Bruce Mirken, Marijuana Policy Project
At the Marijuana Policy Project, we hear it all the time:
"Well, if you legalize marijuana, doesn't that mean you'd have to legalize
everything? Where does it end?"
It's a common question with a simple answer: It ends with
whatever laws that we as a democratic society think make the most sense -- no
more, and no less.
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Marijuana, after all, has been in human use as a medicine
and social relaxant for at least 5,000 years, and illegal in most parts of the
world for less than 100. At no time did marijuana laws have much of an effect
on laws regarding other substances.
When you think about it, that makes perfect sense. Alcohol
is a drug, after all (and a much more dangerous and addictive drug than
marijuana, by the way), yet its legality certainly hasn't meant we have to
allow legal access to marijuana or anything else.
As our name implies, the Marijuana Policy Project deals only
with marijuana. We claim no expertise about other drugs, and take no position
on what the laws should be regarding alcohol, cocaine, heroin, etc.
But we do take the commonsense position that laws should be
based on facts. If the idea of drug laws is to prevent the harm that drugs do,
those laws should be based on an accurate understanding of those harmful
effects, so that we don't inadvertently pass laws that do more harm than the
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We've clearly done that with marijuana, whose risks are so
modest that Dr. Leslie Iversen, Oxford University pharmacology professor and member
of the British government's Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs, wrote
recently, "Overall, by comparison with other drugs used mainly for
'recreational' purposes, cannabis could be rated to be a relatively safe drug."
Compared to the limited harm caused by marijuana, the harm caused by
marijuana prohibition is immense: Over three-quarters of a million lives are
turned upside down each year by arrests for simple possession -- families torn
apart, educations disrupted, careers ruined, simply for choosing to relax at
the end of the day with a drug that's safer than beer.
And the harm isn't limited to marijuana users. By pretending we can
make marijuana go away, we've forfeited any ability to regulate its production,
marketing, and sale. We've handed a monopoly on a very large market (marijuana
is, after all, America's largest cash crop) to unregulated criminals -- people
who commit violence, trash the environment, and have no compunctions about
selling to kids.
The risk/benefit ratio for marijuana and marijuana prohibition is
clear: Prohibition causes far more harm than marijuana. Is that the case for
cocaine or heroin? I don't know. What I do know is that they are separate
questions, and America is quite capable of answering them one at a time.