Marijuana sanity

by Jay Davis, M.D.

The passage of Proposition 215 will make it legal for Californians to possess marijuana upon the written prescription of a physician. In essence, marijuana has been declared no more dangerous than Valium or Prozac. By their vote, the people have repudiated our current drug policy -- and more power to them.

Wait a minute, surely a doctor is not recommending the wholesale use of marijuana. Indeed I am not. Nor is there any likelihood that legalization will lead to that, any more than the repeal of Prohibition produced the "hordes of alcohol-enslaved zombies" that the Temperance supporters predicted. I am not applauding marijuana -- a drug I would not personally use. Rather I applaud our sanity in dealing with its use. Let me explain.

We fancy ourselves a moderate, reasonable people, uncomfortable with any extreme. We are suitably appalled by the excesses of a Singapore, where mere drug possession can lead to the gallows. Similarly, at the other pole, we could never abide a "do-nothing policy" which lets people's lives be wrecked by drugs.

So, as moderate reasonable Americans, we declare drugs illegal and punish some of the worst offenders. Of course, we never make the punishment so severe that new recruits don't replace the poor fish caught in the net. And we remain very pleased with ourselves.

Pity the policy is such a failure. We can't build prisons fast enough, even though we already parole violent criminals to make room for new drug offenders. And still drug crime remains unchanged. Where have we gone wrong?

Truth is that moderation is sometimes the worst of all policies.

Any homemaker knows that food can be preserved only by extremes: by keeping it piping hot or very cold. But the "moderate course" -- room temperature -- is the sure prescription for food poisoning.

So it is with our drug policy. Our moderate approach succeeds only in keeping drugs relatively scarce. And scarcity drives up price, making drug-dealing extraordinarily profitable.

It guarantees that the market will never be saturated, and the price of illicit drugs will never drop. Who could ask for better business conditions?

What to do? Clearly our choices are the extreme courses. We could -- in theory at least -- pass draconian laws like those in Singapore. Make possession of outlawed drugs a ticket to the death chamber, and we'd see a prompt end to the problem. But do we really want to kill citizens for using substances which we have arbitrarily declared illegal? (For years, remember, these substances were perfectly legal in America.)

The other extreme -- which would also work -- would be to treat illegal substances as we treat alcohol. Let them be sold openly and regulated.

Would there be more addicts? Maybe a few. There are more alcoholics now that Prohibition is over than there were during the dry years. But would any sane person suggest we make alcohol illegal again?

The "drug-related crime" we see today was "alcohol-related crime" during Prohibition. Alcohol didn't make crime, outlawing it did.

And no amount of G-men could stamp it out. Only making alcohol legal ended the crime wave.

There is a lesson here. And judging from the passage of 215, it seems that some of us are learning it.

Jay Davis is a physician and author in Humboldt County.

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