Legal Recreational Marijuana: Not So Far Out

Feb 6, 2012

The drive to legal­ize mar­i­juana has long been a fringe cause, asso­ci­ated with hard-core lib­er­tar­i­ans and college-age ston­ers. But it could go main­stream in a big way in this November’s elec­tion, when Wash­ing­ton could become the first state to legal­ize recre­ational pot use. If it does — or if vot­ers in any of sev­eral other states do — this year could be a turn­ing point in the nation’s treat­ment of mar­i­juana. The idea that a major­ity of vot­ers could sup­port legal­iz­ing mar­i­juana may seem far out — but the polls say oth­er­wise. In many states, the pro­le­gal­iza­tion and anti­le­gal­iza­tion camps are roughly equal in size. In a poll of Wash­ing­ton state vot­ers released last month, sup­port­ers of the legal­iza­tion ref­er­en­dum out­num­bered oppo­nents: 48% vs. 45%. And Wash­ing­ton prob­a­bly won’t be the only state vot­ing on mar­i­juana this year. In Col­orado, sup­port­ers last week fell about 3,000 sig­na­tures short of get­ting a legal­iza­tion mea­sure on the bal­lot — but the law gave them 15 days to col­lect the rest, and it seems likely they will. Activists are also col­lect­ing sig­na­tures in other states, includ­ing Cal­i­for­nia, Michi­gan and Mon­tana. For years, the debate over mar­i­juana has been focused on a nar­rower ques­tion: med­ical mar­i­juana. The argu­ment that can­cer patients and oth­ers with chronic pain should be able to alle­vi­ate it by using mar­i­juana has been pre­vail­ing in state after state. Today, 16 states — includ­ing Wash­ing­ton and Col­orado — and the Dis­trict of Colum­bia have legal­ized mar­i­juana for med­ical pur­poses. Recently, the action has shifted to recre­ational mar­i­juana use. Washington’s ref­er­en­dum would treat pot much like alco­hol, so the sale of mar­i­juana would be restricted to peo­ple over 21. The new law would give the Liquor Con­trol Board the author­ity to license mar­i­juana farms, and mar­i­juana tax rev­enues would be directed to health and drug-abuse pre­ven­tion pro­grams. But other states’ pro­posed laws are more laissez-faire. Col­orado would legal­ize mar­i­juana so that, as its sup­port­ers put it, cannabis would be reg­u­lated like “grapes, toma­toes or other harm­less botan­i­cal plants.” Montana’s amend­ment focuses on decrim­i­nal­iz­ing mar­i­juana but leaves it to the leg­is­la­ture to work out the details. Sup­port­ers argue that legal­iza­tion is long over­due. They argue that it is no more harm­ful than alco­hol or tobacco — and that in a free coun­try peo­ple should be able to decide on their own whether to use it. They also argue that, as a prac­ti­cal mat­ter, laws against mar­i­juana have been no more suc­cess­ful than Pro­hi­bi­tion was against alco­hol — and that, sim­i­larly, it has given crim­i­nals a monop­oly on dis­trib­ut­ing and sell­ing it. Legal­iza­tion, they say, would reduce the num­ber of peo­ple in prison, and it would shift rev­enue from drug syn­di­cates to gov­ern­ment in the form of tax receipts. Not sur­pris­ingly, the legal­iza­tion dri­ves have drawn heated oppo­si­tion. Crit­ics argue that mar­i­juana is harm­ful and addic­tive — and that it is often a gate­way drug, lead­ing to cocaine or heroin. They say stoned dri­vers would be a men­ace on the roads. And they warn that if it were legal­ized, and read­ily avail­able, mar­i­juana use could soar. (The Uni­ver­sity of Michigan’s “Mon­i­tor­ing the Future” sur­vey reported that daily mar­i­juana use is already at a 30-year high among high school seniors, even as alco­hol use has been declin­ing.) The anti­camp also argues that mar­i­juana is stronger than it was decades ago — from two to 10 times stronger, some experts say. (Other experts dis­pute the fig­ures.) If Wash­ing­ton or some other state legal­izes mar­i­juana, that would not set­tle the mat­ter. It would still be a con­trolled sub­stance under fed­eral law. And the U.S. Constitution’s Supremacy Clause says that when fed­eral and state laws clash, fed­eral law trumps. As a prac­ti­cal mat­ter, though, the fed­eral gov­ern­ment does not have the resources to police every­day use of mar­i­juana. If states begin to legal­ize it, the fed­eral gov­ern­ment might be hard-pressed to jus­tify divert­ing lim­ited Drug Enforce­ment Agency resources away from heroin car­tels toward small-time pot smok­ers. It is hard to hand­i­cap this year’s vot­ing, but one pos­si­bil­ity is this: mar­i­juana legal­iza­tion could lose in Wash­ing­ton and Col­orado in Novem­ber, but recre­ational use could nonethe­less be headed toward legal­iza­tion in many states in the not-too-distant future. Sup­port for legal­iza­tion has been ris­ing steadily, from just 12% in 1970 to 31% in 2001 to 50% today, with young peo­ple (ages 18–29) the most in favor (62%) and older peo­ple (ages 50–64) the least (49%). In strictly polit­i­cal terms, this is a pow­er­ful com­bi­na­tion: fast-growing sup­port and solid majori­ties among the young, who rep­re­sent where the elec­torate is headed. (Sup­port for gay mar­riage polls sim­i­larly — which is why it is becom­ing law in more states.) In a few years, the national dis­cus­sion may well turn from whether to legal­ize mar­i­juana to how to do it in the most pru­dent way. Cohen, the author of Noth­ing to Fear, teaches at Yale Law School. The views expressed are solely his own. Source: Time Mag­a­zine (US) Author: Adam Cohen Pub­lished: Feb­ru­ary 6, 2012 Copy­right: 2012 Time Inc. Con­tact: letters@​time.​com Web­site: http://​www​.time​.com/​t​i​me/

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Legal Recre­ational Mar­i­juana: Not So Far Out

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