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The Legalization Juggernaut

Why won’t more political leaders speak out on marijuana?

May 5, 2014, Vol. 19, No. 32 • By CHRISTOPHER BEACH and WILLIAM BENNETT
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The legalization of marijuana has acquired an aura of inevitability. But is there really no choice? Must Americans resign ourselves to the social acceptability, legal entrenchment, and widespread availability (including to our kids) of marijuana? 



We are convinced this headlong rush into disaster can be stopped—if, that is, political leaders can be found who have the nerve to take on the conventional wisdom. 

Currently, marijuana is legal in Colorado, and Washington state will soon debut its pot shops. Pew Research finds that pot is now legal in some form or decriminalized in 24 states. Reason reports that, in 2014 alone—either through ballot initiatives or legislation—13 states could legalize marijuana, another 16 could permit medicinal marijuana, and 5 could decriminalize possession.

The shift in public opinion has been dramatic. In the early and mid- 2000s support for legalizing marijuana across Republicans, Democrats, and independents hovered between 30 and 36 percent. In October 2013, Gallup reported for the first time that a clear majority of Americans (58 percent) supported marijuana legalization. Even 35 percent of Republicans are now on board.  

No doubt some Democrats support the loosening of marijuana laws in order to court a group they view as their voters. The strongest supporters of marijuana legalization are young males age 18-29. They lean towards the Democratic party, and Democrats realize that marijuana ballot initiatives could help drum up support for Democrats running in 2014, especially in Florida. 

Indeed, a recent Wall Street Journal/NBC poll found that young adults are more interested in states’ legalizing marijuana than in other major news stories such as Obamacare, the crisis in Ukraine, and same-sex marriage. The same poll found that Americans believe sugar to be more harmful than marijuana. When asked to name the most harmful of four substances, 49 percent of respondents placed tobacco first, and another 24 percent placed alcohol first. Sugar followed with 15 percent, while only 8 percent thought marijuana the most harmful. 

We have reached a dangerous and absurd moment when there is unprecedented support for the legalization of a substance that is demonstrably harmful to the health and safety of individuals, as well as to the fabric of our nation. No country in the history of the world has persevered in the legalization of drugs. None. We may learn the hard way why. 

The great political scientist James Q. Wilson staunchly opposed the legalization of drugs. He explained that “drug use is wrong because it is immoral and it is immoral because it enslaves the mind and destroys the soul.” No society should want unhealthy substances destroying the minds, bodies, character, and potential of its citizens.

As Wilson put it, “The central problem with legalizing drugs is that it will increase drug consumption.” Experience shows that when previously controlled substances become permissible they are more widely used. So the question becomes: Do we want more stoned Americans? Do we want the damage from legal marijuana to approach the damage done by legal alcohol? 

Alaska tried this experiment. In 1982, it legalized the possession of marijuana in small amounts. But by 1990, less than a decade later, the people of the state passed a ballot initiative to recriminalize pot, primarily because marijuana use among Alaskan teens had jumped to twice the national average.

Even in states that have allowed only medicinal marijuana, use among young people has risen. Christian Thurstone is one of the leading child psychiatrists in Colorado and head of the teen rehab center Adolescent STEP: Substance Abuse Treatment Education & Prevention Program in Denver. He has chronicled firsthand the increase in marijuana use among adolescents since Colorado legalized medicinal marijuana in 2009. 

As one would expect, today’s marijuana laws in Colorado prohibit use by children. But this prohibition—as with alcohol and cigarettes—has proven ineffectual in a state where pot is now available in vending machines.Marijuana producers and sellers know what Big Alcohol and Tobacco know: Hook users early, and you have customers for life; hook them to heavy use, and the profits flow. 

In their book Marijuana Legalization: What Everyone Needs to Know, Jonathan Calukins, Mark Kleiman, Angela Hawken, and Beau Kilmer* report, “Marijuana use is highest among 18-25 year olds; their past-year rate (31 percent) is three times the U.S. average.” 

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