This election season, voters in two states, Washington and Colorado, decided to legalize the recreational use of cannabis. These were not spontaneous events, and these votes weren’t decided by your stereotypical couch-locked stoner. In fact in Colorado, votes in favor of legalizing marijuana outnumbered those for President Obama, who won the state, clearly showing that those who support legalizing cannabis are not just those who are just looking to “get high.”
In fact, more and more average Americans are waking up the deeply disturbing effects that marijuana prohibition has had on our country. Just a few weeks ago, Indiana state Police Chief Paul Whitesell publicly called for the end of marijuana prohibition, saying if it was up to him, he’d tax and regulate the substance.
Despite the rhetoric that the war on marijuana is protecting our children, marijuana use amongst teens is still alarmingly high. That being said, states that have decided to implement medical marijuana programs have seen no negative impact in teen use rates. In fact, a study right here in Rhode Island showed that this state’s medical marijuana program led to no increase in use among teens.
Similar studies have shown an actual decrease in teen use following the regulation of marijuana, showing that regulating the drug makes it harder for teens to get their hands on it. It’s simple logic: Drug dealers don’t typically ask for I.D. Many teenagers, in fact, report that alcohol is much more difficult to obtain than cannabis, despite alcohol being a legal substance.
While legalizing marijuana in order to protect children may seem paradoxical to some at first, it’s clear that our current tactics of criminalizing use simply are not working. By legalizing marijuana, we can tax adult recreational use (which is clearly already occurring) while protecting children through sensible regulation which requires proper I.D, and strict penalties for those who sell marijuana to minors.
In a future with legal cannabis, teens caught with the substance wouldn’t be sucked into the criminal justice system. Instead, teens would receive treatment for potential drug problems, while the registered store or individual responsible for teen sales could be brought to justice. Furthermore, the tax revenue made from legal cannabis, combined with the freeing of funds now used to arrest and prosecute marijuana users, could be used to help pay for the much underfunded programs that seek to help prevent and treat teen drug abuse.
A growing number of people are now speaking out about the failures of the War on Drugs. Last friday, a documentary was released on youtube, called Breaking the Taboo. Narrated by Morgan Freeman and featuring several current and former heads of state, including Bill Clinton and Jimmy Carter, the film highlights how the War on Drugs and criminalizing drug possession has failed to reduce global drug use. The film also discusses how the Netherlands has less cannabis use than surrounding European countries, even though the dutch have de-facto legalization, where cannabis is sold to adults in tightly regulated coffee shops.
Many so called prevention organizations refuse to listen to the growing amount of criticism towards our nation's cannabis laws. They think that more taxpayer money and harsher treatment of adult smokers will someday magically lead to an end of recreational cannabis use. The reality of their rhetoric is they focus on frightening parents who have honest concerns for their children, and they stay clear from discussing the nuances of drug policy, because they realize their arguments have little logical merit.
A common argument against regulation is that legal drugs like alcohol and tobacco cause enough damage to our teens, and that we shouldn't add another drug to that list. This claim fails to acknowledge, however, that cannabis is less addictive than both of those substances, and chronic marijuana use has a substantially smaller health impact than abuse of legal drugs. Not to mention that both states that recently legalized dedicated a certain percentage of tax revenue to drug prevention and treatment, allowing for funding of programs designed to allow teens the education to make the right choices about all drugs.
Another common argument from prohibitionists is that stoned drivers will wreak havoc following legalization, but driving while high will remain as illegal then as it is now. Regulation would allow police officers to focus more attention on intoxicated drivers anyways. We hardly blame alcohol companies for drunk driving, so why we should blame an inanimate substance rather than the irresponsible user who chooses to get behind the wheel?
Both of these arguments also rely on the fallacy that legalization will cause a dramatic increase in marijuana use. However, it's clear that despite the current laws, the majority of people who have the desire to use cannabis recreationally are already doing so. Legalization critics ignore the fact that these policies that are desperately trying to save will continue to fail to curb marijuana use, just as they have failed since the beginning of the War on Drugs in the the 1970’s.
We at Students for Sensible Drug Policy, as well as a majority of Rhode Islanders, believe that the only way we can protect teens from marijuana use is to legalize the substance for adult use. Only then will we be able to eliminate the black market and set up a system of sensible regulation in it’s place, one that actively works to keep cannabis out of the hands of our youth.
- Eric Casey, URI Students for Sensible Drug Policy, URISSDP.org