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Legal Marijuana Today Spells a Better Tomorrow

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As 20 states and Washington, D.C., allow the use of medical marijuana, Colorado and Washington state have gotten straight to the point: Recreational marijuana use should be legal across the country, and it should be grown and sold freely by anyone willing to pick up the hydroponic reins. If R.J. Reynolds or Altria wants to mass-produce marijuana cigarettes, that’s fine – but we, as a nation, should be able to find and buy locally produced varieties as well, just like locally brewed craft beers or artisanal cheeses.

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While the Department of Justice continues to consider marijuana a Schedule I narcotic with “no currently accepted medical use”, doctors including CNN’s Dr. Sanjay Gupta has changed his mind on the medicinal merits of pot. Even the U.S. government (through the Department of Health and Human Services) owns a patent linked to the worthwhile qualities of chemical compounds within the cannabis plant, or its synthetic counterpart. How convenient of the government to hedge its bets. When it comes to recreational use, we’ve known that marijuana isn’t the “gateway drug” that the urban legend purports; former New York City Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia published a study that proved as much almost 70 years ago.

The next steps toward nationwide legalization, however, must be taken carefully. It’s not a matter of asking “Are Americans ready for legalized marijuana?”, as the news media would put it, but we must work earnestly to bring this plant to market in a judicious manner. We also must address those who have had their lives negatively affected by marijuana’s prohibition, and work towards making them whole.

Medical marijuana is shown in a jar at The Joint Cooperative in Seattle, Wash., in this January 27, 2012, file photo. -REUTERS/Cliff DesPeaux/Files

Medical marijuana is shown in a jar at The Joint Cooperative in Seattle, Wash., in this January 27, 2012, file photo. -REUTERS/Cliff DesPeaux/Files


Sales and Distribution

In states where medical marijuana is legal, patients are issued IDs to acquire their cannabis, and the state regulates dispensaries to supply the demand. We could regulate this at the federal level in a similar fashion – we could set a legal age for smoking marijuana (I lean towards age 18), create a registration process for those who grow for distribution purposes, and use the FDA to inspect the quality and potency of cannabis plants grown by a registered cannabis farm. If the FDA somehow turns a profit based on this, perhaps we can increase the number of food inspections as well – just another welcomed benefit.

For consumers, we could set a limit of six to 12 plants per home, and if you have documentation from a doctor that says you need medical marijuana, the government could offer a tax cut for those who grow their own – especially if it’s grown indoors, which requires significant energy for lighting and cooling the plants. It would force law enforcement to team up with the IRS to crack down on those doctors who write false prescriptions, but the goal with legalization for the general public is to lower the number of people who would need a phony prescription at all. While some local dealers may have dreams of running a legitimate business, any facility with more than the residential limit for plants would be subject to registration and random inspection as well – just like your local fast food restaurant. Even the most artisanal products need constant watching and regulation.

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While the tobacco industry has mostly kept mum on when they’ll jump into the marijuana cigarette business, their entry into pot cigarettes could be a double-edged sword. While corporations like Altria could gear up to supply millions of marijuana cigarettes, the question of stretching product and using questionable additives (as is used in tobacco) could make some of the green-purchasing public a bit weary, and steer them towards local products. Further, converting some fields from tobacco to cannabis could actually drive up the price of cigarettes – costs that are already high due to federal and state taxes.

The Prison Industrial Complex

We need to shift our focus when it comes to arresting and incarcerating people for crimes involving marijuana. When it comes to distributors and dealers, let them have a business permit for their work – and if they don’t want to abide by the new rules, let them deal with the costs of lawyers and jail time for operating an unlicensed business and tax evasion. The legalization of marijuana should also mean dropping and reviewing cases for anyone facing marijuana possession charges. U.S. Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. has already taken the first step in the process, and after the prohibition on marijuana has ended, the procedure should take the next logical step for tens of thousands of cases in this country.

“This is a waste of money for the police, and a waste of lives for those thrown in jail. Go after the piranhas, not the minnows.” – Antonia Maria Costa, former head of the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime

The for-profit prisons across this country are another problem that needs solving. One private company – the Corrections Corporation of America – houses and supervises more than 80,000 inmates, and has admitted that leniency in sentencing affects their bottom line. Here we have a company that admits to profiting from what’s supposed to be a rehabilitative process, not a punitive one. Couple that admission with almost $1 million in political contributions in 2012, and it’s obvious that the CCA is using their political power to keep the inmate flow coming and keep things such as marijuana legalization – or any attempt at leniency in sentencing guidelines – off the negotiating table at both the state and federal levels.

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Another concern when it comes to ending marijuana prohibition is how people function when inebriated. When a drug is legalized – and I believe alcohol and cigarettes are just as much of a drug as weed – there are always concerns with social functioning; namely, driving while under the influence. Driving while high should be treated as driving while drunk, complete with a field sobriety test. Technology is already on the way that can detect marijuana or other drugs on your breath, so a citation and court summons could be issued on the spot for moving violations involving illicit substances. If the test comes back negative, a suspect would be free to go, with the record expunged. A positive test would merit driving school, fines, points on your license, and other penalties, just as a DUI or DWI would. Repeat offenses would mean community service, time in jail, or a possible lifetime revocation of your license –safety should be a high priority when it comes to legalization.

One more issue we must address is the treatment of those addicted to drugs in this country. While some of their actions – whether they involve pot, heroin, ecstasy, or other drugs – may be deemed illegal, we must strive to remember that drug addiction isn’t just a crime, it’s an opportunity to help. Not everyone who uses drugs does so casually, and we should keep that in mind as we reform the prison system and reassess those cases of current inmates. Drug abuse is a medical problem first and foremost, so before we get so eager to take criminals off the streets, we should ensure that we’re actually arresting the correct individuals, and sending the accused to the correct places after adjudication.

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Guidance for the Future

As we evolve on the topic of marijuana, two places to look for direction on ending cannabis prohibition would be Portugal and Uruguay, for two different reasons. Portugal decriminalized pot in 2001, and now treats offenders as patients instead of criminals. Possessing up to a 10 days’ supply of the drug (25 grams) is considered an amount for “personal consumption”, and subjects you to an administrative hearing instead of a criminal one. That’s basically taking a drug violation from a criminal court to the equivalent of a traffic court.

Uruguay, meanwhile, has already passed a marijuana legalization bill through its lower house, and the bill now sits in the country’s Senate. Uruguayan President José Mujica has already offered his support for the bill, and their legislation could serve as a blueprint for how the U.S. should handle legislating marijuana moving forward. The federal government should also be watching this to see that ending the prohibition on weed shouldn’t have to happen at the state level. I understand that, lately, calling on Congress to act is more an act of masochism than democracy, but let’s talk facts: marijuana sales already qualify as interstate commerce (albeit illegal commerce), and should be handled at the federal level. Further, if we can construct a new paradigm regarding cannabis, and bring other countries in the region to help regulate this new industry – Latin America would jump at the chance – we’d be generating income for two continents at the very least, and can wind down the infamous War on Drugs, replacing it with a multinational program that might actually work.


In the end, you can find studies and commentary showing that, generally, marijuana causes less harm to the community than alcohol. You can also find research that speculates on how much tax revenue pot could bring in, both locally and federally. You might really enjoy the effects of marijuana, or perhaps you enjoy a different drug – you might even prefer a firm grip on sobriety. No matter your stance, the plant in question has recreational, industrial (hemp), and medicinal use, and we should be putting it to use in every conceivable way, just like wheat and cotton. Don’t believe the hype – believe in the plant.

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