Legalize it! (...and not for the reason you think)


When I was growing up in the 1960s and 1970s, like a lot of kids, I wondered how the world would change in my adulthood, when the folks who were on the TV news every night -- occupying the college president's office and waving Vietcong flags -- would be old enough to run for and presumably elect one of their own as president. Because of the way (sometimes inaccurately, I later learned) this so-called "youth culture" was portrayed in the media, one thing seemed like a slam dunk: Marijuana would surely be legalized, possibly soon but certainly in my lifetime.

Heh. Turned out, a funny thing happened on the way to the first Cheech and Chong Administration. Instead, America elected a string of law-and-order presidents -- partly in response to those convulsions of the Pepsi Generation -- that created ridiculously draconian penalties for narcotics offenders (especially in "liberal" New York State), spent billions on a war on drugs that included massive new prisons from sea to shining sea, and finally none other than Nancy Reagan provided their mantra: "Just Say No." Our two presidents who attended college in the late 1960s, Bill Clinton and George W. Bush, were both mortified by their own youthful drug experimentation and adverse to ending the drug war that the likes of Nixon, Rockefeller and Reagan had started.

But as a very wise man once said...what a long, strange trip it's been. After that massive detour, the folks who grew up dazed and confused in the 1970s are indeed now running the nation, including the former "choom gang" leader in the Oval Office. Talking about m-m-m-my generation, "we" also now run the editorial board of the New York Times, and today, in 2014 -- pretty much on the schedule that I imaged four decades ago! -- we're the no-longer-young-generation, and we've got something to say...

Legalize de marijuana:

It took 13 years for the United States to come to its senses and end Prohibition, 13 years in which people kept drinking, otherwise law-abiding citizens became criminals and crime syndicates arose and flourished. It has been more than 40 years since Congress passed the current ban on marijuana, inflicting great harm on society just to prohibit a substance far less dangerous than alcohol.

The federal government should repeal the ban on marijuana.

You certainly should read the entire Times editorial: It's meant to trigger a broader debate, and it surely will. The Times believes that a national approach is needed to counteract the current hodgepodge of state laws, a situation that's become even more messy with the recent legalization moves in Colorado and Washington State. Among its key points are that research suggests that pot is less harmful and less addictive than legal substances such as alcohol and tobacco, and that the current realities of drug enforcement are racist, with arrests targeting blacks even though drug use itself does not discriminate. It does lay out some caveats, including the suggestion that -- like alcohol -- the age limit be set at 21, because of concerns that pot use might affect youthful brain development.

I couldn't agree more -- but maybe not for the reasons you think. Despite my way-too-often expressed nostalgia -- love, even -- for the tumultuous events of 40 and 50 years ago, any feelings of affinity for the drug culture aren't especially personal. True, it was easier to avoid the 120-BPM of disco music during the late 1970s than completely dodging the purple haze of marijuana smoke. But the best I can remember (no punchline intended) I haven't been passed a joint since the year that Nancy Reagan and her husband left the White House, and even before that no one would have elected me leader of their "choom gang."

Today, I think that marijuana use should be safe, legal...and yet probably more rare than it is now. For one thing, marijuana use may be relatively safe..on your couch, but driving while stoned is highly dangerous, and I'm not sure if law enforcement is well positioned to prevent it. I also worry that -- at a time when American students are falling behind their peers in other industrialized nations -- too many kids will too easily get their hands on a drug that makes them even more stupid. The massive social problems that Americans face today -- like income inequality, or the new threats to voting rights -- won't be solved by the chronically buzzed. As Husker Du famously said, walking around with your head in the clouds, makes no sense at all.

But prohibition doesn't work -- and it's highly counterproductive. Despite my qualms about marijuana, I know -- because I've seen it first-hand with family and friends -- that alcohol is much more destructive. And, as the Times rightly noted today, it only took us only 13 years to see that prohibition of booze was a total disaster, fueling the rise of organized crime and creating a nation of lawbreakers without changing anyone's behavior. The prohibition on pot has been worse -- filling our jails and destabilizing entire neighborhoods, rendering folks impossible to hire when they get out.

There's a bigger problem in America: We arrest way too many people, period. Look at what happened earlier this month on Staten Island, after a move to arrest a father of six for the crime of selling loose, untaxed cigarettes, a crime you probably didn't even know was taking place out there. It sounds like something that warrants a summons, like speeding, but for Eric Garner it ended in capital punishment, when he died after cops arrested him and put him in a choke-hold.

The very same New York Times, in a follow-up article, pointed out something that should have been noted sooner. Arrests for minor offenses -- especially in the Big Apple -- have gotten out of control. And marijuana arrests are the big driver:

All told, since 1994, the police in New York City have arrested more than 1.3 million people for misdemeanors who had never been previously arrested for a penal-law crime, according to data from the state’s Criminal Justice Services, although some double-counting is possible because of the way arrestees are tracked.

Marijuana arrests have driven the increase over the last decade, with trespassing arrests also a leading factor. Some of those who ended up in handcuffs for trespassing said they were visiting friends or relatives, and a federal judge found the police were unconstitutionally stopping people.

Some officers have said they were under pressure from commanders to raise their arrest numbers, which supervisors use to gauge productivity. But as the city grew safer, the police also pursued ever lower violations, such as having a foot on a subway seat.

This is nothing short of a police state -- and it needs to stop. It's time to stop ruining lives and separating families for people who are called by a human instinct that's little different than hoisting a mug of beer. It's time to stop wasting billions on the now-embarrassing "war on drugs" and enriching the prison constructors, and to start channeling that money into productive causes -- including treatment for addiction to much, much more harmful drugs like heroin.

That -- the mindless ruination of people's lives over such a minor offense -- is why marijuana should be legalized, and -- for the first time since I was teenager -- I believe this will happen in my lifetime. So have a good time everybody, but be smart and be safe. I'll be watching this one from the sidelines.