What could hardly be imagined a few years ago now appears to be rushing toward the nearly inevitable. After spending much of the 20th century building up legal barriers to marijuana use, in these early years of the 21st century the nation has embarked on a steady paring down of marijuana prohibitions. In 16 states and the District of Columbia, so-called medical marijuana is now legal. At least 12 additional states are on the verge of a similar acceptance of marijuana use. In another two, Colorado and Washington, marijuana has been legalized for “recreational” and medical use, and state officials are beginning to structure a legal market that will presumably seek to keep the commodity out of the hands of children and teens but available to adults who wish to use it and will make it taxable by and accountable to state authority.
Perhaps most remarkable about this proliferation of measures to normalize the marijuana market is the fact that the drug remains a controlled substance according to federal law. Even as states accelerate toward legalization, in 2011 more than 750,000 people were arrested nationwide—including states that are experimenting with legalization—for offenses related to marijuana use or distribution. This discrepancy makes little sense. New legislation before Congress that seeks to halt federal intrusions on state experiments with marijuana normalization needs to be quickly considered in response to the changing facts on the ground in marijuana-tolerant states.
In May more support for the notion of marijuana normalization came from an unlikely source. A study from the Organization of American States essentially concedes that the costly and deadly war on drugs, encouraged and financed by U.S. policymakers, has been lost. Too many have died in efforts to restrain drug trafficking; too many resources that could have been put to better use have been squandered. And to what end? Violence in transshipment states is generating social chaos even as U.S. demand shows little sign of abating.
These recommendations will surely frustrate and alarm many. Indeed, there is plenty to be concerned about. In states experimenting with legalization, children have accidentally ingested their parents’ marijuana products. Some studies, though disputed, argue that marijuana remains a gateway drug to more dangerous substance abuse; and normalization may make marijuana available in ways that will give young people more opportunities to experiment with it.
But against these considerations, it would be dishonest to pretend that the status quo does not already offer a litany of actual harms. Enforcing marijuana laws seriously drains social resources and contributes to the nation’s unconscionably high incarceration rate. In urban communities across the nation, African-American young people are arrested for marijuana possession at double, triple and even quadruple the rates of their white peers, even though studies indicate they use marijuana less often. These arrests can begin a lifetime of closed-off educational and occupational opportunities that compound the disproportionate impact of drug policy on African-American communities.
Marijuana trafficking makes up a major percentage of the global drug trade that is destabilizing U.S. neighbors, corrupting police and other government officials and empowering and enriching domestic and foreign drug lords. Any law so widely ignored or practically unenforceable should be subject to thorough and skeptical review.
No one wants to see people, whatever their age, become habitual users of any drug. But evidence that marijuana use is no worse, and by many measures socially less harmful, than legal “recreational” substances like nicotine and alcohol, has long been acknowledged even by many who still resist legalizing marijuana. Ultimately it must be admitted that keeping pot illegal only pretends to keep it out of the hands of young people. And even as vast social forces are marshaled to combat marijuana use, abuse of prescription drugs has become a perhaps more substantial threat to young people.
The use of substances that have the effect of altering our perceptions, brain function and finally our bodies can never be categorized as a wholesome stewardship of our earthly lives. But that is a moral and health issue that can be confronted within our homes, our churches and the nation’s health and psychiatric communities. Despite understandable resistance to liberalizing drug laws, the vital question remains: Are we using limited government and social resources in the most responsible and effective manner? Neighbors to the south of the United States, suffering on the front lines of the war on drugs, are beginning to say no. States around the country are beginning experiments toward a more rational approach to the facts about marijuana use. Federal authorities should consider how best to reconcile federal law with this trend.