Sunday, September 21, 2008

On Criminalization of Marijuana

This post stems from a conversation I had earlier today about Marijuana in general and its criminalization. In large part, the issue came up because the local Green Party candidate seems to be more of a marijuana advocate than environmentally conscious.

I'm not exactly a big fan of criminal prohibition of marijuana - sure, it's nasty stuff, but so is tobacco and alcohol when used to excess. The long standing criminal ban on possession hasn't been terribly effective, and although we have a fairly good understanding of how Cannabis affects people, it is a lot less clear whether those effects warrant criminal sanction.

If we simply take the claim that because Marijuana is a psychoactive drug as the basis upon which we ban it with criminal enforcement, then one has to raise the question of whether a similar ban is appropriate for alcohol?

We tried the ban alcohol during the early part of the 20th Century, and the cold, hard reality was that we simply gave control of the product and its distribution over to criminals. We didn't achieve a better society for the ban on Alcohol, nor did we actually stop people from drinking.

What we do as a society is criminalize the abuse of the substance. For example, someone who goes out with friends and has a glass of wine (but does not get drunk) and drives home a few hours later has not committed a crime; but certainly we recognize that certain levels of blood alcohol represent serious abuse and and irresponsible decision to drive. We criminalize the latter case - fine.

If we decriminalize Marijuana, what do we effectively do? Well, first of all, we take the underground economy out of the picture. The underground economy - from the grow-ops to the dealer at the local 7-11 - depends on the fact that producing the stuff has to be kept secret. Like tobacco, there isn't a lot of point in being secretive about it if it's legal.

Although that doesn't solve the drug issue entirely, it takes one more issue and removes it from the table - freeing us to go after the more serious problems. Should we establish lines at which use of Marijuana constitutes legal impairment? Absolutely. Should we regulate its production and availability? Sure - we do that with lots of other substances.

But, this is but one part of addressing the complex problem that drug abuse and gang activity presents in society. We still need to address the socio-economic imbalances that drive people to desperate acts such as becoming involved in gangs or turning to drugs for relief from day to day stresses.

Readers will note that I am not calling for absolute decriminalization, rather I am advocating a limited form that will not only knock the legs out from the criminal producers and distributors, but also opens the door more readily to more practical research into the product itself. Few researchers are willing to jump through the hoops necessary to successfully do research on banned substances, and even more complicated is finding participants for that research - often for the same reasons.

Outright prohibition is a doomed policy from the outset, we need to find more practical options that enable us to develop policy that is based upon credible evidence.


VĂ©ronique said...

From what I understand, decriminalization would not take criminals out of the picture, because even if people are no longer arrested for simple possession, they still have no legal way of obtaining the product. For that you need full legalization, plus regulation (and taxation). Decriminalization leaves production and distribution in the hands of those who control those stages now.

MgS said...

I suspect the medical use of marijuana would be a fairly natural place for a regulated use of it to emerge; and to be sure, enterprises like Mark Emery's seed selling business would re-emerge.

Once it's on the surface, things become a lot easier to regulate.