Bud Vs. Booze: Does America's Drug Policy Make Sense?
Recent polls have shown that the majority of Americans now favor some form of legalized marijuana. This has changed over the years and is expected to continue to trend in favor of legalized cannabis. But this is a very general observation that fails to take into account many differences of opinion that still separates many groups that are pro-legalization in one form or another. Should cannabis be completely legal or only legal for medical purposes? Who decides where the lines are drawn? Who decides who falls within those lines once drawn?
It is clear that most Americans do now favor allowing the medical use of marijuana where the benefits of the plant can ease suffering or alleviate the symptoms of illness. But it is questionable whether or not a majority agree that allowing the recreational use of marijuana is a good idea. And even those who support any sort of legalization do not necessarily feel that it should be a national issue but instead feel state governments or even local city and county governments should decide on whether or not to allow cannabis usage in their jurisdictions.
Many who support reforming America's drug laws point out that marijuana is less harmful than alcohol, yet alcohol is easily available to anyone over the age of 21 and is in fact a contributor to everything from domestic violence to excessive highway deaths. While alcohol can affect different individuals in different ways causing many to become violent and aggressive when under the influence of alcohol, cannabis almost universally evokes a calming effect. And though alcohol can drastically impair a motorist's ability to operate a vehicle, being under the influence of marijuana has rarely been cited as the cause of motorway accidents.
Perhaps one way to measure America's changing attitude toward cannabis use is to look at parents who are openly aware of their children's use of marijuana and do nothing or very little to discourage it. There is even a group of parents known as Safer Alternative for Enjoyable Recreation (or SAFER) that actively promotes the legalization of marijuana and its use as an alternative to alcohol on college campuses. The group contends that while alcohol has been a contributing factor in thousands of deaths and injuries as well as playing a role in date rapes, marijuana has never been noted as a factor in any of these tragic events.
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Some of the beliefs of groups like SAFER are clearly supported by real statistics. In 2009, 38 percent of traffic fatalities in the United States involved alcohol according to data provided by the United States National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. Meanwhile, the Highway Safety Administration does not track the number of traffic deaths in which marijuana played a part as it is considered to be so low that it is "statistically insignificant."
Even if marijuana were found in a significant number of those killed on our highways, most researchers agree that it is unlikely marijuana would have been a factor in the crashes leading to those deaths. As one doctor I spoke with unofficially put it, "we are safer with pot smokers on the road than with users of strong painkillers like Vicodin and Percocet behind the wheel."
This statement also seems to be supported by the numbers. In states where medical marijuana has been legalized, a study by University of Colorado-Denver professor Daniel Rees and Montana State University professor D. Mark Anderson found that there is on average a 9 percent drop in the number of traffic fatalities. The study factored in other variables that might affect the traffic-related death rate such as changes in traffic laws and seat belt usage.
The drop in fatalities are likely due in large part to a reduction of about 5 percent in the sale of beer. Sales of other alcoholic beverages likely also fell. It seems clear when all the evidence is examined that legalized marijuana means safer roads for everyone. One has to wonder would fully legalizing cannabis further reduce the number of fatalities on our roads by reducing alcohol sales and maybe even more by reducing the use of heavy narcotic painkillers like Vicodin?
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One might think with so much information available and public opinion so heated on the issue that medical marijuana and legalization in general would have been a hot campaign topic in 2012. However, it was just the opposite. When questioned about his position on medical marijuana, Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney stated, "I'm not running on marriage and marijuana, those are state issues, right? Aren't they?" President Obama has also refused several opportunities to address the issue.
The only major Presidential candidate who was willing to discuss marijuana reform and America's drug policy in general was Libertarian candidate Gary Johnson. While the Republican and Democratic parties continued to ignore the issue, Johnson made it a focal point of his campaign. However, Johnson was only polling between 5 and 7 percent when pitted against the two major party candidates at his best and was considered unlikely to have a real chance of winning the election. But would his presence in the race be enough to bring on any discussion of drug policy? Unfortunately, it was not.
For the time being it seems unlikely there will be any changes at the Federal level. Various states will likely continue to make changes, and if Romney were correct, that would likely keep the battle at the state level. But the reality is the Federal government does have a hand in marijuana reform and how strongly that hand is played effects the lives of thousands of families whose loved ones are spending time in prison for crimes many see as victimless. Meanwhile, taxpayer dollars continue to go up in smoke as these prisoners are housed and law enforcement resources are tied up in enforcing laws that many consider outdated and unjust.
The time has come when a serious discussion of cannabis legalization is necessary. There are many sides to this story but most people do not even know how many of their tax dollars are spent stopping their fellow citizens from using a substance that can be an inexpensive and safe replacement for narcotic painkillers as well as a safer alternative to beer and alcohol for recreational purposes. It is time that we as a nation take a closer look at what is moral, ethical and just.
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