Sunday, December 9, 2012

New Mexico Should Legalize Marijuana Now

During my first year of college I knew slightly a kid named Bennett Hertzler. A gentle, harmless sort of guy. In a police search of dormitory rooms, he was caught with three or four marijuana seeds in a desk drawer – and sentenced to years in jail. While the rest of us continued our college educations, Ben languished in prison. It destroyed his life.

Could have been me. I smoked marijuana when I was young. Liked it fine. Then one evening, as I smoked, I became convinced that I was dying. In fact, I was fine physically, but I was sure I was dying, for about a half an hour. Thereafter, whenever I smoked the same thing happened. The pleasant high just wasn’t worth the miserable fear I had to go through first, and I was busy with professional tasks and obligations anyway, so I stopped. But I have friends who continued smoking for decades without any apparent problem, and still do so. Some are grandparents. 

Should marijuana be illegal?

Marijuana is relatively harmless. It doesn’t make people violent or, so far as I can discover, cause them serious medical problems.

Studies show that driving a car while high on marijuana is far less dangerous than driving while high on alcohol. Alcohol abuse over decades leads to serious illness and even death.

It is said that marijuana use by kids leads to use of stronger and more dangerous drugs. That can be true, primarily because the society that prohibits marijuana (a) tosses kids who want to smoke into the company of people who also sell other illegal drugs and (b) does so with propaganda that undermines our credibility when we tell kids about the very real dangers of more powerful drugs. It’s like telling kids that masturbation causes blindness, then expecting to be believed when we explain later why it’s important to avoid unprotected casual sex.

The Alcohol Prohibition didn’t work. While perhaps a noble experiment, it made drinking alcohol more fun, killed or injured people who drank bad booze, decreased respect for laws, increased corruption, enriched criminals, and generally caused new problems while failing miserably to solve the original one.

The Marijuana Prohibition doesn’t work. It leads to broken lives like Ben Hertzler’s, decreases respect for law, costs society an amazing amount for enforcement, trials, and prison space, enriches criminals, and prevents people from smoking marijuana that’s either homegrown or grown by someone licensed and inspected. It also keeps people who live in pain from easy access to marijuana’s ability to lessen that pain.

This is what we said decades ago and were thought crazy.

More recently, these thoughts have become more acceptable. A blue-ribbon panel of former public officials from all parties reached the same conclusion about the War on Drugs. Fifteen states have decriminalized marijuana. Three states voted this year to legalize it.

Here’s the choice: spend vast sums of money in bad economic times to arrest, try, and imprison people for something they do in their own homes, or legalize marijuana – and perhaps regulate it and tax sales.

Why do we choose one way regarding alcohol and differently for marijuana? Why do we do so even though alcohol causes greater driving impairment, a deeper addiction, and harsher medical issues than marijuana?

Initially, prejudice was part of the reason: our parents and grandparents had drunk alcohol, but marijuana was associated with blacks and later with the 1960's "counterculture."

The inequity persists because people with money like it that way: alcohol is big business; and selling marijuana illegally is far more profitable than selling it legally. Ending the marijuana prohibition would be devastating to cartels, which could no longer charge a "danger premium" to customers for something folks could grow it in their own homes.

Thus it’s heartening to see that a bill to lower penalties in New Mexico will be introduced soon.

It’s disheartening that if it passes Governor Martinez might veto it. That would be one more reflexively bad choice by our governor, who’s rapidly increasing her chance of serving only one term.

Martinez’s "defense" of her position sounds like an admission of misconduct.

Her press secretary says stiff marijuana penalties are good because "the vast majority of people convicted for possessing small amounts of marijuana are diverted to treatment programs, and those who are sentenced to prison are individuals with long criminal records with convictions for things like assault, burglary, and other crimes."

That is, these laws are great tools to put away folks with bad records against whom we can’t prove anything serious right now. For folks we approve of, it’s like driver education classes for speeders. Folks we don’t like could go to jail for several years.

That’s like criminalizing coffee and tea so that when you suspect someone of a crime but can’t prove it, or just don’t like someone, you can punish people you suspect of real crimes but can’t catch.

There was a time when students who questioned the wisdom of the war in Viet Nam or associated with folks of different "races" were thought dangerous and unpatriotic, but they had free speech rights. Small-minded district attorneys could do little. Conveniently, though, a lot of those rebellious young folks smoked marijuana, and could be imprisoned for that when the real complaint was their thought and speech.

That ain’t justice.
[The column above appeared in the Las Cruces Sun-News this morning, Sunday, December 9th, under a headline chosen by the newspaper.

Of course, there's more to say:

First of all, some more specifics on the proposed bill, as reported very recently in the Sun-News and elsewhere:
-- an interim committee heard details of the proposal last Thursday;
-- a major supporter is New Mexico Drug Policy Alliance (Director Emily Kaltenbach);
-- the bill would eliminate the penalty of up to one ounce, and reduce possession of 2-8 ounces from a misdemeanor to a fine.
-- as yet, no state legislator has stepped up to sponsor the bill, although a few have spoken positively about it.  Those included Vietnam veteran State Rp. Eliseo Alcon (D-Milan), who said that "part of our world is opposed to anything that might make someone happy", and State Sen. Richard Martinez (D-Espanola).
Fiftenen states have decriminalized possession of small amounts of marijuana.


While no cogent argument against legalizing marijuana use by adults outweighs the clear benefits of doing so, marijuana use by minors raises significant issues.  Marijuana and certain other drugs can produce scary moments (as my own experience, related above, would suggest); rather obviously, marijuana can lead to temporary confusion, fear, or paranoia, or can undermine judgment; and marijuana use can also be so delightful that it's hard to resist toking up more often than one should, and kids are particularly ill-equipped to interpose judgment and restraint.   Obivously kids don't have the context and maturity to handle many emotional situations that adults should have. 

The state has a legitimate interest in keeping grass out of the schools. 

But how best to do so is a legitimate question.  Certainly the current efforts are a miserable failure, in that grass is readily available to kids and smoked by many in schools. 

I'm no expert, but my guess is that if legalizing marijuana made much difference it might actually improve the state's ability to discourage marijuana use among kids.

First of all, once kids no longer believe in Santa Claus and the Tooth Fairy, I think we do better with them by explaining honestly the dangers of certain conduct.  Lies and gross exaggerations may work in the short term with some kids; but in the long run even those kids will see through you -- and, being kids, conclude that you're probably being equally fatuous in many of your other warnings and proscriptions. 

Secondly, to the extent that legalizing grass would lead to regulated growing and selling of the stuff, those businessfolk who grew and sell might be as vulnerable as bartenders and liquor store owners to stiff penalties for selling to minors.  A store-owner selling marijuana has an investment s/he would prefer to protect, and fines and suspensions might, as with alcohol sales, have at least some positive results. 

Third, to the extent that other and much more dangerous drugs are our real concern, separating sales of those from sales of marijuana might slightly decrease their use among kids. ]

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