Frank Smizik wants to update our antiquated marijuana laws. Brookline's State Representative is sponsoring a bill to let Massachusetts doctors prescribe cannabis; another would decriminalize simple possession. Smizik's goals are so reasonably moderate they're likely to draw broad support even outside our own liberal enclave. Still, even though the bills don't go far enough, they face an uphill battle in Just-Say-No America.
According to polls, most Americans think marijuana should be available to anyone whose doctor prescribes it for relevant medical conditions. Many doctors already advise such patients to buy or grow pot illegally. Used medicinally for thousands of years, cannabis often works better than other medications to combat cancer chemotherapy's nausea, the muscle spasms of multiple sclerosis, glaucoma's dangerous eye pressure, and the wasting away of AIDS. And the list goes on.
A 1991 Massachusetts law allowing limited medical use ran into stubborn roadblocks. Smiziks bill is designed to get around some of those, but federal opposition remains strong.
Just two months ago, a federal judge in California refused to let a defendant inform the jury that the marijuana he grew was cultivated under an official medical-marijuana license issued by the city of Oakland. The jurors convicted the man -- sending him to prison for at least five years -- but the next day they held a press conference to object after finding out they'd been tricked.
Smizik's second bill -- replacing criminal penalties for possession with civil fines, like a parking ticket -- faces even more difficulty. It makes sense, though, to anyone appalled by spending $40,000 a year to keep a pot smoker in prison. According to Boston University economics professor Jeffrey Miron, marijuana decriminalization would cut Massachusetts law enforcement costs by $24 million annually.
Saving money might be persuasive enough during the current budget crisis, but there's a more significant argument: criminal penalties are disproportionate to any actual harm. Indeed, marijuana's biggest risk is getting arrested and thrown behind bars to face beatings, harder drugs, and an introduction to a life of real crime. Even lesser penalties that brand someone a criminal -- probation and fines -- can lead to job loss, eviction, and more.
Some 80 million Americans have smoked pot, and not all of them make believe they never inhaled; according to the feds, more than 10 million use it regularly. Many extend youthful "experimentation" to lifelong occasional use, often preferring marijuana's effects to alcohol's. Many perfectly normal working adults, thus, break the law routinely, week after week, year after year, decade after decade, knowing from regular nonproblematic use that government policy is based on lies.
That's why decriminalization doesn't go far enough. Alcohol is legally distributed to adults, regulated for health and safety, and taxed heavily; abuse raises legitimate concerns, but most use is not abuse. Why treat pot differently? Especially since it's less destructive than alcohol, instead of punishing people for toking up we should thank them for not drinking.
Yes, of course we should protect children, most effectively by giving them accurate information uncontaminated by DARE scare tactics. Yes, driving while high should be as illegal as driving drunk. Yes, other issues must be addressed, including treatment options for those who need them.
But let's eliminate punitive policies designed to spread hysteria, misinformation, and moralism, which often simply mask a desire to make sure the Sixties never happen again. In the popular imagination, after all, marijuana leads to entirely too much spontaneity, sensuality, rebellion, and rejection of boring lives. Would that it were always so.
Smizik's bills are worth passing. Nevertheless, they only begin to make US law as enlightened as, say, Canada's, where a House of Commons committee now recommends decriminalization while a Senate committee proposes legalization.
Here, though, as Smizik noted in an email, "It seems [the feds] are still watching 1930s and 1940s movies put out by the FBI on the 'evil weed.'" Recent commercials claiming people who buy marijuana are funding terrorism demonstrate that Reefer Madness remains in force.
To investigate marijuana's history, economics, and prospects for legalization, check out the Massachusetts Cannabis Reform Coalition (an affiliate of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws).
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Page updated September 30, 2007