Prohibition, legalization both burdens on society; now the question is,
which is the lesser of two evils?
A glaze begins to settle in Dean’s eyes after his second hit while subtle coughs interrupt what seems a delighted smile. He is smoking out of his favorite piece, a bong named Eucalyptus.
“The burning bush that Moses claimed to be God was actually just him lighting a joint,” he says.
Dean is one of the 100 million Americans who have used cannabis, a drug comparable to cocaine, LSD and heroin in that they are illegal under federal law, yet advocacy for its legalization has been coughing up for decades.
“Categorizing weed with heroin and cocaine is like saying that littering and aggravated assault are equal,” he says.
For Dr. Joseph Carlson, professor of criminal justice, there is more at play in the debate over the legalization of cannabis.
“The use of marijuana impairs judgment,” he says. “Any drug that impairs judgment potentially increases victims or casualties. We already know what the legalization of alcohol has done.”
It’s true, drugs are poisons.
The psychoactive substance in cannabis that gives users the “high” effect evolved to protect the plant from animals and ultraviolet light.
As academic David T. Courtwright says in “Forces of Habit,” “Seeking intoxication, let alone profiting from it, is paradoxical. It seemingly defies the logic of natural selection.”
Yet for centuries cannabis use has been regarded as medicinal in all parts of the world. In the U.S., 15 states and the District of Columbia have already medicated the whooping cry for legalization by authorizing the medicinal use of cannabis.
Carlson doesn’t rule out the possibility that cannabis may hold medicinal value.
“If it can spare someone of their pain, with prescription, there is an avenue for marijuana,” he says.
According to officials at the National Institute of Drug Abuse (NIDA), cannabis is an unlikely medication candidate and it is not a Food and Drug Administration (FDA) approved medicine.
Dean does not acknowledge the potential risk. “Have you ever heard them rattle off the list of side-effects for prescription drugs?” he asks. “Compare those to an increase in appetite and some humorous times of contemplation.”
The inconsistencies between the use of cannabis and the policies related to it create prime conditions for an underground market that feeds the current War on Drugs. A market that Carlson does not believe would come to an end through legalization.
“Monitoring whether it’s for social or medicinal use and its distribution would be extremely difficult,” he says. “The new clientele for organized crime would shift to younger kids, who are affected more by the drug.” This has happened with the use of alcohol, he says.
Centers for Disease and Control (CDC) officials report that 12-year-olds to 20-year-olds drink 11 percent of all alcohol consumed in the United States.
“Why take the risk? It boils down to society paying the cost,” says Carlson.
Both prohibition and legalization of cannabis burden society says Dr. William Avilés, professor of political science.
“If viewed as a trade-off, legalization would lessen the burden on society,” he says.
“We have models to draw from, like the Netherlands, where cannabis is legal but their smoking rates are lower than in the U.S.”
In the Netherlands, the sale and personal consumption of cannabis is tolerated under strict nationwide rules.
Guidelines include a ban on advertisement, a limit on sales per person, an age requirement of 18 and restrictions to use in establishments known as coffee shops.
Avilés acknowledges the potential for an increase in use by younger individuals if legalization were to take place, but suggests that regulations on tobacco and alcohol can also serve as models to draw from.
“There would be a variety of ways to mitigate illegal use, similar to how it has been done with other legal psychoactive substances,” he says. “In the case of cannabis, it would be much more restrictive than, say, tobacco, which can be found in any grocery store.”
According to Avilés, legalization would cause underground markets associated with cannabis to fall to the wayside, as was the case with alcohol when prohibition was lifted in 1933.
In 2010, the U.S. federal government spent over $15 billion on the War on Drugs, at a rate of about $500 per second.
However, cannabis use persists as an American is arrested every 30 seconds for violating cannabis laws.
“Right now society is paying the cost of arresting and prosecuting upwards of 700,000 individuals each year,” Avilés says, “many who don’t have criminal records and are dealing with a substance that doesn’t even compare to other Schedule I drugs.”
As for Dean, “Hey man, have you ever wondered how the bubbles form in soda pop?
More on the pot talk
More on the
What's schedule 1?
• The drug or other substance has a high potential for abuse.
•The drug or other substance has no currently accepted medical use in treatment in the United States.
• There is a lack of accepted safety for use of the drug or other substance under medical supervision.
What's the policy?
Policy under the Obama administration does not require federal law enforcement to prosecute users and suppliers of medicinal marijuana as long as they conform to state laws.
THC, the main psychoactive substance in cannabis, acts upon specific sites in the brain, called cannabinoid receptors, which kick off a series of cellular reactions that ultimately lead to the “high” experienced by users.
The highest density of cannabinoid receptors are found in the parts of the brain that influence pleasure, memory, thinking, concentrating, sensory and time perception, and coordinated movement.