The Wrong Way to Legalize Marijuana

Mike Males (similar version appeared in Los Angeles Times, Opinion, 15 September 2002)

            Whether Nevada voters approve or reject the Marijuana Policy Project’s ballot initiative to legalize marijuana for adults, rational American drug policy is the loser. The November vote will change little in a state that already legalizes gambling and prostitution and subjects adults caught with pot, even three times, to mere misdemeanor citation.

            The disturbing development the Nevada initiative reveals is America’s deteriorating drug policy debate. Drug policy reform groups such as MPP now embrace harsh “War on Drugs” doctrines they once vehemently opposed. Abandoning their cogent stance that criminalizing marijuana use causes more harm than marijuana itself, MPP’s initiative endorses the hard-line drug-war position that draconian, lifelong punishments should be imposed on young people who try pot. The Nevada initiative entitles adults over age 21 to buy and possess up to three ounces of marijuana apiece at the expense of constitutionally requiring the legislature to “provide or maintain” criminal penalties for persons under age 21.

            Maintaining Nevada’s law means a young person caught with a single joint faces a $5,000 fine, four years in prison, a felony record, and permanently jeopardized student loans, government benefits, and employment. Since half of all marijuana arrestees are under 21, MPP executive director Robert Kampia’s claim that Nevada’s initiative would “end the arrest of all marijuana users” is flatly false. Kampia has not specified how young marijuana users should be punished except to argue that current laws “should remain on the books.”

            In America’s grim history of  “wars on drugs,” the devolution now occurring is nothing new. Drug wars traditionally feature two elements. The first is the official crusade to link feared drugs to feared populations--the Chinese and opium, blacks and cocaine, Mexicans and marijuana, immigrants and alcohol, underclasses and heroin. The second feature is lobbying by privileged groups to exempt their own drug use from the war. Upper-class patronage of opiates, cocaine, and bootleg liquor decades ago was rarely punished. While today’s powerful leaders are not penalized for, or even obliged to admit, past use of illegal drugs, younger students are subjected to drug tests, mandated disclosure, and permanent punishments. Governors are not evicted from publicly-funded residences because family members violate drug laws; indigent public housing residents are.

            Likewise, the Nevada initiative invites grownups to exempt their own cannabis partying from criminal sanction even as they inflict ever-crueler punishments on today’s drug-war scapegoat, young people. It doesn’t matter that neither MPP nor anyone else has shown an apocalyptic difference between marijuana use by a 17 year-old and a 40 year-old, or a 20- versus a 21 year-old, that would justify such drastically different regulation. In fact, Marijuana Myths Marijuana Facts, the reformist Drug Policy Alliance’s bible, reviews hundreds of scholarly studies and reports none showing marijuana more harmful for adolescents than for adults. While a few users in all age groups become dependent, marijuana is not an addictive or “gateway” drug leading to hard-drug abuse. Rather, as government-impaneled commissions consistently conclude, the biggest marijuana danger to young people is getting arrested for using it--a danger MPP’s initiative perpetuates and exacerbates.

            Jettisoning the scientific rigor they once championed, MPP and other reform lobbies now perpetrate the same distorted, emotional appeals to public prejudice they berate drug-war proponents for indulging. Having sought political popularity by supporting drastic punishments for younger users, marijuana legalization groups now twist facts wholesale to support their new position that pot is a fearsome menace to youth--one that, happily, can be remedied by legalizing marijuana for grownups. That marijuana legalization lobbies now invoke as their model a failed American alcohol regulation system world-famous for fostering drunken excess shows how reformers have embraced the worst aspects of the drug-war regime they once opposed.

            MPP’s Kampia recently told CNN that because marijuana is illegal and unregulated, “the federal government's own surveys show that year after year high school seniors find marijuana much easier to obtain than alcohol or cigarettes.” Kampia failed to respond to my question as to what federal surveys show this, perhaps because none do. The only federally-funded survey of high school seniors, Monitoring the Future, consistently finds high school seniors, sophomores, and 8th graders report alcohol and cigarettes are much easier to obtain than marijuana or other illegal drugs. Further, teenagers actually get and use legal, regulated alcohol and cigarettes two to 25 times more than any illicit drug.

            Nothing shocking about that. As every society but ours recognizes, it’s normal for adolescents to experiment with adult behaviors. Thus, if Nevada’s initiative passes, teenage marijuana use is likely to increase. After The Netherlands legalized marijuana, Trimbos Institute surveys found that pot smoking tripled among Dutch youth. While, two decades ago, Dutch teens used marijuana one-third as often as U.S. teens, today the levels are equivalent--another matter both drug reformers and drug warriors misrepresent.

            What reformers should be pointing out is that the Dutch implemented stunningly successful health measures to reduce hard-drug abuse by shifting resources away from policing youths and adults who use mild drugs. By contrast, the dismal campaign surrounding Nevada’s initiative finds both sides hyperventilating over whether a someone under age 21 might light up.

            The fatal flaw in America’s drug debates, past and present, is that while drug crises are real, the feared scapegoats rarely cause them. Addiction to opiates and cocaine was far more serious among white middle classes than among blacks or Chinese a century ago, just as today’s white 40 year-olds suffer heroin, cocaine, and methamphetamine abuse rates many times higher than teenagers or young adults of any color. Trumpeting “drugs” as a horror foisted on mainstream society by feared minorities and young people evades the fact that middle America harbors the most addicts.

            That’s why race-baiting, anti-immigrant, and anti-youth drug wars fill prisons but fail to ameliorate America’s drug abuse crisis, which has now reached record levels. The Nevada initiative sponsored by MPP and other drug reformers once again invites mainstream America to indulge its own drug pleasures the better to direct fear and punishment against today’s youthful scapegoat. Ultimately, this backwards notion of reform aggravates the uniquely American panic at young people acting like adults--the sure recipe for perpetual teen-drug scares and endless “wars on drugs.”


Mike Males has written four books on youth issues and teaches sociology at the University of California, Santa Cruz.


Mike Males

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