The issue of legalizing marijuana will soon be heard, once again, at the Rhode Island State House. This controversial concern has initiated a number of conversations involving leaders in the medical, legal, political, legislative, financial and education worlds. Now that we have OK’d medical marijuana use, as well as decriminalized it, legalization has become the salient bone of contention.
All too often, when discussing marijuana legalization, it boils down to a for or against dynamic. Advocates, on both sides, cite a myriad of facts that back their claims. Those for legalization point to financial benefits, reducing the prison population and the elimination of the Black Market. Those against assert that we are minimizing marijuana’s potency while detailing how legalizing another powerful drug poses a number of health, safety and legal concerns. Back and forth we go.
Despite significant differences of opinion, major modifications have come about due to the debates concerning marijuana. Where once folks faced long prison sentences regarding possession, we now acknowledge that this draconian measure was harmful and shortsighted. In addition, under some circumstances, marijuana can also be used as a viable medical solution. Our views have evolved out of years of contentious debates. Both sides on this issue can be lauded for getting us to develop broader perspectives.
As someone who has worked in the addiction and prevention fields for close to 35 years, I have been witness to America’s convoluted dance with drugs. We send and receive many mixed messages. On the one hand, we are conflicted about drugs in the sporting world. We also imbibe alcohol at all kinds of social gatherings, as well as watch prescription drug commercials on our televisions ad nauseam. On the other hand, we look down on those addicted to drugs, fail to provide adequate treatment/prevention resources and allow our medical community to overprescribe powerful medications like Adderall, Oxycodone and Klonopin. Instead of jingoism and fear mongering we should be taking a long hard look at the role(s) drugs play in our culture. In fact, this should have been done years ago. The War on Drugs has had its day.
The present model for legalization, while well intended in bringing up many social justice, financial and legal concerns, troubles me on a number of levels. To begin with, regulating folks “growing their own” sounds amorphous at best. Monitoring cultivation, as well as ensuring against theft, access to youth, and appropriate storage, seems both cumbersome and impossible. As a big fan of personal choice, in most instances, I find the regulation promise to be one that cannot be guaranteed.
An additional concern is the fact that marijuana has already been deemed appropriate as a medicine. While drugs like caffeine and alcohol can be found in Anacin and some cough syrups respectively, few of us would wish seeing these used for recreation. Legalization of a drug considered medication offers a slippery slope. Drawing the distinction between medical and recreational use appears cloudy when considering the present legislation.
I am also troubled by those advocating that there will be financial benefits in legalizing a substance most admit as being powerful. The old “they are going to do it anyway” argument is certainly not an overwhelming endorsement. Despite being well intended, and maybe even pragmatic, there is something cold about making money off of a venture that presents so many risks.
Finally, what about the difficulties posed by those who use marijuana and drive, operate machinery or are asked to teach our children? What laws will be in play? How do we monitor for safety? These things need to be ironed out. James Madison once wrote, “If men were angels, no government would be necessary.” The rights of individuals must be balanced with those of “the all.”
Far too many minorities (especially blacks) have been negatively impacted by our nation’s drug policies. This is an egregious wrong that needs correction. Folks like Regulate Rhode Island, some in our law enforcement and medical communities, as well as others, recognize the necessity for change. However, while significant changes need to be made regarding race and social justice, minimizing how legalization (in its present form) will offer up a host of other problems is a concern. The legalization debate has exposed a number of America’s most embarrassing foibles.
Prison reform, police training, fair(er) educational policies, access to treatment services, and jobs need to be prioritized. We also must look at how class influences our viewpoints. Marijuana will not provide the answers. There is much work to be done.
Bob Houghtaling is the director of the East Greenwich Drug Program and a convener of What’s The Rush–RI. He also hosts the Mulling It Over podcast that speaks to many social concerns.