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The Moral Case for Legalizing Marijuana

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While a recent Gallup poll revealed that a majority of Americans support legalizing marijuana, and Ron Paul -- a proponent -- has run well in the early GOP presidential primaries, most mainstream politicians still refuse to touch the subject, and many journalists continue to refer to legalization as a "radical" position.

It's no wonder. The loudest voices for reform usually come from the political margins: the "hippie" Far Left and the libertarian Far Right. And while emanating from different directions, the two extremes share a similar credo: An out-of-control government has no business telling me what I can ingest.

A politically-influential cross-section of Americans, however, disagree.  Many associate pot advocacy with the "anything goes" counter-culture of the 1970s that they blame for the decline of personal responsibility. Others worry that the logical extension of the philosophy could lead to legalizing "harder" drugs, prostitution, even polygamy.  All of them -- liberals, moderates, and conservatives -- believe that there must be some moral standards established to guide public policy.

I'm part of that moral majority. But unlike Jerry Falwell's version, my values system is based on the multi-religious mandate to "love your neighbor as yourself."  I've even written a book, The Compassionate Community, which applies Bible lessons and other religions' texts to advocate for progressive policies that promote the common good.

And I've recently concluded that these same enduring moral values compel me to support legalizing marijuana.

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I'm not your typical pro-pot advocate.  Like Bill Clinton, I've never inhaled; but unlike the former president -- indeed, unlike most of my Gen X cohorts -- I've never even handled a joint.  Since I lost my chain-smoking grandmother to cancer at an impressionable age, the thought of sucking any kind of smoke into my lungs thoroughly disgusts me.

So when I served in public office -- I'm the former State Treasurer of Kentucky -- it was easy for me to represent my conservative constituents and oppose legalizing cannabis.

But leaving the arena last year and becoming a recovering politician freed me of my electoral blinders, and allowed me to take a more critical look at the underlying issues. And as I summarize below, I've concluded that legalizing cannabis would enable our government, as well as our society, to better reflect universally-shared moral values, such as compassion toward the sick, justice in our legal system, and economic opportunity for all.

Health Concerns

Despite this week's news of a new peer-reviewed study that suggests that casual marijuana use can have beneficial health effects without the adverse lung damage that tobacco wreaks, like any drug, cannabis -- particularly when used heavily -- might pose long-term health complications. However, there is a clear consensus around the following: (1) Cannabis is not as addictive as alcohol, tobacco or certainly "harder" drugs like cocaine and heroin; (2) Marijuana is much less physically debilitating than "harder" drugs, as well as many legally-prescribed synthetic painkillers; (3) Deaths from a marijuana overdose are extraordinarily rare; and (4) There's a significant and growing amount of evidence that cannabis helps relieve symptoms of many serious medical conditions -- including cancer, glaucoma, and AIDS -- and can be a better alternative to narcotic painkillers.

Given the balance of equities, 16 states and the District of Columbia have chosen the compassionate route and legalized marijuana for medicinal purposes. Unfortunately, this half-measure has created an unexpected set of complications. State legislatures and public health advocates are up in arms with stories about doctors who abuse their authority and "patients" who game the system. And federal laws that conflict with the states can place physicians in difficult legal positions.  That's why the California Medical Association recently urged their state to move toward full legalization. They understand that relieving the anguish of their sickest patients -- those among "the least of us" -- is a moral imperative.

Criminal Justice

There's no conclusive evidence that marijuana use or abuse leads to violent crime; indeed, the pacifying nature of the drug would seem to indicate the contrary.  Yet there have been more than 20 million arrests for marijuana-related crimes in the U.S. since 1965, taxing our already over-crowded corrections system.  Not only is there a moral question associated with locking someone up for a victimless crime, there's a significant economic dimension: In my home state of Kentucky, it costs taxpayers $19,000 a year to imprison one inmate. Incarcerating nonviolent pot smokers and distributors, accordingly, costs American taxpayers tens of millions, if not hundreds of millions of dollars annually -- money that's desperately needed for essential social services.  A significant slice of corrections funding could instead be freed for proven, effective drug treatment programs (such as this outstanding peer-mentoring model) that truly tackle the problem of drug dependence and empower addicts to take control of their lives.

Mere decriminalization of marijuana use would seem to help address our corrections crisis. But it would do little to mitigate the horrible violence associated with cannabis trafficking by organized crime cartels here and murderous drug gangs in Mexico. The creation of a legal, domestic marijuana industry -- fully regulated like alcohol to ensure a safe product and to prohibit sales to minors -- would cut off the financial lifeline that empowers gangs to disrupt our streets and threaten our southern border.

Economic Opportunity

As the U.S. struggles to emerge from the Great Recession, our family farmers have faced extraordinary challenges. My area of the country -- which includes some of the nation's poorest counties -- has suffered in particular, as global demand for tobacco has plummeted.  Marijuana legalization could be an enormous boon to agricultural production, particularly in some of our most economically-distressed regions. Some estimates calculate that cannabis is already the No. 1 cash crop in the U.S.: In California alone, estimated annual revenues for marijuana sales today approach $14 billion -- and that represents a fraction of potential income under a legal regime.  With national poverty and unemployment rates at morally unacceptable levels, legalizing marijuana could create many thousands of new jobs in agriculture and associated industries such as warehousing, packaging, transportation, advertising, and distribution.

Then don't forget the economic benefit to the rest of us. Taxing the legal product could produce a multi-billion dollar infusion into local and state governments that are struggling to meet such basic moral needs as quality public schools, health care for the poor and affordable higher education.

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It's always important to scrutinize any efforts to solve our economic and social problems through the legalization, taxation, or expansion of so-called "vices" that, when abused, can impair the lives of addicts and their families. That's why it's critical for any cannabis legalization regime to be strictly regulated, and that significant sums be set aside for drug treatment programs. Additionally, local governments must leverage their recent experience with tobacco to provide adequate public protections against secondhand smoke.

But as a matter of public policy, our focus shouldn't be on the private morality of individuals who choose to smoke pot, but on the public morality of the nation.  And the beneficial impacts of legalizing marijuana -- for our neighbors who struggle with serious illness; for our heavily-burdened system of criminal justice; and for the job creation and economic opportunity it would bring to our nation -- would only serve to strengthen America's moral fiber.

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