On Election Day, voters in Massachusetts took what they think will be a step forward for their state: They decriminalized possession of small amounts of marijuana.
Before you brush that off with, "Well, that's Massachusetts for you," consider that this is a state with not only a liberal bent but a strong Puritan streak. This is a place where you can't buy wine in a grocery store or pick up beer in a 7-Eleven.
By two to one, voters decided that possessing less than an ounce of marijuana will net a civil fine of $100 and no criminal record (and, for young offenders, a required drug-education program and community service). The laws on growing and trafficking in marijuana are unchanged. But unless the state legislature overturns the ballot initiative, the penalty for possession will be, for adults, bigger than a parking ticket, smaller than a misdemeanor.
And when the bill takes effect, what will happen? The Bay State will not fall into the clutches of evil and sin, any more than the Netherlands' enlightened drug policy has caused the prosperous, upright Dutch to sink into the sea.
But thousands of hours of police time will be freed up, the equivalent of adding a lot of bodies to police forces. Court dockets will be stripped of thousands of cases, clearing the way for cases involving real crimes. Thousands of people won't find their futures compromised by criminal records. And defiance of the law won't be bred by putting otherwise law-abiding citizens in a bind, where an activity they don't believe is wrong lands them on the wrong side of the criminal code.
Maybe it's time for Virginia to consider reaping some of those benefits. It's at least worth opening the discussion and talking about drugs and the law, what works and what doesn't, what people want and what they don't.
Along those lines, this has to be factored in: When it comes to marijuana, there is a gap between what the law says and what people do, or at least try. In a recent national survey, most adults under the age of 55 said they'd used illegal drugs at some point in their lives. And that's not a relic of long-gone psychedelic days: Drug use was as common among twenty-somethings as forty-somethings. The trend shows no signs of stopping: One in six 18- to 25-year-olds said they'd used marijuana in the last month.
And while it's apparent that the war on drugs consumes massive resources and sustains the livelihoods of criminals without stopping either supply or demand, we justify it because some substances are so dangerous.
When it comes to distinguishing what behavior is legal from what is not, the line isn't always as bright as we'd like. In the beginning of the 20th century, Coca-Cola was spiked and tonics laced with opium were sold over the counter — and America was consumed by a juggernaut of industry, not a stupor of inebriation. The nation tried prohibiting alcohol; that produced widespread defiance, crime and bullet-riddled bodies. Today, the pharmaceutical industry reaps big profits from some powerful addictive substances; others are banned.
It's time to discuss how a rational drug policy should make rational distinctions among drugs. And recognize that marijuana is not the same as crack.
It's time to discuss whether a society that allows people to choose some mood-altering substances — not just the obvious and ever-present alcohol but very common (with a cooperative physician) prescription drugs — should be a society that lets them decide for themselves about the mood-altering substance of marijuana.
It's time to talk about the fiscal price we pay for criminalizing marijuana. In 2007, police in Virginia arrested 35,196 people for drug offenses. The majority, 19,606, were for marijuana. That's a lot of law enforcement resources.
It might be time to go a step further than even Tax-achusetts, and think about the implications of the current policy of ceding the marijuana supply chain to violent hoodlums. What if we regulated — and taxed — it instead? If those surveys about marijuana use are valid, that could turn out to be a lucrative source of tax revenue. Again, like alcohol.
Would decriminalizing marijuana lead to wider use? More addiction? The psychological and physiological dimensions of drug use make it hard to say. Alcohol is a problem for some people, but most manage it well and in moderation. Narcotic painkillers are a boon to most people, and push a few down a dark hole. For some people, some drugs are addictive, and some drugs are more likely to be destructive. This isn't to suggest decriminalizing the more dangerous ones, such as heroin, crystal meth or cocaine in any form.
But if the risk of addiction was a good enough reason to outlaw a substance, we'd ban alcohol, tobacco and some prescription drugs. Nor is the risk of other forms of physical harm, or we'd yank those substances off the shelves, along with junk food.
Millions of Americans have used marijuana, and it's obvious that they haven't been turned into addicts. What they have been turned into is law-breakers. It's time to talk — rationally, openly, calmly — about not making a crime out of an adult's decision to use one mood-altering substance rather than another.
Note: It's time for a frank, calm discussion about decriminalizing marijuana.
January 11, 2009