Never mind the pot puns, it's time to talk medical marijuana
In news related to Things That Are Not Candidates That Are on Your Ballot, Dane County voters will have a chance to say yes or no to a referendum regarding medical marijuana this November 2.
This same question will be posed to voters in the city of River Falls, Wis.:
Should the Wisconsin Legislature enact legislation allowing residents with debilitating medical conditions to acquire and possess marijuana for medical purposes if supported by their physician?
It's not a binding resolution (we're no California, unfortunately), but an "advisory" one that could help sway the next governor and state legislature toward really addressing the issue in the next few years. Quite frankly, it's long past due.
Our last legislative session dropped the ball and failed to pass the Jacki Rickert Medical Marijuana Act, which would have legalized marijuana for medicinal purposes if prescribed by a doctor. It seems like that's the least we as a society can do, but our representatives missed the mark.
The act garnered a great deal of support, however -- including Gov. Doyle, who signaled at the time that he would have signed the bill if it passed -- and illustrates the changing attitudes toward marijuana in our state. We do, of course, still have a long way to go.
Our country has a storied history and stormy relationship with marijuana, going back to the very founding of the nation and the initial hemp industry that followed. Thanks to the absurd and misplaced campaign to demonize what had previously been viewed as a relatively benign substance waged during the first half of the 20th Century, the United States now has some seriously backward laws governing pot's growth, distribution and use.
The propaganda used to turn the public against pot involved yellow journalism, playing to racist fears, and pseudo-science that, in some cases, is still referenced in modern arguments against its legalization. Modern, comprehensive studies (those few that have been allowed to be conducted) show more and more that many of the concerns over marijuana use have been either completely unfounded or highly skewed, and that it has valid medicinal applications.
It's not a perfect drug by any means. Smoking it still carries some of the same risks as anything else that's smoked -- like respiratory problems and delayed reaction times. But there are ways of reducing or eliminating that harm (vaporization, higher potency, etc.) -- and better methods of educating the public with the truth about pot instead of a series of long-standing myths.
Businessman and philanthropist George Soros even recently threw his support -- to the tune of $1 million -- behind the Prop. 19 campaign in California. The proposition would, among other things, allow for an individual to possess up to one ounce of marijuana and to grow small amounts in their own homes. It would also grant local governments the authority to regulate the growth and public distribution of pot, as well as the taxation thereof in order to raise revenues.
Soros makes a pretty compelling argument for the legalization (or, at least, decriminalization) of marijuana in the U.S. in an opinion piece recently published explaining the donation:
Law enforcement agencies today spend many billions of taxpayer dollars annually trying to enforce this unenforceable prohibition. The roughly 750,000 arrests they make each year for possession of small amounts of marijuana represent more than 40% of all drug arrests.
Regulating and taxing marijuana would simultaneously save taxpayers billions of dollars in enforcement and incarceration costs, while providing many billions of dollars in revenue annually. It also would reduce the crime, violence and corruption associated with drug markets, and the violations of civil liberties and human rights that occur when large numbers of otherwise law-abiding citizens are subject to arrest. Police could focus on serious crime instead.
Soros goes on to point out the inherent racial inequities that exist in the enforcement of anti-marijuana laws. "African-Americans are no more likely than other Americans to use marijuana but they are three, five or even 10 times more likely -- depending on the city -- to be arrested for possessing marijuana. I agree with Alice Huffman, president of the California NAACP, when she says that being caught up in the criminal justice system does more harm to young people than marijuana itself."
His final point may be the best one, though, and it's that effective education about the drug -- and other drugs -- is a far better use of our time and resources than is ineffective (and costly) arrest and incarceration.
After all, 52% of all drug arrests made each year are for marijuana violations. That represents some 860,000 extra case loads on a justice system currently straining and cracking under the weight of overcrowded and understaffed prisons. And how does throwing someone with a minor drug offense in with violent criminals do anyone any good?
Cost benefits. Societal benefits.Medicinal benefits. There remain no good reasons to maintain the full prohibition of marijuana. Like anything, though, it will take further advocacy and public education before we'll see legalization. In the meantime, voting yes on the referendum seems like a good place to start.
(If you're interested in a full rundown of where the various state candidates stand on the issue of marijuana, click here.)