chief Gil Kerlikowske, had put marijuana law enforcement on the low end of priorities for his force. A similar move as Drug Czar, as the position is unofficially called, could allow a friendly Secretary of Health and Human Service, possibly Secretary-designate Kathleen Sebelius, to begin in earnest the cannabis rescheduling process.

Outright legalization is far off, if likely to materialize at all. Even the Netherlands, famed for its "coffee shops" has begun to pull back from its position as a stoner's Shangri-La. Americans are most likely to follow countries--other than Holland--that simply ignore all but the worst problems associated with pot, like the current violence on the US-Mexico border, which involves a range of drugs. Legalization will likely only occur if the government becomes so desperate for cash it overlooks its 70+ years of racist cannabis laws and allow legitimate business to bankrupt the street trade.

That is still years off and there are legitimate concerns to be had when considering teenage cannabis use. Adults, hopefully, can balance their lives appropriately and engage in responsible use, whereas teenagers, just starting their adult lives and facing new changes and challenges in high school cannot. In any event, the time has come to have that serious discussion about pot in American society.

Thirty-fives years after the end of Vietnam, the drug has fallen out of association with radicals and finds users from one end of the political and social spectrum to the other. Politicians have treated marijuana as delicately as it has treated Social Security, a third rail issue. However, their fear is unreasonable. When Michael Phelps got caught with a bong and Kellogg's ended any future endorsement deals, the cereal company's sales fell off. Americans may not be the most sophisticated people on all issues, but they have had enough time and experience with this issue to at least be frank and open about a substance so many of them have used and maybe, on occasion, still enjoy.
*Marijuana Leaf, Springfield skyline, and Eric Holder photo all from Wikipedia

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