Marijuana. Even as the word begins to take shape on one’s lips, a nationwide parental shudder is felt. The substance is illegal, while the topic is taboo. It’s no wonder that the groundbreaking legislation proposed in Proposition 19 has had such a polarizing effect on all those anxiously awaiting its outcome. That-which-must-not-be-named has been cast into the spotlight, and now it’s time for you to decide its fate.
With Prop. 19, Californians hope to legalize the recreational use of marijuana in small amounts for persons 21 years of age and older. Prop. 19 would allow local governments to determine specific policy regarding the production and sale of marijuana and allow approved businesses to sell marijuana. Prop. 19 essentially calls for the end of the failed prohibition of marijuana.
Let’s begin by examining why marijuana was made illegal in the first place. By the early 20th century, yellow journalism had become a popular sales-boosting technique. Yellow journalists would commonly depict African- and Mexican-Americans as “frenzied beasts who would smoke marijuana, play devil’s music, and heap disrespect and viciousness on the leadership—a majority of which happened to be white.” As the notion of marijuana’s link to insanity and insubordination spread, a new epidemic took root: “Reefer Madness.” The fraudulent claims under “Reefer Madness” regarding the vices of marijuana, combined with an equally absurd hostility toward the endlessly useful cannabis hemp, led the federal government to issue a tax stamp on the production of all forms of cannabis. This was just dandy, except for the fact that the government refused to give out any stamps, effectively ending the legal production of marijuana and hemp. The versality of hemp, however, proved useful in World War II, so in 1948 the marijuana law was reconsidered. But Congress now had new knowledge of the effects of marijuana: it caused people to become pacifists, not frenzied beasts. Communists could use marijuana to diminish the willpower of American troops. When the vote was taken, Congress decided to keep marijuana illegal for exactly the opposite reason it had initially been outlawed.
Despite this fantastic logic, most Americans today believe marijuana is illegal for other, more pragmatic reasons.
First, marijuana is scientifically proven to kill healthy brain cells and cause such diseases as lung cancer. Or is it? You might be surprised to learn the methodology used in the famous 1974 Heath/Tulane study, which established the former claim. Dr. Robert Heath tested the effects of marijuana on the brain cells of monkeys. His ingenious method consisted of pumping 63 joints’ worth of marijuana smoke into the monkeys’ mouths through a gas mask, a process which lasted approximately five minutes and was repeated every day for three months. With such a high concentration of smoke, the monkeys experienced oxygen deficiency—they were suffocated. After four minutes without oxygen, brain cells begin deteriorating, explaining Dr. Heath’s results. Such a poorly constructed study clearly didn’t reveal what it purported to reveal about the effects of marijuana. More recently, a 2005 study on rats showed that a synthetic chemical similar to THC (tetrahydrocannabinol, the active chemical in marijuana that creates a “high”) actually stimulated brain cell growth.
But marijuana still causes lung cancer, right? A 2006 study by Dr. Donald Tashkin at UCLA showed that it actually doesn’t. Even users who had smoked marijuana over 22,000 times in their lives showed no increased predisposition toward lung cancer. While marijuana does contain cancer-causing chemicals, the THC in marijuana counteracts their effect by killing aging cells that might otherwise become cancerous. By contrast, cigarette smokers account for approximately 85 percent of all lung cancer patients. In fact, cigarettes beat out AIDS, heroin, crack, cocaine, alcohol, car accidents, fire, and murder combined for the most national deaths per year. Cigarettes cause an average 430,000 deaths per year in the U.S., but cigarette companies continue to receive government subsidies. Alcohol comes in third for most U.S. deaths per year, and in 2006, 22,000 people died directly because of alcohol use. So what type of staggering death toll can be attributed to marijuana? Zero. There has been no case in which a person died solely due to marijuana consumption.
So marijuana isn’t so dangerous after all, but it’s still an addictive gateway drug that causes people to be violent, right? In fact, based on their chemical properties, coffee is more addictive than marijuana. As for the gateway theory, sure, marijuana is a gateway drug. But this is only because marijuana is illegal. The people who sell marijuana also sell harder drugs, and so consumers are naturally more prone to trying new products. Even so, for every 104 marijuana users, only one uses cocaine, and fewer than one uses heroin. Norm Stamper, Seattle Chief of Police from 1994 through 2000, said that during his entire career as a policeman he “cannot recall a single case in which marijuana contributed to domestic violence, crimes of theft, and the like.”
Now that we understand marijuana a bit better, let’s take a look at the effects of prohibition. First and most obviously, we should ask, is prohibition effective? I could point to statistics that demonstrate the failure of prohibition as a regulatory policy, but why don’t you tell me. How hard would it be for you to obtain marijuana at this very moment? Clearly, something about prohibition just doesn’t work. Even in the 13 states that have decriminalized marijuana (meaning there is no punishment for the first-time possession of small amounts of marijuana), there has been no notable increase in marijuana consumption rates.
Since prohibition doesn’t seem to work, we should examine the effects of ending the policy. For one, illegal marijuana trafficking and consumption will no longer be such a concern for the police. Police forces will be better able to serve and protect by addressing more important issues than that guy down the block smoking a bowl and playing video games. Further, with nobody being arrested for simply carrying around a dime bag in his pocket, jail populations should decrease. Knowing that the average prisoner costs the state approximately $35,000 a year, that’s a lot of potential money being funneled back into the state budget. Earlier this year, the issue of overcrowding in jails actually led to prisoners being released early. In one instance, a released inmate was arrested for sexual assault just hours after being freed. Prisons should never be forced to release inmates like this while leaving room for casual marijuana smokers.
The government will also gain control over what is currently a Wild West-style market. Because marijuana is traded on a black market, the only “regulation” involved is based on the decisions of crime rings. With the rare exception of the beneficent drug dealer, the people selling marijuana today don’t care if their product is laced with heroin, acid, or whatever. What’s more, they don’t care about the age of their clientele. Drug dealers will sell to teens, adolescents, even preschoolers as long as their money’s where their mouth is. Under Prop. 19, the government will be able to regulate both the quality of marijuana sold and the age groups to which it is sold. There will always be the issue of fake IDs and teenagers sitting outside dispensaries playing “Hey Mister,” but it will be no easier for underage Californians to access marijuana than it is for them to access alcohol now.
Finally, we come to the most important reason for ending prohibition: revenue from marijuana sales will be taken from crime rings and redirected toward the government. A $14 billion a year industry in California alone, marijuana is a staple crop of organized crime. Under prohibition, the majority of marijuana revenue goes toward funding gangs and street violence. Especially in urban areas like Los Angeles, legalizing marijuana and allowing it to be sold through dispensaries could be a huge blow to gang influence. This is evidenced by the fact that any profit-oriented drug dealers support the maintenance of prohibition—with the width of their wallets, not the interest of the people, at heart.
If Prop. 19 passes, it is estimated that an additional $1.4 billion could be added to the state’s tax revenue. The rest of that $1.4 billion would only add to the economic benefits, funding new jobs in the production and sale of marijuana.
Despite the overwhelming arguments for legalization, some say that, due to vague phrasing in its full text, Prop. 19 should not be passed. They claim first that Prop. 19 would allow Californians to drive while under the influence of marijuana, as long as they aren’t smoking while driving. It is very clearly stated in the text, however, that “[Prop. 19] shall not be construed to affect, limit, or amend any statute that forbids impairment while engaging in dangerous activities such as driving.” It’s as simple as that.
Some also claim that Prop. 19 would protect employees’ “right” to smoke on the job or just before work. While Prop. 19 does protect the right of employees to consume cannabis in their leisure time, this is only provided that “the existing right of an employer to address consumption that actually impairs job performance by an employee shall not be affected.” Again, Prop. 19 is explicit in its intention not to create a “stoned” working class.
Finally, some argue that the wording of Prop. 19 would harm patients using medical marijuana under Prop. 215, limiting them to the same restrictions Prop. 19 places upon recreational cannabis users. Prop. 19 states in its intentions, however, that part of its aim is to “provide easier, safer access for patients who need cannabis for medical purposes.” The limitations placed on legal amount of possession, legal areas of growing space, and other aspects of marijuana growth and consumption only apply to those using marijuana under the protection of Prop. 19. Those using medical marijuana under Prop. 215 would still abide by the specifications of that proposition.
Now that all the facts are out there and the spotlight rests on Prop. 19, let’s be bold and make the rest of the nation take note of our rational policy choice. Let’s end the bridge to nowhere that is prohibition. Let’s spread the knowledge, vote, and pass Prop. 19.