The following is a guest-post from longtime Stasher Wayne Reiss of Brooklyn, NY…
Most moralizing and political grandstanding eventually devolves into cries of, “What about the children?”. Nowhere do we hear this more frequently than from prohibitionists. This admonition comes in many forms, the most common of which is alarmist reports of rise in teen use rates. Unfortunately, organizations such as NORML, MPP, ASA and others commonly apologize for rises in use rates explaining they are not caused by liberalization of drug laws, rather than attack the very premise of the cause for alarm: that these fears are misguided and overblown. In the words of Ethan Nadelmann, director of the Drug Policy Alliance, cannabis hysteria is “an ounce of truth in a pound of bullshit.” It’s time we focus on the pound of bullshit, and stop apologizing for the ounce of truth.
If we were truly concerned about our children, we would stop arresting them. Arrest, conviction and incarceration of youth and their parents devastate families and are far more harmful than cannabis. William F. Buckley said it best, “Even if one takes every reefer madness allegation of the prohibitionists at face value, marijuana prohibition has done far more harm to far more people than marijuana ever could.”
It is startling the extent to which irrational fears of cannabis are entrenched in society, and how they are rarely questioned or examined. Although most of us agree that if misused cannabis can be potentially harmful, conversations rarely ever include the admonition, “its not harmless” when discussing swimming pools (infants drowning), cooking (ER admissions from knife wounds), cars (40,000 highway fatalities per year), aspirin and ibuprofen (over a thousand deaths per year), or even staircases (a high school friend of mine recently died from a fatal slip and fall accident on her staircase). While it is not my intention to minimize the harms of cannabis or swimming pools (they both require regulation and public health education to ensure safe use), it is notable that the harms of one are almost always emphasized, while the infant mortality rate of the other is tacitly understood in an unremarkable fashion and is regulated appropriately with little fanfare.
Implied in the brandishing of foreboding use rate statistics is the fallacious assumption that use equals abuse. According to US government statistics, only 9% of cannabis users develop a dependency. Of course, the government collects $29 billion per year to fund its prohibitionist machine, the ONDCP, and has many economic and political incentives to bolster this number. But even if we accept this statistic at face value, certainly there is no reason to penalize the remaining 91%. As to the 9%, dependency does not necessarily translate to a societal health burden. Many people use cannabis daily, have no desire to stop, and live productive lives making valuable contributions at work and to society. Moreover, cannabis related health problems (a subset of that 9%) are only exacerbated by prohibition.
As explained by Congressmen Barney Frank, Jared Polis, Dennis Kucinich, Senator Ron Paul and others, to the extent that a small minority of cannabis users develop health problems, it is not the function of government to prevent or criminalize people from harming themselves. To the extent drug users harm others, we already have laws to protect society from these crimes.
And while reasonable adults would agree that children should not use intoxicating drugs, overreacting towards an adolescent’s normal and occasional indiscretion (i.e. alarmist statistics about using cannabis once per month) can be more harmful than cannabis use itself, for it conditions children to disregard parental warnings: the parent who cried wolf. This is not to say that parents should tolerate their children’s use of cannabis, but that they react proportionately and appropriately. Moreover, although we should discourage children from using recreational drugs, research has consistently shown that abstinence strategies are ineffective deterrents. To this extent, we should educate young adolescents as to how and why cannabis is the safest recreational drug, as well as employing other harm reduction strategies such as explaining and modeling the difference between responsible and irresponsible drug use.
Ironically, another unintended consequence of cannabis hysteria is the stifling of real concerns of cannabis use for it polarizes the conversation to such an extent that those of us arguing for sensible regulation are overly occupied with putting out prohibitionist brush fires of hyperbole and irrational concern, and are afraid to concede actual harms of cannabis use for fear of being politically exploited by our adversaries. And when we do acknowledge these harms, inevitably they are so overblown by reactionaries that we are again put in a defensive position of denying an exaggerated version of what we originally intended to admit. This is precisely why we hear the inaccurate claim from anti-prohibitionists that marijuana is harmless. This hyperbole is a reaction to 75 years of anti-marijuana propaganda and yellow journalism.
More than ever before we hear calls for a conversation about cannabis regulation. But cannabis hysteria continually erodes a dispassionate and rational discourse necessary to create meaningful regulation. Prohibition has accumulated tremendous momentum within the government and private industry and its rhetoric remains deeply entrenched in society. However, in this age of instantaneous access to information, science and facts are quickly disseminated, while political and economic agenda is easily exposed. In the fight for a more rational and compassionate drug policy, we must continue to challenge the status quo with the irrefutable facts which are inevitably on our side.