Massachusetts should follow Colorado and Washington and legalize marijuana
For those who favor liberalization of controls on marijuana, America's most widely used illicit drug, the election gave us a lot to be happy about. With Colorado and Washington both voting in ballot measures to move toward legalization of marijuana for non-medical purposes, the United States will become on December 6 one of the very few countries in the world where the drug is legal. That is unless the federal government moves and succeeds in blocking the states from enacting laws that conflict with the continuing federal prohibition on cannabis. Here in Massachusetts, voters approved by a wide margin to legalize the use and distribution of medical marijuana. While a step in the right direction, we would prefer full legalization for medical and recreational purposes for several reasons.
Medical marijuana does appear to serve a legitimate use in pain management. From coping with chronic pain, to recovering from a serious illness, to dealing with the effects of post-traumatic stress disorder, marijuana can serve a highly useful purpose for patients. Despite this function, medical marijuana outlets clearly also serve as an avenue for recreational users to exploit. In all likelihood the vast majority of outlets and dispensaries have no intention of acting as a backdoor to getting high without a medical need. However, evidence suggests that prescriptions are often easy to obtain, and medical marijuana has ended up cloaking the failed prohibition of marijuana for recreational use. The public's approach to the industry actually resembles closely at times the United States' addiction to prescription painkillers like Percocet and OxyContin. So long as marijuana remains illegal under federal law, medical outlets will retain the tainted reputation of abuse by those who don't really need their products.
The sensible option from here is to move forward with full legalization of marijuana use for medical and non-medicinal purposes by adults. Given federal intransigence on this subject, it makes sense for proponents of legalization to continue to move forward on a state-by-state basis. Over time, the stance of the Justice Department should evolve to accept that marijuana use is simply too widespread and increasingly accepted to be the focus of the failed "war on drugs."
If Colorado and Washington are permitted to move forward with their citizens' wishes, the aim of regulating marijuana dispensaries and forbidding public consumption could become a model for the rest of the nation, including Massachusetts. As has been stated many times before, legalization can bring money out of the hands of drug dealers and gangsters and into those of law-abiding individuals and public coffers. The disastrous situation in Mexico would improve. The U.S. could quit sending hundreds of thousands to prison, of whom black and Latino men make up a disproportionate number, for relatively harmless offenses.
Most importantly, perhaps, legalization of private marijuana use and small possession would end a sad episode of excessive government intrusion into Americans' lives. Like alcohol and tobacco, marijuana can be dangerous. But it is not cocaine or heroin, and it does not carry with it the same potential for a breakdown in civil society. If someone wants to light up a joint in their own home, it does not seem reasonable for authorities to tell him or her not to. Massachusetts may put itself on a collision course with the feds, but legalization of marijuana for recreational use is the right move forward. And medical marijuana could serve only the patients who really need it.
This editorial was originally published in the Harvard Crimson on November 12, 2012. You can view the original version here.