By Alan S. Chartock
When I was a young man, I refused to smoke marijuana when offered the opportunity. I thought that it might interfere with my future career—at the time, I thought I might like to run for Congress and that if you were caught, you were disqualified.
Of course, we now know that weed is a rite of passage. Presidents and presidential candidates freely admit to drug use. We also know that white middle-class kids and their parents are exempt—it’s tough to get caught smoking dope when you are on the 15th floor of a Park Avenue apartment. On the other hand, if you are a black or Latino kid on the streetcorner, it is very easy to get stopped and frisked and sent off to jail.
Right now there is a great debate on whether to make marijuana possession legal or almost legal. I have a doctor friend, one of the top addiction specialists in the country, who tells me that marijuana is what we might call a “gateway drug.” She says that if you start with weed, you often graduate to something stronger. I have great respect for this doctor, who has to deal with people who have been sucked into drug use, and I find it difficult to dismiss her concerns. Yet the inequalities I mentioned above are also of great concern.
Let there be no mistake about it: Alcohol is every bit as dangerous as marijuana. In fact, judging from the number of automobile accidents every year caused by alcohol abuse, strong drink is much more dangerous than marijuana.
Now that the Rockefeller drug laws have been modified, things have gotten more sensible. Fewer kids are being put into the system, but there is still a glut of arrests among our most disadvantaged citizens. Some distinguished lawmakers have suggested it is time to legalize marijuana and other much more deadly and heavy drugs. Some have suggested that if we legalize cannabis, the same arguments that lead to its legalization will be used for other drugs.
Such a debate is really above my pay grade; I certainly can see all the arguments for and against it. As long as there is poverty and a lack of hope, there will be drug use in this country.
The idea of making marijuana possession a violation, like a speeding ticket, is a step in the right direction. Jail or prison time is just not an answer. The only people who make out in that scenario are those who run our gigantic prison industry. We know that there are just too many people behind bars. I certainly think that if we are going to spend the money, we should spend it on giving people an economic chance and some hope—I am sure that would go further than consigning them to a life of hell sending them to jail. Even a history of a violation may well hurt someone’s chances in life.
We know that cannabis has helped people who are terminal cancer patients. Our congressional and legislative hearings are replete with such testimony from some very high-ranking people in this country, including judges and doctors.
It is hard to believe that there isn’t a simple majority, even among the Republicans in the state Senate, who haven’t used marijuana. That makes it rank hypocrisy to criminalize its use. Otherwise, I suggest that all those sitting in the upper House should turn themselves in. I mean, wouldn’t that be the right thing to do?
Sometimes in life, choices have to be made. We know that when we tried to criminalize the use of alcohol, the result was catastrophic; a black market resulted and criminals got rich. The same thing is true with the distribution of marijuana. The time has come to do the right thing and use available money to help people who have developed serious drug problems. Makes a lot more sense than what we are doing.
Alan S. Chartock is president and CEO of WAMC/Northeast Public Radio and an executive publisher at The Legislative Gazette.
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