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Should we decriminalize marijuana?

By Scott Tibbs, March 4, 2009

Andrew Cohen reports that government officials are considering decriminalizing marijuana, especially as a money-saving measure during lean economic times. Can the money spent prosecuting marijuana use and incarcerating non-violent marijuana users be better spent elsewhere? Before we get into the budgetary issues, it is important to consider the philosophical ramifications and public policy benefits and drawbacks of criminalizing marijuana use, and whether we as a society want to use law enforcement power (and tax money) to prevent people from lighting up a joint.

I have supported decriminalizing marijuana for 11 years now, since I changed my position on the issue in 1998. My position is that it is none of the government's business whether someone wants to use cannabis recreationally, so long as that person does not harm anyone else. I do not believe that government should be regulating what we may and may not put into our bodies "for our own good." Philosophically, it is a short leap from regulating recreational use of marijuana and regulating what kind of food we can eat to reduce health care costs from obesity and the medical problems that come with it.

Obviously, there should be reasonable, common-sense regulations on marijuana use, as we have now with alcohol. If a marijuana user is recklessly endangering the lives of other people by driving while stoned, society should harshly punish him with stiff jail time. It goes without saying that operating dangerous equipment while high should be prohibited. It is also obvious that employers should have the right to discriminate, refusing to hire or terminating the employment of anyone who uses marijuana, if for no other reason than to reduce liability and control worker's compensation costs.

Marijuana criminalization has brought with it concerns about the role of government power, as well. From the use of paramilitary tactics by police SWAT teams (including an incident where a 92-year-old woman was gunned down in her own home by police officers searching for marijuana, an abuse of power I mentioned on Friday) to increased search powers that have chipped away our constitutional rights, the expanded power government has taken for itself as part of the "War on Drugs" is far more dangerous than someone smoking a joint in the privacy of his own home.

While government should not interfere with someone's choice to use marijuana, it is a foolish choice to make. Short-term effects of the drug include "problems with memory and learning; distorted perception; difficulty in thinking and problem-solving; loss of coordination; and increased heart rate, anxiety, and panic attacks." Marijuana brings physical risks as well, because "the amount of tar inhaled by marijuana smokers and the level of carbon monoxide absorbed are three to five times greater than among tobacco smokers." (Source: TheAntiDrug.com) Puff for puff, marijuana smoke is far more carcinogenic than tobacco smoke.

I believe that government should generally refrain from interfering in our lives unless our actions harm someone else. If someone is sitting at home smoking a joint, he is not harming anyone else by this action, no matter how much I may personally disapprove of that behavior. It is not the role of government to act as our mommy and make sure we are not harming ourselves. In a free society, people should be able to make those choices for themselves, and accept the consequences that come with those choices.