Blowing Smoke

In this week?s Somerville News, there is a report on a local marijuana seizure. Few topics are more fraught with ignorance, hypocrisy, and hysteria. Yet, I hesitate to write about marijuana for fear that young people might imagine that I?m encouraging them to use it. I?m not. Don?t.
It seems almost impossible to have a rational, fact-based discussion on the subject. One blogger, posting in response to our story, commented about victimless crimes. This sparked a name-calling fury by others, but few ideas and no evidence. Responding to this assault, another blogger insisted that we didn?t know anything about marijuana, but instead of enlightening us, went on to call the name-callers more names.

Those who get deeply into the evidence usually arrive at a conclusion similar to that of conservative icon William F. Buckley: ?The anti-marijuana campaign is a cancerous tissue of lies, undermining law enforcement, aggravating the drug problem, depriving the sick of needed help, and suckering well meaning conservatives and countless frightened parents.?

After reviewing exhaustive evidence and two years? testimony, the Drug Enforcement Agency?s chief administrative law judge, Francis L. Young ruled that ?marijuana in its natural form is one of the safest therapeutically active substances known to man.? He characterized its prohibition as ?unreasonable, arbitrary, and capricious.? His order to make it available for prescription use was ignored.

His was not the first assessment of all available evidence; nor was his conclusion. In 1883, the Indian Hemp Drug Commission found that ?moderate use of hemp drugs produces no injurious effect on the mind? inflicting ?no moral injury whatsoever.? In 1925, a government study commissioned in response to concerns about its use by U.S. troops in Panama found ?no evidence that marihuana?has any appreciably deleterious influence on the individual using it.?

Richard Nixon wanted someone with a zealous anti-drug history to chair a commission on marijuana. He picked former Pennsylvania governor Ray Shafer. Nixon was astonished, when, in 1972, the commission recommended decriminalizing pot.

Over 400,000 people die in the U.S. each year from tobacco use; 120,000 from alcohol. There is virtually no lethal dose of cannabis, so the federal Drug Abuse Warning Network scans medical examiners? reports in which the lethal behavior of the deceased may well have been influenced by drugs. In 1999, there were 664 cases involving marijuana, in 187 of which it was the only drug.

Many may feel that we can?t put the alcohol and tobacco genies back in the bottle, but the marijuana genie is still locked up. Even though cannabis is less harmful, it does some harm. Indeed, I have been sobered by the drug?s capacity to diminish motivation in certain user acquaintances of mine.

So why should we consider legalizing it? Well, because when young people experience marijuana, they imagine that the falsehoods they were told about it apply to crack, methamphetamine, oxycontin, and heroin as well. That?s the real way that marijuana is a ?gateway drug.?

Because we?re spending $35 billion per year on a drug war, yet supply and potency continue to increase, while price drops. Because having to choose between pursuing justice and enforcing unjust laws stresses law enforcement officers who experience quite enough stress already. Because billions that are going to criminals and terrorists could become tax revenues used to fight them.

Because the plant can be used to produce more than 25,000 products, ranging from automotive plastics to cellophane, displacing imports of raw material and manufactured products and providing thousands of jobs to Americans. Cannabis seed oil is an almost perfect ratio of polyunsaturated fats. Paper made from the plant?s fiber would require one-fifth the energy costs of wood pulp, while saving forests.

Because hundreds of thousands of nonviolent Americans are locked up for having the bad judgment to possess it. Because we are spending billions on incarceration, while ruining the lives of otherwise decent people.

On the other hand, crystal meth is cheap, easy to make, instantly addictive, and permanently cauterizing young people?s brains across the heartland. Half of state and local law enforcement agencies identify it as their greatest threat, as opposed to one-eighth for marijuana. In 2003, agents raided 10,180 meth labs, mostly in rural areas. But the Bush administration is cutting aid to rural narcotics teams in half, while increasing marijuana enforcement. Annual pot arrests are now half of all drug busts. They were one-quarter a decade ago.

I sincerely don?t get it. I don?t think it?s a matter of political orientation. I know progressives who repudiate pot, conservatives who want to legalize it, and liberals who act like they?re on it. Nor am I persuaded by those who believe that the tobacco, alcohol, and pharmaceutical interests are preventing legalization. They would jump at the chance to market pot.

Perhaps it?s just that so few political leaders are willing to risk the consequences of speaking truth. As Dresden James once wrote, “When a well-packaged web of lies has been sold to the masses over generations, the truth will seem utterly preposterous, and its speaker, a raving lunatic.”

Blowing Smoke – A Commentary by William C. Shelton

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