Pubdate: Fri, 10 Jan 2003
Source: Eau Claire Leader-Telegram (WI)
Copyright: 2003 Eau Claire Press
Author: Paul Campos
Note: Campos is a law professor at the University of Colorado


Twenty-five years ago, Lester Grinspoon noted in his classic study 
"Marihuana Reconsidered" that "the single greatest risk encountered by the 
user of the drug is that of being apprehended as a common criminal, 
incarcerated, and subjected to untold damage to his social life and career."

What was true then is even more true today: About 700,000 Americans are 
arrested annually for simply possessing marijuana, and more than 10,000 
Americans are currently in jails and prisons because they have been 
convicted of marijuana possession and no other crime.

The government's propagandists are taking full advantage of these 
statistics: A new anti-drug commercial depicts the potentially devastating 
arrest of a teenage marijuana smoker (drug convictions bar students from 
receiving federal educational loans), and concludes: "Marijuana can get you 
busted. Harmless?"

The commercial's unintentionally surreal message -- that marijuana is 
illegal because it's harmful, and it's harmful because it's illegal -- is 
one that seems likely to fill any young person capable of independent 
thought with contempt for both our marijuana laws and the dangerously 
authoritarian logic that supports and enforces them.

Imagine if one were to extend this logic to, say, freedom of the press: The 
government could produce commercials depicting the arrest of young people 
caught reading "subversive" literature to drive home the point that, if you 
happen to live under a sufficiently repressive regime, merely reading the 
wrong sort of book can be hazardous to your health.

Anti-drug zealots will reply that books, unlike marijuana, are harmless. 
This is of course preposterous: Few things are more dangerous than books. 
How many millions of deaths can be traced to the publication of "The 
Communist Manifesto," or "Mein Kampf," or for that matter the Bible and the 
Koran? Yet this is hardly an argument for repealing the First Amendment.

The idea that something ought to be criminalized because it isn't 
"harmless" is a key feature of the authoritarian mindset. It's an idea that 
allows for the criminalization of just about any imaginable activity, since 
almost nothing in this world is harmless.

Marijuana isn't harmless, but it isn't nearly as harmful as, for example, 
alcohol -- a substance that causes thousands of fatal overdoses every year 
(no one has ever died from an overdose of marijuana).

So why don't we make America an alcohol-free nation by criminalizing 
alcohol? The superficial answer is that we tried that once and it was total 
failure. (Attempting to eliminate marijuana use has also been a total 
failure: Almost half the current adult population -- nearly 100 million 
Americans -- has used marijuana, and several million Americans continue to 
use it regularly.)

The more nuanced answer is that making America an alcohol-free nation would 
actually be a bad thing, even if it were possible.

This isn't merely because the costs of prohibition are so high. Most people 
who drink alcohol have benefited from the experience more than they've been 
harmed by it. What anti-drug zealots are incapable of acknowledging is that 
the same holds true for marijuana users.

Indeed the evidence is overwhelming that, for the vast majority of 
marijuana users, their use has had no significant harmful effects, and many 
good ones.

Yet as Grinspoon pointed out a quarter century ago, "reason has had little 
influence in this matter." The criminal prohibition of marijuana, he said, 
was due to "cultural factors that have nothing to do with the effect of the 
drug itself."

In the years since, little has changed, as we waste billions of dollars, 
and give free rein to an increasingly dangerous authoritarianism, in the 
futile attempt to stamp out this largely benign practice.
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