Pubdate: Tue, 30 Oct 2012
Source: USA Today (US)
Copyright: 2012 USA TODAY, a division of Gannett Co. Inc


Pot for Medical Purposes? Sure. for Getting High? No.

Legalize pot? The nation has flirted with the idea before: Jimmy
Carter supported decriminalization in his 1976 campaign, but the idea
died after his chief drug adviser was reported to have used cocaine at
a Washington, D.C., party.

Almost four decades later, though, a pot renaissance is sweeping parts
of the USA: Seventeen states and the nation's capital now allow the
use of medical marijuana with a doctor's order, which in some places
is ludicrously easy to get. Thirteen states have decriminalized pot,
which generally means that the punishment for first-time possession of
small amounts is a fine with no jail time.

National opinion is shifting, as well. Gallup reported this month
that, for the first time, 50% of Americans think marijuana should be
legal; in 1970, just 12% were for legalization. While fewer than
one-third of voters 65 and older favor legal pot, the number rises to
almost two-thirds among voters 18 to 29.

Now three Western states could be taking the next step.

On Nov. 6, Colorado, Oregon and Washington will vote on whether to
make pot legal for anyone 21 or older. Approval could mark a historic
change - and the emergence of a huge new industry to rival those for
cigarettes and alcohol.

But the fact that legal pot has growing momentum doesn't mean it's a
good idea, or that it's inevitable:

Marijuana is still illegal under federal law. Those who can grow or
sell pot legally under state law can be, and have been, busted by the
feds. Although the Obama administration ordered a hands-off policy in
2009 for medical marijuana operations in compliance with state laws,
there's no sign that federal drug enforcers would wink at full-blown

The Obama administration remains strongly opposed. Supporters of state
legalization want this confrontation on the grounds that it will
change federal law. Maybe, but a more likely scenario is that states
will end up in costly litigation while pot users are left in legal

Modern marijuana can be very powerful, potent enough to make it
dangerous to drive or operate other machinery under the influence.
Backers of legal pot wisely advocate tough penalties for driving while
stoned, but do we really want to add another widely available drug to
roads where alcohol already causes mayhem? And do we want to worry
(more than we already do) that pilots or train engineers or others are
high when they come to work? That would be more likely if pot were

"Reefer madness" scare stories killed the credibility of
anti-marijuana crusaders decades ago, but that doesn't mean marijuana
is a benign drug, especially for children. A study by Duke University
and King's College London found that kids who start smoking as
teenagers and become "persistent users" - at least four times a week -
typically lose 8 IQ points and never get them back. Beyond IQ points,
many lose motivation to succeed in school.

Doctors have split over whether marijuana causes lung cancer the way
smoking cigarettes does, though evidence seems to be accumulating that
it could. A recent study at the University of Southern California
found a link between recreational pot use and testicular cancer in men
from their teens to the mid-30s.

Advocates of legalization make some good points, particularly about
the waste of law enforcement resources in enforcing marijuana laws,
and the way the illegal market enriches criminal gangs and drug cartels.

Their arguments demonstrate how imperfect the current legal regime is,
but they downplay the risks of legalization. Making marijuana
available for medical use is a humane and sensible policy, despite the
likelihood of wider use and abuse. Doing the same thing simply to
allow adults to get high legally isn't worth the inevitable cost.
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