A bill calling for the decriminalization of possession of small amounts of marijuana is one that Gov. Peter Shumlin hopes passes in the coming year, and chances are it will, partly because of a broad transformation of social attitudes toward the drug.
That transformation was evident this year in Colorado and Washington, where voters decided to legalize the use of marijuana for purposes other than medicinal — what is called “recreational” use. These state initiatives still are contrary to federal law, but before too long we could see the legal public sale of marijuana, regulated and taxed, for use by people who want to get high.
Even the open and unapologetic use of the language of marijuana — all the references to reefer, pot, getting high — indicate a change in social attitudes. It is possible to acknowledge that millions of people smoke marijuana with little harm to themselves without fear that one will be accused of abetting criminality. This change has occurred, no doubt, because of the passage of time. The baby boom generation brought marijuana smoking into wider use, which ignited the war on drugs and its ineffective punitive campaigns. Now the children of the baby boomers have grown into adulthood, and, mostly, they’re doing fine. And they may be freer about marijuana use than their parents.
We have learned several things in our decades-long effort to grapple with the reality of marijuana. First, we know that marijuana, smoked to excess, can be damaging. Any drug consumed to excess is damaging. But to say so is to acknowledge that occasional, moderate indulgence is not damaging. Experience has shown us this is true.
What defines excess? Winston Churchill was a prodigious consumer of alcohol, but he was one of the great leaders of the 20th century. Most of us would be wise not to emulate his alcohol habits, but even drinking to excess did not destroy him. Louis Armstrong, one of the great artists of the 20th century, was known as a daily smoker of pot. He is supposed to have said: “Marijuana is not addictive, and I should know. I smoke it every day.” Few of us are musical geniuses, and our productivity and happiness in life would be better served by moderation.
Second, we have learned that overzealous enforcement of marijuana laws destroys lives without achieving any social good. Enforcement has filled prisons and tainted with the stamp of criminality millions of lives, ruining whole communities, many of them poor.
Third, the war on drugs has not halted the trade in marijuana and the criminal gangs that wreak havoc in order to sell it. Those states that are contemplating a legal and legitimate trade may put criminal gangs out of business.
Vermont does not routinely lock up people for small-time possession; the state has not had to contend with punitive laws such as the so-called Rockefeller laws in New York. Even so, decriminalizing possession would send the message to police that they no longer need to bother people about small amounts of marijuana.
As laws about marijuana become more lax, society will have to undergo an education and a maturation about the place of the drug in social life and about its safe use. Whether we become educated and mature, marijuana will still be a reality, especially among a high percentage of the young. Eliminating paranoia about the drug and encouraging a discussion about its proper place in life will allow society to come to grips with marijuana as it has had to do with alcohol.
There will always be alcohol abuse, as well as the abuse of marijuana and other drugs. But the cost of criminalizing their routine, moderate use has become unbearable for society, as police officers and politicians are acknowledging with more frequency. The Legislature has grappled in the past with the question of decriminalizing marijuana and has proven skittish because of the misgivings of law enforcement. But increasingly, police and others associated with the criminal justice system have grown to understand that drugs, when abused, are most effectively dealt with as a treatable problem rather than a criminal offense.
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