As With Alcohol, Society Will Adjust To Legalized Pot

As most anyone can tell you, marijuana legalization seems to be on a fast track across the nation.  If experiments with legalizing the recreational use of marijuana now in full swing in Colorado and Washington don’t crash and burn, many states currently dipping their toes in the water via the legalization of medical marijuana will likely come under intense pressure to dive in—if only for the stupendous tax revenues everyone presumes are waiting to be collected through state-supervised growth, distribution, and sale.

It is certainly proper to worry about the consequences of adding one more legal drug to our society.  However, the cornucopia of prescription and non-prescription drugs already sloshing around our daily lives tends to provide some perversely comforting proof that legal dope will not by itself lead to the downfall of our nation.  Distributing another mind-altering substance to a country as anxious to medicate itself as ours will neither break us nor make us.  We will simply be dealing with more munchies than ever before.

However, I worry the inevitable conflict between legalized sales and the non-legal marketplace certain to continue regardless will produce a toxic outcome: government desperate to maintain a set price floor and using intrusive law enforcement in order to protect its supervised monopoly.  Imagine the wild injustices that would result if, for example, a local agriculture official was empowered to demand the arrest of the neighbors who bring you some homemade beer at the holidays because that action undercuts the price of the state-sanctioned commercial brewery down the road.

Unless we allow citizens to grow their own marijuana for personal use, we could end up right where we started because we will still be jailing low level offenders—to protect tax revenues.  Imagine just how vociferously government will oppose this simple notion.  After all, if anybody with a patch of soil or a grow light can simply raise their own pot for free, all those dollar signs dancing in the heads of elected officials will, if you will pardon the expression, go up in smoke—and all those plans to spend this new source of tax revenue would have to be shelved.  That would be a real buzzkill for many.

Given the problems inherent in government regulation and taxation of something it requires minimal expertise to grow—just plant a seed and add water—we must ask whether it would be wise to leave government oversight and law enforcement out of the marijuana equation.   Most of the documented dangers from marijuana seem to derive from legal prohibitions rather than actual use.  Unless some reasonable research can be produced to prove that potheads are a dire threat to something other than a plateful of Taco Bell, there might be no legitimate reason for government to maintain its heavy hand if voters decide this phase of the war on drugs must end.

Although marijuana seems to rob its users of motivation, I am certain we have no pressing national interest in criminalizing a lack motivation.  However, we must continue to imprison those who sell and use those drugs that pose a demonstrable danger to the user and others because to do otherwise would expose our society to grievous harm.  A free market in frighteningly potent drugs such as heroin and methamphetamine would be a national catastrophe, and government should do everything possible to ever keep this from happening.

There must, of course, be limits on legalized marijuana use in order to protect the public.  We prohibit, for example, airline pilots from flying while intoxicated; by the same token, I do not want to hear “We will landing in 10 minutes, dude” coming over my flight’s intercom just before we touch down.  Impairment that threatens health or safety is cause for concern and, depending on the severity and situation, might need to involve law enforcement or safety agencies.  However, private use that threatens no one should be no more criminal that having a few beers while watching a football game on the television in your living room.

If we decide to turn the sale and distribution of marijuana into a legal and respectable enterprise (just imagine the day when “Dave’s Pot Spot” is sponsoring a Little League team), we also are likely to have a national conversation about how to provide some measure of reconciliation regarding those carrying criminal records for doing that which we suddenly deem perfectly legal.

We should not, in my opinion, expunge the records of those who broke laws that were on the books at the time of their offenses nor simply release them from prison if the laws are changed.  I believe the law is the law, and we should no more forgive past violations of marijuana statutes that are no longer in effect than forgive speeding tickets that were issued before a highway’s speed limit is raised.  However, changes in our laws might involve some targeted legal relief for penny-ante past offenders stigmatized by our 80 year experiment with harsh law enforcement, and the public should certainly play an active role this debate. Fifty years from now will we regret decriminalizing the recreational use of marijuana?  Perhaps we will, but despite the very real dangers of alcohol consumption, we never hear anyone wistfully discussing the good old days of Prohibition.  We can expect that society will simply adjust, marijuana use will be woven into a set of social and legal norms similar to those that govern the consumption and sale of alcohol, and we will be free to grumble—should we wish to—at that danged stoner living down the street who waves to us every day with a joint in his hand.

Also published in The News-Gazette ( February 9, 2014

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