As Maryland weighs legalizing medical marijuana, it should consider my experience when I visited the student lounge at Montgomery College's Rockville campus at lunchtime last week and began interviewing randomly selected students about their views on weed.
Among the first group I approached, one of the four young men volunteered within minutes that he not only smoked marijuana but also sold it. He told me his price list: $10 a gram for "middies," the least potent and most readily available variety; $20 a gram for "headies" with more THC; $35 for the strongest, "exotic" types, like "white widow."
The youth's matter-of-fact attitude highlights a reality that's under our nose but is often overlooked in the oh-so-earnest debates over drug policy. When it comes to marijuana, American society has lost the war on drugs--and that's okay. We should stop squandering time and money trying to reverse history and instead legalize both medical and recreational use of this mild narcotic widely seen as no more harmful than alcohol.
Here are some facts:
Pot is widely available. A sizable chunk of the population thinks that's not a problem. In many locales, including Montgomery, prosecutors routinely send offenders caught with small quantities to a few days or weeks of drug education rather than prison. California and 12 other states will let you buy marijuana for health reasons, such as to control vomiting or relieve glaucoma. Four of those states permit collectives in which members grow their own.
In our region, advocates in Maryland and the District are pushing to legalize medical cannabis. (Virginia is sitting it out for now.) Maryland's policy recently attracted attention when a little-noticed 2003 law, which sets a maximum fine of $100 for medical use, was applied in two separate cases Aug. 27 in Rockville. Otherwise the penalty for pot possession in Maryland is up to one year in prison and a $1,000 fine.
My campus interviews indicate that the younger generation overwhelmingly favors legalizing cannabis. Fifteen of 20 students said they supported it, and the opponents acknowledged that they were in a small minority.
This, mind you, is the generation raised since the onset of well-financed, high-profile, anti-drug education campaigns, such as DARE.
Students offered numerous thoughtful reasons for legalization. The most frequent, by far, was the common-sense point that current laws aren't working. "For most people my age, it's a popular thing. People are going to do it anyway," said Simone Brewer, 17, a freshman from Rockville.
Several also argued that the economy would benefit. The government should tax marijuana and save the money now spent on prosecuting and imprisoning users, they said. "People are doing it every day, but the government isn't making money off of it," said Billy Vivian, 19, of Wheaton, who is studying criminal justice. "The prisons wouldn't be so filled up with nonviolent offenders."
All the students who supported legalization also favored keeping laws against such stronger drugs as cocaine, ecstasy, heroin and methamphetamines. They said those can cause severe mental and health problems or even kill you. They said legal marijuana should be subject to restrictions similar to those on alcohol, with strict prohibitions against underage use and driving while high.
Many of the students said they thought alcohol is more harmful than pot. It is more dangerous to drive drunk than stoned, they thought, and pot makes people mellow while alcohol makes them belligerent.
"When's the last time you heard about some guy on marijuana coming in and hitting his wife?" Anthony Thompson, 18, of Silver Spring, said.
In my view, there's one strong reason for keeping marijuana illegal. The risk of getting caught discourages some people from trying it or using it regularly. That's a plus for public health. But that's outweighed by the social and economic benefits of legalization.
Moreover, the current policy leads people to be cynical about the law. "If you have laws that are not effectively enforced, or are flouted as openly as some of these are, I think it undermines public confidence," said a senior Maryland law enforcement official who spoke on condition of anonymity in order to be candid about a controversial subject.
Some of the young people who support legalization now will doubtless change their minds as they get older, especially when they start to worry that their own children will smoke as they -- or their friends -- did. Given the other trends, though, there's a good chance that the rising generation will change the laws when it comes to power. We should change them now. It would save millions of dollars and countless hours of police officers' time and eliminate a source of hypocrisy about what we as a society actually tolerate.
The good news keeps coming for D.C. Schools Chancellor Michelle Rhee. After city schools opened without major disruptions, the system reported that enrollment was close to surpassing that of the previous year. If the number is confirmed in early 2010 after an audit, it would be a vote of confidence from parents. It also would embarrass Rhee's detractors on the D.C. Council, who were skeptical when she predicted that enrollment would be so high. On Friday, we learned that she's moved closer to a contract with the union. Let's just hope that there aren't too many mysterious erasures on the next round of standardized tests.
Sunday, September 13, 2009
The Washington Post