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April 26, 2004
Peace Through The Chronic

Eric Schlosser, the author of such amazing and highly recommended books as Fast Food Nation and Reefer Madness, had an op-ed piece in the Times yesterday about the wacky weedus (thanks to Luke for the pointer.).

I don't often write about the drug war, but perhaps I should. Without putting too fine a point on it, it's probably one of the greatest injustices ever foisted on the American people. Ha.

About 700,000 people were arrested in the United States for violating marijuana laws in 2002 (the most recent year for which statistics are available) ? more than were arrested for heroin or cocaine. Almost 90 percent of these marijuana arrests were for simple possession, a crime that in most cases is a misdemeanor. But even a misdemeanor conviction can easily lead to time in jail, the suspension of a driver's license, the loss of a job. And in many states possession of an ounce is a felony. Those convicted of a marijuana felony, even if they are disabled, can be prohibited from receiving federal welfare payments or food stamps. Convicted murderers and rapists, however, are still eligible for those benefits.

That bears repeating: Almost three-quarters of a million people arrested for marijuana crimes in one year. 90% for simple possession. Murderers and rapists receive federal benefits for which marijuana users are ineligible.

More than 16,000 Americans die every year after taking nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs like aspirin and ibuprofen. No one in Congress, however, has called for an all-out war on Advil. Perhaps the most dangerous drug widely consumed in the United States is the one that I use three or four times a week: alcohol. It is literally poisonous; you can die after drinking too much. It is directly linked to about one-quarter of the suicides in the United States, almost half the violent crime and two-thirds of domestic abuse. And the level of alcohol use among the young far exceeds the use of marijuana. According to the Justice Department, American children aged 11 to 13 are four times more likely to drink alcohol than to smoke pot.

This proves that the real issue behind all of this is not concern for the health and safety of Americans, as we are meant to believe. It is utter hypocrisy.

Schlosser also points out that while people decry the use of "drugs" as destructive to our society, we're giving Ritalin to our children in record numbers, antidepressants are prescribed for shyness, and we are subjected to an endless barrage of drug advertisements in magazines and on television. But we don't consider a drug that allows a man to maintain an erection for 4 hours recreational. Marathon sex for middle-aged men is a medical necessity.

Over the past two decades billions of dollars have been spent fighting the war on marijuana, millions of Americans have been arrested and tens of thousands have been imprisoned. Has it been worth it? According to the government's National Household Survey on Drug Abuse, in 1982 about 54 percent of Americans between the ages of 18 and 25 had smoked marijuana. In 2002 the proportion was . . . about 54 percent.

That should pretty much seal the deal, shouldn't it? No matter what your personal beliefs on whether people should be legally allowed to enjoy themselves, attempting to make it illegal simply does not work. 20 years of ruined lives and billions of wasted dollars: no effect.

Governments all over the world have decriminalized drugs, marijuana in particular, and their societies are not falling apart. In fact, they have money to spend on treatment and education, and room in their prisons for violent criminals. We, on the other hand, let violent criminals go free, with benefits, to make room for potheads. Our government arrogantly pressures other governments (Canada) into maintaining tough drug laws despite the will of their citizens and our supposed reverence for democracy.

More important, denying a relatively safe, potentially useful medicine to patients is irrational and cruel. In 1972 a commission appointed by President Richard Nixon concluded that marijuana should be decriminalized in the United States. The commission's aim was not to encourage the use of marijuana, but to "demythologize it." Although Nixon rejected the commission's findings, they remain no less valid today: "For the vast majority of recreational users," the 2002 Canadian Senate committee found, "cannabis use presents no harmful consequences for physical, psychological or social well-being in either the short or long term."

So the President personally appoints a commission to investigate an issue, and then reject the commission's findings because they're politically inconvenient. Lovely. Is this the kind of democracy most Americans think we have? I doubt it.

Schlosser closes with a brilliantly simple suggestion which I defy anyone to mount a credible argument against:

Here's an idea: people who smoke too much marijuana should be treated the same way as people who drink too much alcohol. They need help, not the threat of arrest, imprisonment and unemployment.

If we truly wish to be a compassionate society, it's the only answer. If you consider drug use to be harmful, or a moral failing, or simply a bad idea, show some compassion and attempt to help people instead of punishing them.

Finally, John Stuart Mill, from On Liberty, quoted in this excellent survey of drug use and drug laws by The Economist magazine:

The only purpose for which power can be rightfully exercised over any member of a civilised community, against his will, is to prevent harm to others. His own good, either physical or moral, is not a sufficient warrant. He cannot rightfully be compelled to do or forbear because it will be better for him to do so, because it will make him happier, because, in the opinions of others, to do so would be wise, or even right. These are good reasons for remonstrating with him, or reasoning with him, or persuading him, or entreating him, but not for compelling him, or visiting him with any evil in case he do otherwise. Over himself, over his own body and mind, the individual is sovereign.

Damn right.


Previous Comments

I couldn't agree more. If you haven't already read it, one of the best books I have ever read, and probably one of the most convincing treatises I've ever read, is "Ain't No One's Business If I Do." by Peter McWilliams.

Peter himself became a victim of the war on drugs. The irony of his life and death would amaze you if it wasn't so tragic.


I was a victim of the war on drugs. The "Largest Mushroom Operation Bust in Georgia History".

My crime? Mycology. I grew some fungus inside. I get a knock on the door from the cops. "Care if we look around." Yeah - I care. You're not coming in without a warrant. "Ok - that's what we needed to know. Don't go anywhere, we'll go get a warrant and be right back." I get caught with 5 jars or rotten rice, face 15 years in jail for "manufacturing" and "possession of a weapon while committing a felony" (for having a kitchen knife that was over 4 inches long).

End result - $10,000 in fines, all my property in my apartment confiscated, a huge lawyer bill, probation, and a judge that ordered in writing that I donate my computer skills as a community service to a local church.

Did I mention these mushrooms grow on the sides of the roads, in peoples front yards, in public parks, and in cow fields throughout the entire state of Georgia?

The drug war is not just aimed at making a profit off of potheads using marijuana...