Andy Whyman: Legalizing pot would lead to positive social change |

Andy Whyman: Legalizing pot would lead to positive social change

Regular readers of this column know I have argued that marijuana is far safer than alcohol. Also, that the criminalization of marijuana usage, a central component of the failed “War on Drugs,” really amounts to a War on Citizens, particularly citizens of color.

Now, the New York Times, in an unprecedented series of editorials, forcefully contends that the time has come to end the federal prohibition against marijuana and allow the states to make their own rules about this drug (See N.Y. Times, July 27, 2014).

The Times detailed and defended its argument to end marijuana prohibition, taking into account both political reality and medical science. Why now?

Said the Times Editorial Board, “It took 13 years for the United States to come to its senses and end Prohibition, 13 years in which people kept drinking, otherwise law-abiding citizens became criminals and crime syndicates arose and flourished. It has been more than 40 years since Congress passed the current ban on marijuana, inflicting great harm on society just to prohibit a substance far less dangerous than alcohol.”

The Times went on to note that according to FBI figures there were 256,000 marijuana possession arrests in 2012, almost three times the arrest rate for other illegal drugs. And these arrests fall disproportionately on young black men contributing to both ruining their lives and creating career criminals.

Pertaining to issues of medical concern, the Times said, “…the evidence is overwhelming that (marijuana) addiction and dependence are relatively minor problems, especially compared with alcohol and tobacco” and “moderate use of marijuana does not appear to pose a risk for otherwise healthy adults.”

This well reasoned and colorful series of editorials points out “the federal government’s archaic rules” and the “increasing absurdity” of trying to defend the idea that marijuana should continue to be listed as a Schedule I drug in the Controlled Substances Act i.e. one of the most dangerous drugs on earth.

Brent Staples, writing in the Times on July 30, 2014 says that, “The federal law that makes possession of marijuana a crime has its origins in legislation that was passed in an atmosphere of hysteria in the 1930s and that was firmly rooted in prejudices against Mexican immigrants and African-Americans..”

He then says that current federal policy, “is so driven by myth and propaganda that it is almost impervious to reason.” Which, I should note, was soon followed by a White House position piece defending the status quo about marijuana.

It’s important to keep in mind when we reason through this issue that, as citizens, we tend to believe that federal and state prohibitions are there to protect us. Not so much with marijuana, I would argue.

For example, Drug Enforcement Administrator Michele Leonhart maintains that there is no difference between the health effects of marijuana and those of other illegal drugs.

In 2012, she instructed Congress that “All illegal drugs are bad for people,” refusing to acknowledge that crack cocaine, methamphetamine and prescription painkillers are far more addictive and physically harmful than marijuana.

Yet, the venerable and trusted Institute of Medicine, the health arm of the National Academy of Sciences, found that 32 percent of tobacco users become dependent, as do 23 percent of heroin users, 17 percent of cocaine users, and 15 percent of alcohol drinkers. Only 9 percent of marijuana users develop any degree of dependency.

State actors are no less immune to political pressure over medical issues than the feds. Two recent examples: Recall that Nevada citizens legalized medical marijuana more than 10 years ago through the initiative process, yet it’s only now that local jurisdictions are being grudgingly dragged into compliance with the will of the people.

Recall also that two years ago the citizens of California were on the verge, according to polls at the time, of passing a marijuana legalization initiative before the last minute “No on legalization” efforts of the alcohol industry, the private prison industry, and nine former administrators of the DEA, each of whom had either financial and/or ideological incentives to oppose legalization.

Nonetheless, the pro-legalization train is picking up speed, and will continue to accelerate. In 1991, 78 percent of Americans thought that marijuana should be illegal. By 2008, the figure was down to 57 percent.

In 2013, 52 percent favored legalization. Add state financial incentive, i.e. Colorado realized about $24 million in new revenue in just the first five months after legalization, and these two locomotives of change will lead to full marijuana legalization over time.

My take on marijuana legalization is that it will lead to a number of positive social changes. It will increase personal freedom. Like alcohol, used responsibly, it will provide a pleasant social and personal experience without the specter of criminal behavior lurking in the background.

It will de-stigmatize the problems of marijuana abuse and/or dependency for those with emotional problems and allow for more ready access to treatment. It will allow the criminal justice system to realign resources and manpower to pursue dangerous criminals.

And because it is consistent with the factual story of marijuana, ending government prohibition of the drug is better for everyone.

Incline Village resident Andrew Whyman, MD, is a clinical and forensic psychiatrist. He can be reached for comment at

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