Marijuana Laws: Discriminatory and Due For Change


Perhaps you’ve heard the news: marijuana use is effectively legal in two states, Colorado and Washington, and has been more or less decriminalized in 14 more. The tide of history is changing, and those who would amp on a little hemp are putting on their goofy boots and eying the supermarket snack aisle with covetously glazed eyes. Could it be time for a twenty-first-century road trip to Colorado for Mary Jane and Bud, where they can spark up a bowl of the sacred herb with friends and enjoy a rocky mountain high that has little to do with altitude? Moreover, what is an aging, much-alienated, hipster-parent to think about the should-we-legalize-it or should-we-not debate?

Speaking as a professor at a (putatively) drug-free college, I’d say let’s not be too hasty here.

First of all, marijuana may be legal in Colorado, in the eyes of the state and its cosmopolitan citizenry, but it is still illegal in federal terms. It follows that a person could smoke marijuana with near impunity in Colorado and yet end up arraigned in federal court, where fines and prison time await the guilty. The rule of thumb that hipster-parents who smoked pot in the 1980s (and actually inhaled it) tell our children is both direct and simple: never, ever get arrested and become enmeshed in the clanking, discriminatory, expensive, post-Kafkaesque machinery of the United States legal system.

Never especially means never, kids, if you are persons of color and male.  African-American and Latino young men comprise a disproportionate percentage of America’s prison population, and of that percentage far too many are victims of our outdated laws on marijuana use. Overall, the Washington Post reports that one in five African Americans will end up in jail due to a drug conviction if current trends persist. The so-called War on Drugs, announced by President Nixon so long ago, has morphed into a not-at-all-subtle war on the disadvantaged, Human Rights Watch and other organizations report.

Prison time—no matter the cause—is expensive in three respects. First, it is costly to feed, house, and supervise prisoners. For comparative purposes, it is significantly cheaper to send a student to Wilson College for one year than it is to incarcerate someone for the same period of time. Making matters worse, the punishments associated with a drug conviction don’t end when the big-house door clanks and a convict heads home. If that person held a professional license before doing time, he or she could well lose it. Eligibility for welfare benefits and students loans can evaporate too. Voting rights go away. The less said about how hard it is to find a job, having done time, the better.

I would argue happily that we should “just say no” to drugs if experts hadn’t estimated that 25 million Americans “just said yes” to pot in the last year. As Freud observes in his magisterial Civilization and Its Discontents, life is too hard, and humans respond to its difficulties by dulling themselves with drugs and drink and sex. Self-anesthesia, and its attendant behaviors, isn’t going away, and so the issue becomes how it might be done safely—which means in the home and not anywhere near a car.

My position is that marijuana should be decriminalized—period. Let’s get marijuana out of the hands of the drug cartels and into the hands of geneticists and hippy-dippy gardeners. It’s high time that we stop jailing people for lighting up and raiding the pantry. As much as it hurts me to say this as a parent-professor, I believe that chronic weed beats the lives made chronically tragic by retrograde laws.

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