Phil-osophically Speaking: January 17, 2014


Forbidden Fruit

A few years back, I wrote an article on the decriminalization of marijuana. The next weekend, I attended a retirement party in which a middle-aged woman, professionally distinguished and temperamentally conservative, told me she read the article and then with a wink and a smile gave me an enthusiastic thumbs up.

I felt somewhat aghast because the last impression I wanted to give was that legalization of marijuana is something to celebrate. I think legalization is more of a necessary evil than a great blessing. When Colorado, on January 1, became the first state to legalize marijuana sales for recreational use, it unleashed a fusillade of oracular disputations; giving a chance for those in favor of the measure to dilate grandiloquently on its libertarian virtue and, those opposed, on its multifaceted evils. That such a philosophical asymmetry exists between the two sides is not necessarily a deficiency of ratiocination but rather the inherent perplexities of human behavior that surrounds this question.   

There are undoubtedly both benefits and drawbacks that can be proffered from the decriminalization of marijuana. My rather reluctant support for its legalization is, I ruefully confess, computational rather than moral. I’m not, as a matter of mental habit, congenial to subversive ideas but it seemed that the net loss in terms of taxpayer dollars, law enforcement resources and lives ruined in policing marijuana had long ago outdistanced any net gains that might have been achieved.        

Every year 750,000 people are arrested for crimes related to marijuana. Despite its illegality, most young people will tell you that it is easier to buy marijuana than to buy alcohol. Moreover, people of color, especially its youth, are particularly hurt by this misplaced enforcement of marijuana laws. Frequently, these convictions have diminished this vulnerable population’s already limited opportunities. Because of the stigma associated with drug convictions, such an indictment could be tantamount to a life sentence of obloquy in terms of future employment.  

This is especially ironic since the last three occupants of the White House have admitted to smoking the weed during their college years. But, as it happens, they were either white, affluent or educated, allowing them to escape the most punitive consequences. It’s a much different story for the urban poor who end up in the most labyrinthine bureaucracy of all: The U.S. Prison Industrial Complex.

The social experiment regarding Prohibition in this country was an unqualified disaster. Despite the best intentions by Carrie Nation and other reformers throughout the 19th and early 20th centuries, all rightly concerned about the devastating effect that alcohol abuse was having on individuals and families, not only failed to eradicate this disturbing social pathology but it exacerbated it by introducing a host of other maladies such as bootlegging, speakeasies and Al Capone.

One of the few roles that I’m willing to assign to government is one of encouraging individual responsibility, morality and those social canons that strengthen the core of civil society and perpetuate its continuity. This can be done by passing laws that reflect the ideals and values of the community and establishing good habits which are often more important than the laws themselves. In short, laws mold culture and culture molds law; they independently and conjunctively sustain each other.

But in both its prescriptions and proscriptions the laws have limited application; laws cannot embody the Golden Rule in every instance. That is the domain of religion, and other fraternal influences outside the government that serves to bring out the best in society. With the passage of the law in Colorado there has been a zeitgeist of saturnalian ebullience, if not hedonistic anarchy that has rocked social conservatives within the state and elsewhere.

But after the initial catalytic outburst, things will ultimately settle down. A regulatory infrastructure, controlling the user’s age, time and place of usage will help pacify the rollicking hysteria. This was always the opinion of Ira Glasser, executive director of the ACLU for 25 years, an organization admittedly, I’ve rarely agreed with, but do agree with them that the no longer forbidden fruit will eventually lose some of its allure.

Meanwhile, we should focus on keeping marijuana illegal for those below the age of 21. Medicinal marijuana has its place, but so do social sanctions against its general use. While no one, at least as far as I know, has ever overdosed on marijuana, it should be generously taxed, the so called sin tax, and be targeted for programs discouraging its use. This is an opportunity where states, via our federalist system, can learn from each other. While marijuana can be addictive, almost certainly is addictive, it’s not as addictive as other sedatives such as Valium or Xanax and even gambling which the government strongly and unflinchingly promotes. It’s most likely not even as addictive as tobacco; remember, half of America’s cigarette smokers have kicked the habit.

One of the objectives of decriminalization of marijuana is for law enforcement to play a supportive role rather than fighting on the front lines of the war on drugs—or at least some drugs. In this country there are 500,000 people, because of mental illness, who are behind bars instead of being in facilities that specialize in treating psychological disorders. Similarly, neither should prison become a rat hole for the casual drug user to fall into. There are better alternatives and one of them is to make the use of marijuana a health issue not a criminal one. 

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