May 07, 2009

Marijuana Law Reform


Many supporters of marijuana law reform think that the stars are aligned as never before in their favor.  They may be right.  Throughout the country, liberal cultural trends are evident in the removal of laws banning gay marriage and in the continued decline in the imposition and use of the death penalty.  Reform of marijuana laws may not be far behind.

Marijuana use is presently regulated by an array of incoherent laws.  For example, 13 states (including California) treat the possession of a small amount of marijuana as a non-arrestable offense punishable by no more than a fine of $100.  Yet the penalty for marijuana use in other states may consist of a fine of up to $1000 and a year in jail.  And while 12 states have legalized the use of marijuana for medical purposes, the feds may charge marijuana medical dispensers with violations of federal law.

If the laws criminalizing marijuana use are in disarray, the government's lengthy and costly efforts to curtail its use have been largely ineffective.  Estimates are that about the same percentage of 12th graders who used marijuana in the mid-1970s use it now -- and about 25 million adults spend around $11 billion annually to use marijuana, an economic figure that U.S. automakers can only drool at.

Reform advocates argue, based on numerous scientific studies, that marijuana is less dangerous than alcohol or nicotine.  Yet, if marijuana use were legalized and sold in the same way as alcohol and cigarettes, the resulting taxes would help fill the coffers of financially-challenged governments. And just as with alcohol and cigarettes, advertising of marijuana could be regulated, and marijuana could not be legally sold to minors.

Most reform advocates recognize the risks of legalizing marijuana. For many addicts, marijuana could prove to be a "gateway" drug that leads to use of stronger and more harmful drugs such as cocaine, heroin and methamphetamine. And undoubtedly, legalizing marijuana would lead some people to try it who otherwise would not.  The benefits of educational and treatment programs, paid for with "pot taxes," are supporters' common responses to these dangers.   

Legislation aimed at de-criminalizing marijuana has been introduced in the U.S. Congress and in some state legislatures.  Given the financial straits in which goverments find themselves and the broad dissatidfaction with the results of the "War on Drugs," some type of marijuana law reform seems like a reasonable prediction.