Four years ago here, I expressed my position on the question of whether Virginia should legalize marijuana. My main points then were 1) that it was clear that medical marijuana should be allowed, and 2) regarding legalizing recreational marijuana, we should wait to see how legalization was working out in the states that had pioneered in that experiment.
Well, major results of that experiment are in, and it seems clear that the benefits are substantial, and the downside minor. From what we’ve learned, I am prepared to say: yes, Virginia should proceed to legalize marijuana.
For those of us who have lived through a long era when marijuana was treated as some dangerous drug, and the lives of many thousands of people were ruined because their drug of choice was against the law, the idea of marijuana being as legal as alcohol seems bold and radical.
But we’ve now seen Canada legalize marijuana. Canada, which is known for being moderate, sober, and reasonable in charting its political course. So if the sensible Canadians can see that this is the right move, we should think of legalization not as a radical policy, but a sensible one.
Some have expressed concern about marijuana’s use by teenagers, for whom – with their developing brains – some studies suggest the drug may be damaging. But studies show the rate of marijuana usage by teenagers actually drops after legalization. That was the experience in the Netherlands, when it semi-legalized marijuana: teenage marijuana consumption was lower there than in the surrounding European nations.
And legalization would put an end to the ruining of lives of those imprisoned, and the draining of taxpayer money to punish a crime that never should have been treated as a crime. We should have learned the lesson of alcohol prohibition, which is that prohibition simply doesn’t work in a society like ours, which isn’t a repressive police state.
The disastrous experience of Prohibition (1919-1933) showed that people are going to find a way to get alcohol (as many have with marijuana) if that’s their drug of choice. Prohibition just ends up strengthening criminal organizations that supply what people want.
When the U.S. recognized its mistake, it legalized alcohol again 85 years ago. And that’s been way better than Prohibition.
And it turns out that between marijuana and alcohol, alcohol is the more dangerous – more disruptive of lives, more addictive, more leading toward violence, more damaging to the body.
So if alcohol is legal, there’s no justification for making the less destructive drug, marijuana, illegal.
The political task is to find the right way of creating a new relationship between American society and marijuana. And for that, we can look to the states (and to Canada) to see what they did right and what they did wrong.
The record of cultures through history shows that people are strongly motivated to transforming their state of consciousness with the mind-altering substances available in their world – whether it be fermented plants making alcohol, or tobacco, or coffee, or marijuana, or other drugs across the world that people have incorporated into their lives. Using what’s at hand to move one’s state of mind in some desired direction seems an almost universal practice in the history of humankind.
And American culture has long illustrated that general truth.
(I read recently of the gargantuan quantities of alcohol Americans quaffed in the 18th and 19th centuries! And in old American movies of the 30s and 40s, we can see how almost universal was the presence of alcohol and nicotine.)
As we turn away from the blunders of Prohibition, the question for us as a society is how to do it right. And one important part of meeting that challenge, I believe, is to find ways of teaching our young people to exercise good control and good judgment in relation to any drugs.
In addition to there being potential pitfalls, there are good uses for some drugs in many lives. In my own life, one ritual I value highly is that on Friday, Saturday and Sunday evenings (plus holidays), I spend the hour before dinner enjoying a glass of white wine. (My moderate and sensible parents taught me to be like them.)
So, if they’re handled right, drugs like marijuana and alcohol have the potential to play a positive role in people’s lives. We should try – as families, as schools, as a society – to help equip our children with the ability to form wise, life-enhancing relationships (whether that involves abstaining or using) with such substances that – whether legal or not – are available in America.