Decriminalizing marijuana will ease prison crowding

Dear A.M. Costa Rica:

In my years of experience in the field of addiction research, I came to recognize decades ago that marijuana is not as harmful as portrayed by a proselytizing press and a zealous government. I am glad that Dr. Sanjay Gupta joined the battle and spoke out for truth, but the truth was known decades ago. Dr. Gupta was kept from it by a veil of deceit.

It is a complex truth. Marijuana is harmful, not as harmful as alcohol, but harmful. In certain medical situations, unlike alcohol, it is beneficial, sometimes the best in its class. It is also a great example of government run riot, lying to the people, imposing remarkably harsh punishment on people for possession (and by extension, use) of the drug. Marijuana is indeed a gateway drug. Thanks to laws that make it illegal, users become part of an underground culture that includes other drugs far more addictive, and the criminality that goes along with all of them. Of course, alcohol is also on the fringes of this culture, and it, too, can be seen as a gateway drug by my definition, but not as strongly.

The now camp movie, “Reefer Madness,” made in 1936, helped immensely to push through Harry Anslinger’s signature law, the Marihuana (sic) Tax Act of 1937. In an interesting side note, the U.S. government spelled marijuana with a “h” rather than a “j” for years, even officially mandating the spelling in research reports as late as the 1970s. We researchers could only sigh and shake our heads at this display of grandiosity.

Research I conducted in the 1980s showed the bias inherent in the drug laws, clearly traceable to the prejudices of Anslinger and law enforcement of that era. What we found was that young black and Latino males arrested for marijuana possession in New Jersey were imprisoned at a much higher rate than were whites. The latter were often referred by the courts to treatment for their “marijuana addiction.” Treatment programs were caught in the crossfire. Should they reject referrals based on the fact that these boys were not addicted? If they did so, they lost the funding and the adolescent went to jail. It was a no-win situation. It is still true that minorities are imprisoned at a higher rate for the same crime, although the gigantic discrepancy is slowly reducing. And it is still true that marijuana is only minimally “addictive.”

As a high, marijuana is pleasurable, and, if made totally legal, would be consumed by a large proportion of the population. There would be repercussions, just as there are for alcohol. Drivers would have marijuana-associated accidents, as they do now at a lower rate. It would not lead to more violence. Marijuana is not at all like alcohol in that regard. It is the drug of the flower children. But it would be associated with what psychologists call amotivational syndrome. As with alcohol, folks with mental disorders would use it at higher rates, causing them more distress (or in some cases, more relief).

Certainly, decriminalizing personal use and possession of marijuana will help reduce prison populations now severely strained by zealous enforcement of archaic laws. Costa Rican prisons are almost as overcrowded as those in the States, thanks to the government here following the pressure exerted by the States. Overall, changing the laws and the attitudes behind them would have a positive effect.

John French
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