Pubdate: Sun, 03 Apr 2016
Source: Times Argus (Barre, VT)
Copyright: 2016 Times Argus


A public hearing at the State House on Thursday allowed supporters 
and opponents of marijuana legalization to have their say before the 
House takes action on a bill passed by the Senate.

The issue provokes ardent advocacy on both sides, but it is not the 
most important issue in the world. It is about an intoxicant, an 
indulgence. There is much to be said about how best to manage the 
presence of the drug in our society, but our fundamental rights are 
not at stake.

The allure of intoxicating substances is part of the human 
experience, and societies everywhere have to figure out how to 
contain the potential damage drugs can cause. The responses range 
from prohibition - common for alcohol in the Muslim world - to 
varying degrees of regulation. The success of regulation varies. 
Russia is said to have a pervasive problem with alcoholism because of 
the Russians' love of vodka. In the United States the regulation of 
tobacco has succeeded in causing a sharp reduction in smoking, but 
the addictive qualities of nicotine make prohibition an 
impossibility, even given the fatal consequences of smoking.

Marijuana, like other drugs, can make people stupid and can habituate 
them to its use, even if it is not addictive in the way that nicotine 
and heroin are. (There was the famous line, said to be from Louis 
Armstrong: "Marijuana's not addictive, and I should know. I smoke it 
every day." ) But marijuana does what other drugs do - give an 
intoxicating high that is experienced as pleasant relief from the 
toll of everyday life. There will be no stamping it out.

There was no effort to stamp it out till the 1930s, and then in the 
1970s under President Richard Nixon, the official war on drugs began, 
ruining lives in a far more extreme way than marijuana ever would 
have done. John Ehrlichman, Nixon's domestic policy adviser, recently 
admitted that the war on drugs was a blatantly racist and political 
campaign meant to turn the public against African-Americans and young 
people. Thousands paid the price with years in jail and lives wasted.

The war on drugs, at least as it relates to marijuana, is all but 
over in Vermont. As it stands now, marijuana is allowed to take place 
in that nether world of illegality where enforcement has been all but 
abandoned and everyone knows that use is common. By leaving the 
official prohibition in place, society keeps in place a reminder that 
abuse of the drug can be damaging and use should not be flaunted. 
Society may not throw you in jail, but it will frown.

The frown has its uses. It conveys to young people that 
overindulgence has its dangers, which is an important message. It 
refrains from celebrating intoxication so blatantly that people 
forget there are dangers. People need no encouragement about the 
pleasures of intoxication. They will find out on their own.

But maintaining official prohibition has its costs: Forcing people to 
buy their substance on the black market perpetuates a criminal 
enterprise that is damaging to the nation and to neighboring nations. 
Keeping a line in place that minimizes the availability of drugs to 
underage would-be consumers is good. But should the line be at 21 
years of age as it is for alcohol, or should it be drawn so it makes 
all use illegal? Neither line is impervious, but the existence of the 
line sends a precautionary message and limits harm to people who are 
too young to experiment.

The questions that House members will be weighing probably have to do 
with numbers. Will legalization increase use? Will it increase use by 
young people? Will it increase the number of traffic crashes? Law 
enforcement officials say they are not ready to police the crime of 
driving while stoned.

Vermont is closer than it has ever been to ending marijuana 
prohibition. One of the principal dampers on the enthusiasm of 
legislators is the current epidemic of opioid abuse, which has 
rattled people in all walks of life. Marijuana is not an opioid, and 
it is not fatal, but the atmosphere on the issue of drugs remains 
clouded by concern that people, especially young people, are in 
danger. Legalizing marijuana makes sense for many reasons, but some 
lawmakers worry that it sends a cavalier message about drug use in 
general and that now is not the time to send that message. There is 
no harm in going slow and making sure the state knows what it is doing.
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MAP posted-by: Jay Bergstrom