07/03/2009 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

Marijuana: Still a "Threat to Our People"?

Reading the recent report by Ryan Grim, "Kristof Asks Readers: Should US Legalize Drugs?" I instantly thought of what President Reagan told his advisers in his first NSC meeting as President of the United States. According to the recently declassified NSC meeting minutes, published on, Reagan said:

"This drug problem has been on my mind. We are only now learning of the harmful effects of marijuana, frequently from those people who once favored its use. Drugs are a threat to our people. Once we have made progress in improving the Jamaican economy, we should make termination of the drug trade as our quid pro quo."

Yes, "drugs" are a threat, as Reagan said, but classifying "marijuana" into the category of drugs that are "a threat to our people" doesn't feel right.

Marijuana is a gateway drug, so say the opponents of legalizing pot: once people start using marijuana, they are more likely to start using harder drugs, like cocaine, ecstasy, and so on. I don't buy that argument. If we as a society really want to go to the source and stop the "gateway" drugs, we need to start with alcohol and cigarettes.

Some will argue that I'm making an unfair comparison -- alcohol or cigarettes to marijuana -- but I don't think so. Someone drunk from excessive alcohol, and for some people I know that means just one drink, walking and talking is a challenge, let alone getting behind the wheel of a car. Smoking cigarettes, of course, does not impair one's motor skills like alcohol, but that does not mean that cigarettes aren't a drug -- people smoke for the enjoyment of smoking (and because they are addicted) despite the fact that smoking kills. We all know the statistics on smokers and cancer, and the impact these numbers are having on our health care system.

In fact, talking about alcohol versus marijuana use with law enforcement people I know, they all agreed that drinking and driving is a much more dangerous threat on the road than someone who is driving and high. These law enforcement people pointed out that people who drink and drive are much more aggressive drivers than those who smoke marijuana and drive, and are therefore much more likely to cause car accidents.

On a side note, I have friends, highly educated with MBAs and PhDs, who smoke regularly, and in fact say that they do some of their best work after smoking marijuana. I know these friends to be good people who are working to improve society, like finding a cure for cancer. I understand that people like that are the exception, but that doesn't mean these well-functioning "pot-heads" shouldn't also have their say in the debate.

A clinical psychologist friend of mine reminded me that marijuana is also a downer and that people tend to get depressed after its use. Thus, they tend to use and smoke more just to get back to that state of not being depressed, often resulting in a dangerous self-perpetuating cycle where they smoke in order to simply not feel depressed. I don't know.

But, personal experience, and by that I mean traveling in Europe, and in particular Holland (oh how I love Amsterdam!!), where smoking marijuana is permissible though technically illegal, and Switzerland, where selling is legal but smoking is not (makes no sense to me, so please correct me if I'm wrong here), both countries have low crimes rates and are fantastic places to live. Amsterdam is somewhat of an exception in that parts of the city, like its famous red light district, are places I would not want to be after dark for safety reasons, but like I said, that is the exception, and, at the end of the day, I'd rather be in the worst parts of Switzerland or Holland than in the worst parts of New York, Los Angeles or just about any major city in the United States.

As President Reagan said, "drugs are a threat to our people," but that threat is not from marijuana. Even if it is not time to go forward with legalizing marijuana, the moment has arrived where we need to stop thinking of marijuana as the "threat to our people" that President Reagan once preached, and that many still argue.