Panelists debated the best course of American marijuana policy as they discussed the effects of legalization on the economy and public health at the Rice Federalist Society’s “Weed Freed” event on April 5.
Solicitor General of Oklahoma Mithun Mansinghani (Martel ’08) was the only panelist who declined to comment instead of expressing support for legalization. He said state-level efforts to legalize the drug have violated the balance between state and federal authority as set by the Constitution.
“Some of the same people who are so concerned about the fabric of our democracy right now turn a blind eye to how marijuana reform has been taking place just because they like the results, even if those results undermine our most fundamental institutions,” Mansinghani said.
Mansinghani asked the audience to imagine potential consequences of states granting licenses to behave contrary to federal law, such as if Texas granted licenses for citizens to buy machine guns or allowed businesses to disregard the Americans with Disabilities Act.
However, Dean Becker, a contributing expert in drug policy at the Baker Institute for Public Policy, said bigotry and racism were used to sway public opinion and pass marijuana prohibition laws. Becker said that he was in part responsible for Harris County’s Misdemeanor Marijuana Diversion Program, which gives certain eligible individuals the option to avoid being charged and arrested for possession of marijuana under four ounces.
“To make alcohol illegal, they needed a constitutional amendment,” Becker said. “They got the states to sign on to do it, and when they repealed it, they had to undo that, get more states to sign on to do away with prohibition. For marijuana, they just threw out a bunch of morals.”
Becker said Harry J. Anslinger, the first commissioner of the Federal Bureau of Narcotics, was a moralist who “spread his BS around the country,” demanding that prohibition of marijuana move forward. Becker read aloud various anti-marijuana quotations from Anslinger, including one in which Anslinger said, “Reefer makes darkies think they’re as good as white men.”
“There is no real justification for laws against marijuana or any of these other drugs,” Becker said. “This is a means whereby the population can be controlled and frightened into believing these things to be necessary.”
Katharine Harris, a fellow in drug policy at the Baker Institute, said legalization of marijuana has had a generally positive impact on state economies, raising hundreds of millions in revenue and creating jobs in areas such as marijuana law and production.
Harris also said that although teens are perceiving fewer risks from marijuana use, these perceptions do not translate into higher rates of teen marijuana use.
“In Colorado, teen use now is actually lower than it was prior to adult-use legalization,” Harris said.
However, Harris said there is a profit incentive for commercial marijuana businesses to encourage frequent use, which poses a public health concern. According to Harris, daily marijuana users account for over half of total marijuana consumption.
Harris offered various solutions to these concerns, such as limiting commercial sales to nonprofit organizations or instituting state-controlled sale of marijuana, which is similar to how certain states only sell liquor through state-owned stores. According to Harris, these methods could mitigate concerns over black market sales while still generating tax revenue through a system that is better for public health.
Each of the three panelists had a different preference forms of legalization.
Mansinghani said legalization should occur in one of three ways: passing legislation through Congress, lowering the classification of marijuana in the Controlled Substances Act or overturning Supreme Court rulings on interstate commerce such as the Wickard v. Filburn ruling.
Becker advocated for a commercial approach in which no substances are controlled, no matter how poisonous they may be. According to Becker, substances should only be regulated so that their packaging lists the ingredients contained therein and people know what they are buying.
Harris said she doesn’t think all illicit drugs should be legalized and made publicly available. Harris also said she would support a commercial marijuana market over prohibition but would prefer a model that balances public health concerns as well.
McMurtry College freshman Sanat Mehta said the panel addressed the issue of marijuana legalization comprehensively and that the dialogue was productive.
“My main takeaway is that most rational people agree that current federal laws against marijuana are too strict, but people disagree about what sort of system to move to,” Mehta said.
Becker said the key to changing marijuana policy is having the courage to speak out about the issue.
“It’s a subject worthy of discussion,” Becker said. “It’s in need of change, worthy of that impetus, worthy of your courage and commitment and action to get it done.”