Wonk Wars: Should Pot Be Legal?

Welcome to Wonk Wars, a weekly feature from It's A Free Country as part of the Brian Lehrer Show's 30 Issues in 30 Days. Early each week, we'll post one of those issues in the Wonk Wars sections of the website and invite two or more policy experts to start the discussion online, along with your input. Then, each Thursdays, the conversation continues on-air at the Brian Lehrer Show.

This Week's True/False: Marijuana Should Be Legal, Regulated, and Taxed

Opening statement from Charles Bowden, journalist and author of Murder City: Ciudad Juarez and the Global Economy's New Killing Fields

The war on drugs ended decades ago--drugs are everywhere. The only war left is the one against the American people who are put in cages if they do not pursue the vices recommended by their government--for example, booze, tobacco and mother's little helpers from the doctor. Legalizing marijuana should be the gateway to human freedom. Then we'll legalize the rest and beat our narcs into plowshares.

Opening statement from Jesse P. Levine and Loren Siegel, Marijuana Arrest Research Project, New York, NY. 

Like alcohol prohibition in the 1930's, the criminalization of marijuana is an epic failure. After a trillion dollars spent on the war on drugs, young people report that marijuana is easier to buy than alcohol. The U.S. now arrests and punishes seven hundred thousand people a year for possessing marijuana.

Marijuana penalties are not meted out on an equal basis. U.S. government surveys consistently find that young whites use marijuana at higher rates than young blacks and Latinos.  Nevertheless, across the country, young people of color are arrested at far higher rates than whites.

In both New York and Los Angeles, the two largest U.S. cities, police arrest African Americans for marijuana possession at seven times the rate of whites. From 1997 to 2009, police in New York City arrested and jailed nearly half a million people simply for possessing marijuana, eighty seven percent of them blacks and Latinos. Extreme racial disparities in marijuana possession arrests have led the California NAACP to declare marijuana legalization a civil rights issue.

Convictions for possessing tiny amounts of marijuana can wreak havoc in peoples’ lives. Both arrests and convictions create criminal records nowadays easily found on the internet for twenty dollars or less by employers, landlords, schools, and credit agencies. Guilty pleas to two marijuana possession offenses make an immigrant deportable, a public housing resident subject to eviction, and a college student ineligible for financial aid. 

Legalization is the only solution to the system-wide racial bias in marijuana law enforcement and the severe collateral consequences that flow from marijuana possession arrests.

Opening statement from David Evans of the Drug Free America Foundation.

(note: footnotes and sources for David's contribution can be found here.)

Most of the arguments in favor of drug legalization focus on marijuana. However, marijuana is far more powerful today than it was years ago and it serves as an entry point for the use of other illegal drugs. This is known as the “gateway effect.” Despite arguments from the drug culture to the contrary, marijuana is addictive. This addiction has been well described in the scientific literature and it consists of both a physical dependence (tolerance and subsequent withdrawal) and a psychological habituation. [FN1]

According to a US report released in June of 2008, the levels of THC - the psychoactive ingredient in marijuana - have reached the highest ever amounts since scientific analysis of the drug began in the late 1970s. The average amount of THC has now reached average levels of 9.6 percent (the highest level in one of the samples was 37.2 percent). This compares to the average of just under 4 percent reported in 1983. Additionally, higher potency marijuana may be contributing to a substantial increase in the number of American teenagers in treatment for marijuana dependence. According to the U.S. 2006 National Survey on Drug Use and Health (NSDUH), among Americans age 12 and older there are 14.8 million current (past-month; 6.0 percent) users of marijuana and 4.2 million Americans (1.7 percent) classified with dependency or abuse of marijuana. Additionally, the latest information from the U.S. Treatment Episode Data Set (TEDS, 2006), reports that 16.1% of drug treatment admissions were for marijuana as the primary drug of abuse. This compares to 6% in 1992. A similar trend is taking place in the Netherlands, where new data indicate that the number of people seeking assistance for cannabis there has risen, from 1,951 in 1994 to 6,544 in 2006 - a 235 percent increase. [FN2] In 2006, the average THC concentration in Dutch marihuana was 16% which is even higher than that in the US. [FN3]

Marijuana is an addictive drug. It poses significant health consequences to its users, including those who may be using it for “medical” purposes. In the U.S., marijuana is the number one drug that young people are in treatment for. [FN4]

The use of marijuana in early adolescence is particularly dangerous. Adults who used marijuana early were five times more likely to become dependent on any drug and eight times more likely to use cocaine and fifteen times more likely to use heroin later in life. [FN5]

The damage to health caused by marijuana

Drug legalization advocates claim that marijuana is less dangerous than drugs like cocaine, heroin, and methamphetamine. Some European countries have lowered the classification of marijuana based on the false perception that it is less harmful. However, studies over the last few years give us a lot of new information about marijuana. They show that marijuana is not harmless but that it is toxic and addictive. Recent studies show the following destructive effects of marijuana use: [FN6]

       birth defects
       the worsening of pain
       respiratory system damage
       links to cancer
       AIDS - marijuana opens the door to Kaposi’s sarcoma
       brain damage
       immune system damage
       mental illness

The costs of legalizing marijuana will far outweigh and any reduced costs to law enforcement. Health care costs will go up, drugged driving will increase and industrial

accidents will increase. In addition there will be more crime that will be caused by the psychoactive effects of marijuana because marijuana use will increase. 


We'll be updating this page with more perspectives throughout the week, but feel free to add your thoughts below. After all, we're all wonks in wonk wars!