On October 1, advocates for marijuana reform will mark the somber anniversary of 75 years since marijuana was effectively outlawed with the implementation of the Marihuana Tax Act of 1937. In three states, advocates are hoping that the 75th year marks the final year for marijuana prohibition as a failed policy that has not met its stated goals.
Advocates for marijuana reform had a near brush with victory in the late 60’s when a portion of the 1937 Act was ruled unconstitutional in a 1969 court case brought by Timothy Leary; one of the requirements for the tax stamp was that a person must first incriminate themselves as possessing marijuana, contrary to the Fifth Amendment of the Constitution. But the federal Congress responded by swiftly repealing the 1937 Act and replacing it with the more comprehensive Controlled Substances Act of 1970 (CSA). The CSA completely prohibited marijuana, except under strictly regulated federal research programs, by placing it in the most restrictive schedule, Schedule I.
Since then, 17 states plus the District of Columbia have approved laws allowing for medical marijuana, even though federal law continues to prohibit marijuana even for such medical uses. Advocates in three states are considering ballot measures to approve regulating marijuana similar to alcohol – each with their own unique traits – and many other states are considering legalizing medical marijuana as well in the 2012 election. Even some of the more conservative states, such as my home state of Indiana, are looking at reforming marijuana laws.
Those readers familiar with the advent of alcohol prohibition, and its eventual repeal only 13 years later, will clearly see the similarities in the order of events playing out before us. Alcohol prohibition was instituted with the best of intentions, according to a publication by the State University of New York:
Prohibition advocates believed that outlawing alcohol would improve health, increase safety, reduce crime, lower violence, improve public morality and protect young people.
These reasons are parallel to the reasons why many Americans continue to think that marijuana prohibition needs to continue. A 2011 DEA position paper on marijuana identifies marijuana as harmful to health, dangerous to the public through intoxicated driving and delinquent behaviors, as well as identifying marijuana as a “precursor to abuse of other drugs” (aka the oft-debunked gateway theory) and that prohibition of marijuana is necessary to protect our youth from increasing marijuana use as their perception of its risk decreases.
In other words, the reasons for marijuana prohibition are exactly the same reasons alcohol prohibition was instituted. Proponents for ending marijuana prohibition today have realized the same things that those who fought for the repeal of alcohol prohibition in Oregon realized much more rapidly in the 1920’s – prohibition doesn’t work:
It became increasingly clear to residents of the state that Prohibition wasn’t improving health but threatening it, wasn’t increasing safety but reducing it, wasn’t lowering violence but increasing it, wasn’t improving public morality but destroying it, and wasn’t protecting young people but endangering them.
Prohibition clearly proved to be counter-productive and Oregonians called for its end. How wise they were. The overall crime rate in the state declined dramatically after Repeal and the murder rate declined for 10 consecutive years.
As a mother of four boys, I can relate to the women who fought for prohibition of alcohol and then, somewhat ironically, fought for its repeal – both for the same reason: to protect our children and society. Many substances are quite harmful to our society and particularly to our children. Opponents to legalizing marijuana often say that legalizing marijuana would send the wrong message to our children. Yet these opponents fail to analyze the actual message we are sending to our children today.
Our current drug policy pretends, contrary to the facts, that legal drugs are “good” and that illegal drugs are “bad.” Children are experimenting with a number of perfectly legal substances, ranging broadly from nutmeg to canned air for cleaning electronics, because we have long instilled in them an idea that if a substance is “bad”, it should be illegal and consequently, if it is legal, it must not be “bad.”
This leads to an ever-increasing problem with our youth experimenting with more dangerous substances simply because they are “legal” and therefore presumably safe (or at least “safer” than the illegal substances). And rather than identify the actual problem, which is the “message” we are sending through our current policies, opponents to legalizing marijuana identify the increased use of designer drugs and other “legal” substances as attempts to circumvent the laws! It never even crosses the opponents’ minds that children are simply practicing what they are taught; if it is “legal” it must be safe, because “bad” drugs are illegal in order to “protect” us. And most importantly, there is an implication that it is someone else’s responsibly to protect us through laws, regulations and enforcement actions.
A friend of mine in her mid-thirties overdosed on Tylenol a few years ago after taking six extra-strength tablets for a particularly painful migraine; while lying in the hospital bed, she recounted to me that she never had any idea that it was even possible to overdose on Tylenol (and frankly, until she overdosed, I wasn’t aware of the potential myself). According to a 2006 study from the National Institute of Health, 56,000 emergency room visits and 26,000 hospitalizations occur each year from Acetaminophen (the main ingredient in Tylenol and many other over-the-counter medications) and nearly 500 die each year as a result.
Acetaminophen is also the leading cause of acute liver failure in the United States, accounting for 42% of all cases of acute liver failure, according to another study from 2005 by the National Institute of Health. The study summarizes the causes of the overdoses as follows:
Unintentional overdoses accounted for 131 (48%) cases, intentional (suicide attempts) 122 (44%), and 22 (8%) were of unknown intent. In the unintentional group, 38% took two or more acetaminophen preparations simultaneously, and 63% used narcotic-containing compounds. Eighty-one percent of unintentional patients reported taking acetaminophen and/or other analgesics for acute or chronic pain syndromes. Overall, 178 subjects (65%) survived, 74 (27%) died without transplantation, and 23 subjects (8%) underwent liver transplantation; 71% were alive at 3 weeks.
The FDA issued an advisory at the end of 2011 to warn parents about the variations in dosages in children and infant products and to make parents aware of the risks of giving too much acetaminophen. But there is still a tremendous amount of confusion for parents, as acetaminophen makes appearances in a wide variety of products that are often given simultaneously, such as cold and flu products in conjunction with fever products, resulting in double dosing the child. The reality is that the children that were taught that “bad” drugs are illegal grow up to be adults who often believe that the government prohibits everything that is dangerous and therefore absolves them of their own personal responsibility to be aware of the potential harms (and benefits) of any substance. Our safety is taken for granted.
A court case that highlights this perception rather clearly is Green v BDI Pharmaceuticals. Anthony Green was a 32-year old man who began taking Mini-Thins (“an over-the-counter drug containing Ephedrine HCl, an amphetamine-like compound.”) The product was very clearly labeled as a “bronchodilator and expectorant”, but was often used off-label by truckers, college students, and others for “increased energy.”
Green started off taking the product, far above the recommended dose of “1/2 to 1 tablet every 4 hours, not to exceed 6 tablets in 24 hours”, when his boss offered him five pills one day at work. The following morning, Green took “a few more” (surely exceeding the maximum dose within the first 24 hours of consumption). Within a very short time, Green was using a bottle of 250 tablets within only two days. He took six pills at a time for each dose, because, as he reasoned, since they came in boxes of six, it must be the standard dose. Worse yet, “He also admitted he did not read the product label until sometime in 1997, long after he was addicted.”
After spending time in rehabilitation, he sued the manufacturer for product liability damages – even though he didn’t read the label, and even though he took them for a reason not indicated for the product and far above the maximum dosage! He lost the case in the above link, but it does indicate the mindset of our culture even as adults when it comes to drugs and drug safety. Where is our sense of personal responsibility and awareness of what we are ingesting? These stories aren’t isolated incidents, but just a glimpse into the message our children are currently receiving and the damage it causes even as adults.
The repeal of the prohibition of marijuana isn’t just about marijuana nor is it about the right to ‘get high’ as some believe. Prohibition is truly harmful to the full spectrum of our society. Our children are instilled with a false belief that if it is legal, it must be “safe”. This results in harm to them as children and even as adults, and finally passes on to their children. Many legal substances are far more harmful to our society and children then those substances that our drug policies focus on. And prohibition only compounds these problems due to the message it sends.
The solution isn’t continuing prohibition, it is changing the way we view all drugs, including marijuana. We need to educate our population about the potential harms and benefits of all drugs; we need to instill a sense of personal responsibility in both adults and children when consuming any substance, for medical or any other reason; and finally, we need to remove obstacles to proper research and informed decision-making.
Just like its predecessor alcohol prohibition, marijuana prohibition isn’t improving health, isn’t increasing safety, isn’t reducing crime, isn’t lowering violence, isn’t improving public morality and isn’t protecting young people. 75 years of this insanity has only resulted in the United States having the largest incarcerated population in the world, with a complete lack of personal responsibility and awareness of what we are ingesting. We are fooling ourselves if we think prohibition is protecting anyone, especially our children.
It’s time we end prohibition again! Vote “Yes” on Measure 80!
As I continue to countdown to Election Day, with only 37 days left, upcoming topics will include the various uses for hemp, the controversy surrounding medical marijuana and how the Oregon Cannabis Tax Act 2012 will impact Oregonians. I will also focus on the conflicts with federal laws as well as the election process itself, including who can vote and how to register to vote.
Too many Oregonians aren’t even aware that Oregon will be voting on this crucial issue this November 6. This Election Day 2012 countdown will be full of information that is important to voters all throughout Oregon. Please subscribe to receive email alerts for future articles, including continuing coverage of Election 2012 and Measure 80!