Wednesday, December 30, 2015

America's Misplaced War on Marijuana

As noted in other posts, a majority of Americans believe that the nation's marijuana laws need to be changed.  As they exist currently, Virginia's marijuana laws produce thousands of citizens each year permanently marked by a criminal record - even for possessing small amounts of the substance.  All of this despite the fact that no research exists that has demonstrated that marijuana use has any where near the health issues of tobacco - which can still be legally purchased - which costs the nation billions of dollars in otherwise avoidable health care costs and lives ended prematurely.  Talk about having your priorities backwards.  A column in the Washington Post looks at these misplaced priorities.  Here are highlights:

In January [1964], the surgeon general announced that scientists had found conclusive evidence linking smoking to cancer and thus launched our highly successful 50-year public- health fight against tobacco. In August, the North Vietnamese fired on a U.S. naval ship in the Gulf of Tonkin, which led to the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution and the public phase of the Vietnam War. Alongside an accelerating deployment of conventional troops would come their widespread use of marijuana and heroin.

By 1971, cigarette ads had been banned from radio and television, the surgeon general had called for regulation of tobacco, and cigarette smoking had begun its long decline. T he impact of drug use among troops and returning veterans provoked President Richard M. Nixon to declare a war on drugs.  This was followed, of course, by the 1973 passage of the Rockefeller Drug Laws in New York. These set the model for criminalization and increasing penalties for the country as a whole, especially regarding drugs.

In the contrast between what has happened since 1964 with tobacco, on the one hand, and marijuana, cocaine, heroin and other banned substances, on the other, we have an instructive lesson in the comparative effects of choosing a public-health or a criminalization paradigm for dealing with addictive substances.

The approach to tobacco has worked. Between 1964 and 2014, smoking rates declined by half; . . . . The progress against smoking has been steady and impressive. It’s an altogether different tale with banned substances. While levels of illegal drug use have risen and fallen since 1971, current levels are equivalent to those we had in the mid-1970s. 

There is an even starker contrast in how perceptions of the risks of smoking and of illegal drugs have changed. In 1975, 51.3 percent of 12th-graders thought that smoking one or more packs of cigarettes a day posed great risk; by 1991 that number was 69.4 percent, by 2014 it was 78 percent. With illegal drugs, arrows move the opposite direction or stay essentially flat.

In other words, for all the money spent and lives ruined through violence and criminalization, we have made zero headway against illegal drugs.

So what did we do about smoking? Tobacco control has focused on prevention and cessation.
Beginning in 1964, public- health campaigns worked toward the “denormalization” of smoking, in the words of the 2014 Report of the Surgeon General

What we have done with marijuana and the other illegal drugs is, of course, invest heavily in criminal justice.

According to a 2011 Justice Department report, addressing illegal drugs cost the nation $193 billion in 2007.  . . . . this criminalization means a massive overload on the judicial system.

Rather than using the FBI to bust up fancy tunnel networks, we should legalize marijuana and decriminalize other drugs, and then tax and sue drug producers to generate revenue to support public health campaigns against their products, agencies to regulate them and treatment for those who suffer from addiction. Legalizing and decriminalizing drugs doesn’t mean giving up on the fight against them, and we have the lesson about what works right in front of our eyes.

Add to the ass backward approach taken on marijuana the unequal arrest rates for young black males and what we have is a disaster.  Conservatives are anti-drug yet whine and bitch about blacks not working when the failed war on drugs has made many nearly unemployable.  The cynic in me at times wonders if this hasn't worked more to hold back blacks than the foul Jim Crow laws.  The drug laws need to change now.

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