Forty years ago this fall, marijuana was classified a Schedule I Controlled Substance, along with ecstasy, LSD, and heroin. The qualifications required for a drug to reach such an esteemed distinction are threefold: 1. High potential for abuse, 2. No currently accepted medical use, and 3. Lack of accepted safety for use. Additionally, Schedule I drugs are broken down into four categories; and yes, THC - the primary active chemical in marijuana - is listed under "psychedelic substances".
This November, days after the 40th anniversary of one of the most bizarre prohibitions in US history, California voters will have the opportunity to decriminalize once and for all the possession and recreational usage of what we now know to be a perfectly harmless, naturally-occurring crop. And right as many are to champion this measure finally making its way to a ballot, there is no cause yet to celebrate. A message war is about to heat up, much as it did in the same state in 2008 over same sex marriage. Hopefully, advocates will have learned two truths by now from last time around: the right will lie unabashedly, and elected Democrats will be largely silent and unhelpful.
This makes it more crucial than ever for advocates to be on the offensive.
One of the enduring treasures of American liberty is that we do not demand a reason to make something legal - the burden is on showing why something ought to be illegal. As usual, Gore Vidal put it succinctly: "It might be good for our citizens to recall (or learn for the first time) that the United States was the creation of men who believed that each man has the right to do what he wants with his own life as long as he does not interfere with his neighbor's pursuit of happiness."
So as a first offensive play, let's point the finger at those who oppose this measure and demand they explain themselves. Why has smoking something in private been judged a criminal activity? And does pot truly meet the requirements of a Schedule I drug?
1. High potential for abuse? Hardly: while upwards of 42% of American adults have smoked marijuana at least once in their life, less than 1% smoke it on a daily basis. And whereas alcohol is linked to over 75,000 deaths per year, and cigarettes roughly 400,000 per year, the world is still waiting for the first-ever instance of marijuana fatality. This is a drug on which it is impossible to overdose.
So more to the point - who cares? It is a byproduct of the pursuit of happiness that man has the right to debilitate himself - as long as he does not harm his neighbor while doing so. It is perfectly legal to abuse to any desirable degree - even to the point of death - the drugs Marlboro, Jack Daniels, and McDonalds, as well as base jumping, cave diving, and bull riding. It should come as no surprise that almost all of these highs are more addictive than marijuana, and cause more deaths per year (yes, even bull riding). What's more? Many of them do cause harm to innocent bystanders.
So will those who wish to keep pot illegal also criminalize these more dangerous drugs? I'll put down my bong when you put down your Big Mac.
2. No currently accepted medical use? This one need not be seriously addressed. Since 1970, 14 states have legalized marijuana for medicinal purposes, quite simply because it has medical value - something that has been known throughout human history. Today it is used to reduce pain and nausea for chemotherapy and AIDS patients, and sufferers of glaucoma and multiple sclerosis.
And this isn't just theoretical. Seniors are discovering the medical benefits more and more each year. From 2002-2008, marijuana usage among 55-59 year-olds tripled, from 1.6% to 5.1%. This is not an insignificant statistic upon reflection, because one of the biggest components to the coming narrative battle will be "a fight for civil liberties" versus "lazy twenty-somethings looking for an excuse to get high." If the latter wins out, look for all elected officials who may initially have been supportive of the proposition: they will have run for the hills. As Joe Klein puts it in a 2009 piece for Time: "...the default fate of any politician who publicly considers the legalization of marijuana is to be cast into the outer darkness. Such a person is assumed to be stoned all the time, unworthy of being taken seriously." The increased medicinal usage amongst seniors should demonstrate that responsible marijuana smoking is not only a conceivable practice - but one that already exists.
3. Lack of accepted safety for use? A good time to mention that the legalization of marijuana would incur the regulation of marijuana. Just as we allow other potentially harmful and destructive elements into society and regulate them (here one can include automobiles and pollution), so would be the case with pot. Most, if not all, of the current safety hazards associated with marijuana exist because the substance is illegal and unregulated. Just as alcohol prohibition led to organized crime and poorly-crafted homemade booze (that often led to alcohol poisoning), the continued criminalization of marijuana has led to a massive underground drug trade between southwestern states and Mexico, and the substance itself is not subject to any pharmacological scrutiny. Thus we are unable to monitor potency and purity of the pot that is in circulation.
If advocates are to win the first act of the coming message war, they must preemptively and effectively distance marijuana from other Schedule I Controlled Substances in this manner. Pot is not a dangerous drug, and in the colloquial sense it is not a "drug" at all. In making this distinction at the outset, before the myths get spread, and voter ambivalence crystallizes, the issue can instead be framed with fewer obstructions in its proper fashion: as a small-government movement that is cousin to the Tea Party. But that is for next week.
May 12, 2010