As should come as no great surprise from a survey about legalizing marijuana from a progressive political magazine, an overwhelming majority in our latest LA Progressive survey support the legalization of marijuana.
Fully 80% of the 126 people who responded strongly support outright legalization of marijuana, with another 16% mildly supporting legalization. Just 2.4% oppose.
Drawn from the many responses the survey received (see the companion page), these two summarize the main points for legalizing marijuana:
"Using the legal system to control such a relatively harmless substance while the system permits and is in business with more harmful substances (alcohol, for example) degrades personal liberties, harms the legal system and its officers, jams the prisons, and puts a great overload of decision-making power in the hands of prosecutors. I'd like society to look at the problem of there being so many unhappy people and let's get busy to help with that and get child and maternal health going right and many other improvements to life and health."
"Marijuana use might actually decline slightly over the years after legalization, and certainly won't rise significantly because it is already widely available. Taxation would help local communities and state's budgets, and the supply and pricing of marijuana could be regulated by the federal and state governments. Drug crime would be reduced, especially in Mexico. Law enforcement could focus on actual crimes rather than wasting time and tax payer's dollars on arresting people for marijuana."
Even though our survey's pro-legalization response might be higher than you'd find with the general population in America, a Gallup survey conducted late last year showed for the first time that a majority of Americans favor legalization, up from just 12% in 1970, 23% in 1986 and 36% in 2006.
Reasons for advocating legalizing fall into several broad categories:
- Marijuana is an age-old, natural and relatively harmless drug, widely used around the world, that causes its users less damage than other drugs, such as alcohol or tobacco.
- The War on Drugs, started during the Nixon Administration four decades ago, is a massive failure, locking up many people for nonviolent drug offenses and turning them into criminals, while creating deadly criminal enterprises.
- Taxing legal marijuana sales, as we do with alcohol and tobacco, would generate badly needed tax revenues during our New Age Depression and would free law enforcement officers to focus on real crime.
For me, the second two general points are compelling. Certainly, the War on Drugs has harmed a great number of marijuana users and small-scale pot peddlers over the years, with no great benefit to society. And in particular, drug enforcement has targeted our black and brown populations, as Michelle Alexander has shown in her New Jim Crow, not because those populations use more marijuana, but because of selective law enforcement which serves as a tool of population control and intimidation. That alone is reason to move to some form of decriminalization or legalization.
Resultant tax revenues themselves are not enough to force a change, in my mind. But if we need to move toward legalization, as we do, then we will need those revenues for educating our youth about the dangers of all forms of drug use and to support programs for those marijuana users who do have trouble with overuse, just as we should be using extensive alcohol taxes to support alcoholism treatment, but don't.
But I need some convincing on the point that marijuana is harmless. I know a lot about alcoholism and can verify beyond any doubt that alcohol abuse is far worse than anything you would see from a marijuana user. Nor do I think marijuana is addicting, certainly not in the way that alcohol and nicotine are. Fully 77% of our respondents agree that marijuana use is less harmful than cigarettes or alcohol, and just 4.5% think it's addictive
How to Drink
Perhaps an example would explain my objection to the complete coupling of "harmless" and "marijuana."
Take my wife and alcohol. Most evenings, Sharon will pop open a single bottle of beer -- her current favorites are Modelo Negra, Stella Artois, and Kingfisher -- pour it into a glass and spend the next 45 minutes sipping it as she reads, eats, or talks with me. On a big night, when she's really going to trip the light fantastic, she'll open a second bottle of beer. Mind you, she likely won't drink it -- and sometimes she won't even start to drink it -- so there it will be on the coffee table at evening's end for me to take out to kitchen sink.
As she drinks her single bottle of beer, you can see her relax. The drop in her stress levels is almost palpable, as any frustration from her day as our magazine's publisher drains from her face and body. If we had a roomful of doctors over for dinner, I bet everyone of them would say, "Sharon, keep right on trucking. That bottle of beer is good for your health."
Now take Sharon's husband, Dick. I stopped drinking 30 years ago before drinking stopped me. And in those three decades of joyful abstinence, I have known more than a few people who could not do with marijuana what Sharon does with alcohol. Sure, I have also had friends who can and have successfully used marijuana to enhance their lives, using it to relax, perhaps lower their blood pressure, and improve their mood without undue consequence.
But I also have known people, more like me, who would give their lives over to marijuana if it were readily available. Pot may not be addictive in the way alcohol or nicotine are, but it's powerfully habituating -- especially as it's been bred to be much more powerful than it was in the 60s and 70s when its popularity spiked on college campuses and beyond.
How to Legalize
But our history over the past four decades has shown, just as Prohibition in the 20's did with alcohol, that our efforts to outlaw it have largely failed, creating a disdain for the law among many people who know from their own experience that pot smoking isn't the "Reefer Madness" it's made out to be, while creating continent-spanning criminal networks and prisons packed to the gills.
The most effective parallel, to my mind, is what happened to cigarette smoking in my lifetime. When I went off to college in New York City in 1965, people smoked. I mean, they smoked. Two professors in my first freshman semester even spent their lecture hours pacing back and forth, trailing great clouds of smoke from their cigarettes and, in one case, from cigars. And we students could, and did, smoke right along with them, even some of the football players (okay, it was Columbia, so you have to take "football player," of which I was one on the winless under 155-pound team, with a grain of salt).
Pity the poor nonsmokers back then. Go into any restaurant and the only nonsmoking table, never mind section, would be that one lonely table back by the lavatories with the matchbook under one leg to stop the rocking. Cabs, jail cells, business offices, barrooms, doctors' waiting rooms -- people smoked everywhere and lots of them. I don't know the percentages, but it had to be sky high.
Now, of course, especially here in California, you can hardly smoke in the privacy of your own home, at least not without the drapes drawn. And if someone does pull out a cigarette in public, watch the shame in their face, the apologetic shrug, the offer to go hide someplace out of sight while they feed their addiction.
How did that happen?
- By locking up tens of thousands of smokers, destroying their families, turning them into hardened criminals, and forfeiting their futures? No, nobody got arrested other than the occasional tax-evading cigarette smuggler from North Carolina or convenience store manager for selling to minors.
- By creating new law enforcement agencies at every level of local, state, and federal government, staffing them with brigades -- no, divisions -- of kevlar-clad, machine gun-toting drug enforcement agents? No, not a bit of it.
- By perpetuating a massive -- and massively dishonest -- "Cigarette Madness" public relations campaign to sell the lie that cigarette smoking is the gateway to heroin, cocaine, or methamphetamine addiction? No, not that either -- though I wonder if addiction to nicotine might be a precursor to addition to other substances.
What actually happened was that
- The medical research community convincingly showed that cigarette smoking leads to myriad serious health problems and death, and a hard road getting there.
- Government and private agencies instituted a continuing public relations campaign to tell the truth about the harm smoking does.
- We progressively taxed the bejeezus out of tobacco sales, for the revenue generated but also to curtail use.
- We strictly enforced laws preventing minors from smoking and progressively limited the places people could smoke, both to protect the rights of the growing armies of former smokers and never smokers but also as a further effort to curtail use.
- We developed programs and medicines to help smokers -- Sharon and I are both former smokers -- to stop smoking.
- Most importantly, we applied social pressure, as increasingly more Americans understood the dangers inherent in smoking and pressed on their friends and family members and workmates the need to stop smoking.
That's what we need to do with marijuana use. Legalize or decriminalize it, to stop the damage criminalization is doing to our society, then use taxation, public pressure, and individual social pressure to help our fellow citizens use it responsibly, if that's what they want to do -- the same pressure we use to keep our friends' and family members' alcohol consumption in check.
Overcoming the powerful interests vested in keeping things as they are -- the liquor companies, which fear liquor sales declines should marijuana be sold openly, and the armies of police officers, drug enforcement agents, and prison guards, who will have fewer "criminals" to chase and cage -- will be a daunting task, no doubt. But with public support for legalization growing as it has -- from 36% in 2006 to 50% today -- the momentum in that direction is mounting.
An even higher percentage -- 90% of survey respondents -- agree that medical marijuana has proven pain-relief properties and should be readily available on doctor's orders. This comment summarizes the general theme among respondents:
"I am a retired physician with metastatic cancer of the prostate. Have watched the situation carefully and feel that marijuana has definite properties that are of medical benefit. However, the liquor lobby and the departments of government which are making a profit from illegal pot will not be denied."
Only 1% thought marijuana leads to serious drug abuse problems and just 6% think their are better, more scientifically proven pain-relief alternatives to marijuana.
A surprisingly small percentage -- 20% -- think medical marijuana is being used as a back-door way to make recreational marijuana widely available. Most respondents must not have been to places like Venice Beach where marijuana "pharmacies" openly hawk marijuana prescriptions to any passerby -- not just ones who might be in pain -- with more vigor than the folks at the sunglasses and henna tattoo booths on either side.
For my money, we are creating disdain for the law with these medical marijuana shops sprinkled around town. If, as I've said, we should legalize marijuana, then let's do it directly by getting our state legislature to pass that law. Failing that, we should pass an initiative.
Until then, why not sell medical marijuana to doctor-certified pain sufferers through the wide network of licensed pharmacies we already have, with trained staff, licensing and supervisory structures in place?
Okay, okay. I hear you. Those aren't popular positions, not in this crowd -- but that's where I stand.
Dick Price, Editor