Scott Tibbs
Published in the Indiana Daily Student, March 9, 1998

Back to opinion page.

Legalize marijuana

OK, you can pick yourself up off the floor now. A card-carrying member of the religious right really has endorsed the legalization of marijuana.

I don't change my positions on issues very often. But in this case, I believe a change of position is not only justifiable but the correct thing to do. After some research, I believe my previous position against legalization is inconsistent.

I am not saying there are not very good arguments in favor of the continued prohibition of marijuana. In fact, the more I research the topic, the more opposed I am to anyone actually using the drug. Marijuana is not the "harmless" high much of the pro-legalization movement sees it as. Billboards put up by the CommUNITY Educators note marijuana is five times as carcinogenic as cigarettes. In addition, marijuana slows memory and learning functions, alters the user's heart rate and can cause behavioral problems similar to those caused by alcohol. Cancer notes women who smoke dope are 11 times more likely to develop leukemia.

But from a public policy perspective, continued prohibition of marijuana is counterproductive. Someone who simply wants to smoke pot at home is not harming anyone any more than someone who drinks alcohol at home. The number of people we arrest and throw in jail every year for marijuana possession is too great in comparison to the harm marijuana causes to our society.

Think about it: Suppose someone is caught with marijuana and prosecuted for the offense. We have him/her jailed, prosecuted and imprisoned if the case is strong enough. All at taxpayer expense. Think about the costs: the time and money the prosecution must spend building the case, the court costs and the food and shelter for the imprisoned offender. All because he (or she) used poor judgment in consuming a mind-altering drug for a high. And this happens constantly. Marijuana Magazine reports there have been 11 million marijuana arrests in the last 30 years. This averages to more than 360,000 arrests per year on the marijuana trade. The rest (about 85 percent of the total) is for marijuana possession. These are just people who use marijuana, not dealers of the substance. Wouldn't it be better if the resources of law enforcement were applied to violent crime instead of continued prohibition of marijuana?

This is not to say people who smoke dope are just harming themselves. This is one aspect of the pro-legalization argument I have a severe problem with. People do not live in a bubble. Unless you're living on a desert island somewhere, putting harmful substances into your body affects everyone, not just the user. If someone loses his/her job or messes up his/her life in some other way because of marijuana or alcohol use, that person harms his/her family and the economy at large as well. To be sure, driving under the influence of a controlled substance makes the driver a danger to everyone else, not just himself. But we already have laws on the books for that sort of thing with regard to alcohol.

Although the sentences for marijuana possession are way too harsh, legislators hope to make them harsher. The Marijuana Policy Project notes Rep. Newt Gingrich, R-Ga., recently introduced as HR 41, brings mandatory life in prison without the possibility of parole on the first offense for bringing two ounces of marijuana into the United States from a foreign country. A second offense brings the death penalty. How one can actually commit a second offense when the first offense brings life in prison leave me clueless.

Please don't tell me this makes the least bit of sense. We have rapists getting a slap on the wrist for their crimes. When a truly sick individual can brutally assault a woman and get off scot-free, but being caught with two ounces of dope can bring the death penalty, something is truly messed up with our priorities.

People shouldn't use marijuana. It harms the body and the mind. But a better solution to the problem of marijuana is not prohibition. We should effectively refute the notion marijuana is a "harmless" drug and basically shame it out of the culture, using programs such as the "Just say no" campaign of the 1980s. But continued prohibition is counterproductive and ineffective, and it should end.