Is the public ready for legalization
"Prohibition will work great injury to the cause of temperance. It is a species of intemperance within itself, for it goes beyond the bounds of reason in that it attempts to control a man's appetite by legislation, and makes a crime out of things that are not crimes. A Prohibition law strikes a blow at the very principles upon which our government was founded." - President Abraham Lincoln.
Prohibition failed. There is no denying this. To say otherwise would ignore 14 long years of U.S. history. To deny its failure would be to ignore organized crime, black markets and the resolve of American citizens to openly defy a law that infringed on our liberties. Prohibition demonstrated that a top-down approach of forbid and punish does little to change the social behaviors of the people. But as the old saying goes, those who forget history are doomed to repeat it.
The War on Drugs has failed, and no less disastrously than Prohibition. Nearly 40 years after the formation of the Drug Enforcement Administration, our inmate population for drug-related charges is the highest in the world, yet our consumption remains the highest as well. Forty-two percent of high school graduates have smoked marijuana. Crossing all socioeconomic divisions and cracking down on enforcement has done nothing to reverse this trend: Nothing has been accomplished but tarnished records and broken hearts. But at last, a glimmer of hope has emerged.
This weekend, a poll found a majority of Colorado voters supporting proposed Amendment 64 to the Colorado State Constitution, an initiative to fully legalize marijuana possession and use of amounts under 1 ounce for those over 21, subject to regulations determined by the state. That's right. Full legalization (in essence). The Denver Post found that across every income bracket and every age group under 65 years of age, more voters supported than opposed the measure. Seventeen states and the District of Columbia have already legalized medicinal marijuana at the state level, but Colorado could be the first in the country to pass full legalization. The road, however, will still be difficult.
Actually passing such a proposal on election day will be difficult, but there is hope. This year is a presidential election year and voter turnout among lower age groups is likely to be significantly higher than in off years, reducing the clout of the consistently active elderly vote, the only voter bloc whose majority opposes legalization in Colorado. This would be similar to the 2000 election, which resulted in Colorado's approval of medicinal marijuana. While a similar proposal was rejected in Colorado in 2006, an additional six years of expanded medicinal marijuana consumption may have eroded enough cultural opposition to reach a majority this year.
The hidden threat to the success of Colorado's legalization initiative may come from its biggest supporters. Many advocates for legalization of marijuana oppose Amendment 64 because it grants too much regulatory power to the state and offers insufficient protection of the rights of marijuana users. The unrest within these groups may cripple any attempts at the unified campaign needed to officially pass the measure.
The federal government also remains a threat to legalization. The federal ban on marijuana use could spell trouble even if the measure passes and the federal government decides to take action. President Barack Obama has lessened enforcement during his first administration, but he has disappointed many supporters who expected more leniency from him. And the public certainly does not know how he would react to full legalization. Some reports indicate he opposes full legalization. Former governor Mitt Romney would undoubtedly tend toward strict enforcement policies.
Despite these obstacles, the legalization movement is promising. Past attempts in multiple states have failed, but the persistence of the rapidly expanding movement may yield fruitful results in the near future. The 2011 Gallup polls ushered in renewed enthusiasm when support for legalization broke 50 percent, and the movement shows no signs of fatigue. If anything, it has demonstrated a resolve to fight to the bitter end.
But why does this matter to Rice? It presents an opportunity for the student body to engage in a healthy discussion about arguments for legalization, its potential benefits, harmful side effects and the steps we can take to push for reform in Texas. So I ask Rice, would students support legalization of marijuana in Texas?
There are plenty of valid concerns raised by opponents. Some fear an increase in use will inevitably follow. Some oppose government becoming an enabler of an unhealthy habit. Others cite the health risks associated with marijuana use as reason to fight even harder against legalization. Personally, I reject all of these arguments, and I know a number of Baker Institute Fellows who do as well. But whatever your views, it is a discussion worth having.
Rice is in no way isolated from marijuana use or its effects. I am sure any student reading this can name at least one person who has smoked marijuana at Rice. What is the appropriate response to marijuana use on campus? Should we as Rice students discourage marijuana use altogether? Should higher administrative powers coerce students into abstinence? Should we tolerate the decisions of others to engage in this activity? Should we protect our friends from potential legal consequences associated with this choice to participate? How do we resolve the divide between what is socially acceptable and what the law tolerates?
There is no easy answer to these questions no matter how strongly you feel about one side or the other, but they must be addressed. Why not now?
James Dargan is a Wiess College sophomore.
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