It’s 420! Time to take mile-long walks into the woods, lock yourself up in the basement, climb into your treehouse, or go wherever the hell it is you have to hide out to smoke weed these days. It’s a little silly, isn’t it? Silly that almost 40% of violent crimes are alcohol-related but getting stoned and going to the movies is like, a federal offense? Silly that the taxes you just paid three days ago are funding the longest, most costly war in American history — one that’s been declared a failure for decades but continues to incarcerate the scary poors so like, whatever? It’s kind of a bummer when you think about it. And we should think about it, because marijuana policy in this country isn’t a black and white issue. It’s nuanced and complex and something worth examining, especially today. So take off your sunglasses, put on your thinking caps, and let’s talk legalization!
We can begin by recognizing that a law that doesn’t prevent violent crime and is regularly broken by 100 million Americans should probably be reformed. Allowing marijuana policy to continue on the same path is counter-productive — currently, it causes users to not only carry on without regard for the law, but it breeds outright dissent toward those enforcing the law. Despite already harsh penalties, the United States consumes more marijuana than any other country in the world. If the government were regulating (and taxing) use, they could devote their resources toward prevention, education, and counseling instead of wild spending on jailing, jamming up courts with possession crimes, and allowing drug-related crime to run rampant. What’s holding us back?
There are a few reasons pot is illegal — fear, negative associations with narcotics and historically oppressed ethnic groups (this eye-opening New Yorker essay about why and how America keeps an obscene number of non-violent prisoners is worth a read). But the tamest and most widely accepted excuse for keeping marijuana illegal is that lawmakers fear legalization will spike addiction.
Now, plenty of people (not just stoners) believe there is no such thing as marijuana dependency. I am one such believer — if anyone is dependent on the drug, it’s those who are selling and growing it as a means of fiscal survival. However, if we assume there is no dependency risk whatsoever, this debate wouldn’t be happening. For the sake of the argument, let’s assume that legalization could potentially cause a dependency problem in America.
Keep in mind that we’re not talking decriminalization — it seems to be agreed on that decriminalization will not cause a critical spike in use, nor will it cause those already using to become more “dependent” than before. One factoid that supports this theory: During the ’70s and ’80s, marijuana users were fined instead of imprisoned in 11 of our states. The people living in these states were answering to mild penalties compared to the rest of the country. Dependency (or usage) stayed the same in those states, despite less incentive to stay out of trouble.
But would full-on legalization increase dependency? The jury is still out. Sure, we wouldn’t be the first country to pull off legalization in some form, but you know, we’re different ’cause… well, we’re America, bro.
Speaking of America, half of us have tried pot before age 21 since the 1960s. Since then, the number of smokers seeking treatment, the potency level, and the number of those incarcerated for marijuana related crimes have tripled. This is an argument against legalization, but because so few resources are allocated to marijuana research, we can’t decisively say that these trends are proof that marijuana is becoming more dangerous. What we can assume is that incarceration rates and rehab stays have increased because of increased enforcement and pressure, not because of increased abuse and potency.
There’s no denying that potency has snowballed in recent decades. THC (which induces anxiety) has steadily increased in the pot we consume, while CBD (which eases anxiety) has decreased; making cannabis-related hospital visits more frequent. We can assume that these visits are related to panic attacks.
While this is not the pot of yesteryear, the number of marijuana users has not risen. There is also no known connection between high THC content and addiction, nor is there an increased threat to the smokers’ health. Higher potency actually results in smokers using smaller quantities to get high. Which means, high potency as an anti-legalization defense is bullsh-t. Think about it — alcohol comes, legally, in an array of (regulated) potency levels. If pot is indeed becoming more dangerous, the only way the government can combat that is by selling and regulating it themselves.
The closest we have to an indicator of what would be enacted in America is the de facto legalization model practiced in the Netherlands. Under this model, the number of people dependent on weed stayed the same (and that number is relatively lower than in America). Most of the selling and smoking goes down in Dutch coffee shops. The number of young people in those shops went up (when the legal age was lowered to 16), and the number of young people in those shops went down (when the legal age was raised to 18). We saw this in America when we made adjustments to the legal drinking age in the ’70s; this is not rocket science.
So what’s key is keeping young people out of our hypothetical coffee shops. There has to be an age you must reach in order to purchase marijuana from your local bodega. Just like alcohol. Just like cigarettes. Sound familiar and totally doable yet? We also need to become more aware of marketers that prey on the weak and addicted members of our society. We’ve already seen the tobacco and alcohol industries master the whole “You’re not cool/smart/sexy unless you smoke _______________” schtick.
For that reason, some circles believe we should legalize weed, but ban commercial sale of it so that marketing isn’t an issue. Others argue that we should legalize it and give the government 100% more control over the market than they have now. Legalize it, control the THC content, tax the hell out of it, post a little health warning on the side that no one will read, and pat yourself on the back! You’ve just saved all of those faceless dependent marijuana smokers from useless rehab stays and the munchies. You’ve also prevented 750,000 arrests for simple possession a year.
If we ignore the issue entirely instead of taking proactive measures, we’re creating incentive for the cultivation of increasingly potent marijuana, turning a blind eye to blatant disregard for the law as it stands, giving free reign to minors to toke up (there’s no such thing as smoking pot underage, which means there are no specific repercussions), and we’re allowing the marijuana black market to run wild and free.
There are tons of X-factors, but it’s a safe bet that legalizing marijuana won’t cause the demise of Western Civilization as we know it. After rummaging through various arguments and numbers, the conclusion I’m making is this: legalization is great — if you don’t smoke or sell weed. On the surface, legalization seems like the stuff of dreams. Buying weed from the corner store, smoking in daylight; it seems like legalization would breed a regular weed-smoking utopia. But that fantasy we’ve built up is just that, a fantasy.
There are tons of kinks to iron out before legalization can ever come to fruition, and even then, there’s going to be a whole lot of give and take. Much more than some of us are willing to give, in fact. In early 2009, the tax on tobacco products jumped from 39 cents to $1.01 in one fell swoop. For those of us who are otherwise law abiding citizens, are we ready for that kind of governmental interference? IS NOTHING SACRED?
While legalization may not be the answer right now, current policies aren’t working either. We shouldn’t be harping on a legalized weed wonderland; it’s just not all that sexy when you look at the facts. We should focus on gaining support for decriminalization. Decriminalization is a step in the right direction. At the very least, it’ll curb an astonishing amount of possession arrests (which account for 89% of all marijuana-related arrests).
Perhaps more crucial, decriminalization will take America a step away from treating the failed War on Drugs as some sacrosanct policy that should be upheld and fed an exhaustive amount of our budget every year (an amount that mind you, has no cap and continues to grow despite its observable ineffectiveness). 40 years later, it’s time to clean up at least one of Nixon’s messes. This is a good place to start.