Looking for sanity in marijuana laws

I’ve spent most of my adult life in two states, Colorado and Washington, and as it happens, these are the two states that have passed laws legalizing pot. Am I single-handedly responsible? Dude, I totally am.

Okay, no, I’m totally not. At least not single-handedly.
I did, however, vote yes on initiative 502, which essentially legalized marijuana in Washington. That’s not to say I had no reservations about the initiative, because I did, and I’ll detail them in a second. But I thought, and still think, that the harm done by incarcerating marijuana users outweighs the harm done by an increase in marijuana addiction.
Yes, marijuana is addictive. If you don’t think it is, then explain that one guy you know who smokes pot from the time he wakes up until right before nighty-night. I’ve known people who smoke before work, who smoke in the break between classes, who smoke before a movie, during a movie, and after a movie. If something’s stressful, they smoke to chill out. If it’s relaxing, they smoke to enjoy it more. If that’s not addiction, it’s a hell of a habit.
At the same time, marijuana is not heroin. It is not crack cocaine. It is not alcohol. If even a long-time heavy user stops smoking altogether, cold turkey, they will not have convulsions or drop into a feverish delirium. What they will likely have is considerable anxiety and an intense desire to get high.
There are, however, a couple of other health concerns. The first is that marijuana smoke is harmful to the lungs. I’m sure this is true – it’s obviously not good for your lungs – but given the comparatively small amount of smoke inhaled by marijuana users, I just can’t get too worked up about it.
The other concern is the connection between marijuana use and mental illness. I believe that heavy marijuana use probably does raise the likelihood of developing mental illness in certain susceptible users, and worsens the conditions of those already diagnosed with mental illness.

This is serious, and is perhaps my foremost worry with legalization, or at least with the full-scale commercialization occurring in Colorado and (soon) Washington. The commercialization of pot will almost certainly increase use; increased use will likely result in higher rates of drug addiction and mental illness. Let’s not downplay it. Marijuana can have a profound effect on individuals, and not infrequently that effect is negative. Played out on a societal basis, it has a significant impact.
My feelings about what role government should play are pretty well summed up in David Brooks’ recent column on pot: “…in healthy societies government wants to subtly tip the scale to favor temperate, prudent, self-governing citizenship. In those societies, government subtly encourages the highest pleasures, like enjoying the arts or being in nature, and discourages lesser pleasures, like being stoned.”
Fair enough. The problem, of course, is that pot policy has been anything but subtle. It has mostly consisted, instead, of locking untold thousands of people in prison for the “crime” of using a drug that most people would concede is less harmful than alcohol or cigarettes.
To call this unjust is like calling the Joker a little bit crazy. It’s more than unjust; it’s positively monstrous. It turns government into a tyrannical Big Brother looking over your shoulder as you light up in your living room, threatening to burst in with assault rifles and throw you in jail. Imprisoning people for marijuana use is utterly wrong, and doing so comes with its own cascade of harmful consequences.
And if we can return to alcohol and cigarettes for a minute: It is also perfectly reasonable to compare marijuana to these substances, and to seek some consistency in our drug laws. It is reasonable to correlate the likelihood of addiction, and the degree of harm posed by that addiction, with the extent of legal prohibition.
That being the case, and since it’s clear that marijuana really is less dangerous than alcohol and tobacco, two lessons can be drawn: first, marijuana should at least be decriminalized; second, alcohol and tobacco should be more tightly controlled.  
With all this focus on health outcomes, though, I don’t want to obfuscate my essential belief that government simply has no right to lock people up for possession of most recreational drugs. Selling drugs, especially large amounts of drugs, is another issue, but even then the law has been hideously inconsistent. Even if they’re doing a drug far more harmful than marijuana, their addiction should be treated as an illness, and that’s all. Locking people up for having a drug addiction like locking people up for having leprosy (which also has not been uncommon historically).
Now, I think there is a middle ground here, one which neither Colorado nor Washington have taken, mostly because the citizens of those states, sick of decades of immoral and ineffective marijuana policies, performed an end run around their legislators and passed initiatives legalizing pot. It would be great if other state legislatures would learn a lesson and avoid the worst consequences of both prohibition on the one hand and commercialization on the other by passing more cautious laws of their own.
Personally, what I’d advocate is a conscious attempt to remove private profit from drug sales. We should seek to eliminate both the black market and the private market – both of which encourage drug use – by replacing them with a tightly controlled government monopoly, or at least a monopoly on retail sales. Practically speaking, this would mean government-run pot dispensaries, similar to the government-run liquor stores common to many states. Possession of moderate amounts of marijuana should be legalized (two ounces sounds like a lot to me), while selling it would remain illegal.
This is a middle path. It recognizes the right of individuals to make basic choices regarding what they put in their bodies, while also recognizing the dangers posed by use and seeking to weaken the drug market, legal and illegal. It’s neither the draconian fist of government smashing people’s lives apart, nor the grasping hand of entrepreneurs encouraging vice for profit. That’s what I call subtle encouragement.

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