I don't smoke pot. It's something that's never had a place in my life and I've always seen drugs, even alcohol, as a potential hindrance to my goals in life. That's why I've always been very careful about where I tread, what I take and when I take it. But despite this goodie-two-shoes approach to all things potentially addictive, I'm probably one of the few human beings that's genuinely outraged that marijuana is illegal.
You see, I'm a libertarian at heart and being a libertarian means you have one simple, fundamental rule when it comes to government, "The government's job is to protect me from others, but I'm the only person who's responsible for protecting me from myself." This means that if there's no victim outside of the perpetrator, there is no crime. Period.
However, I'm also a realist and I understand that I live in a society that's hell-bent enforcing morals through laws and watching over people's shoulders to make sure they're doing what's right, even when it doesn't affect anyone else. But even under such a restrictive government, the hypocrisy of making marijuana illegal is dumbfounding and, to a libertarian such as myself, is infuriating.
First of all, marijuana as a substance is less harmful and less addictive than cigarettes, less intoxicating than alcohol and the only illegal drug that has not killed a single person in recorded history. In fact, much to my shame, some studies indicate that caffeine, my drug of choice, comes with more harmful side effects than marijuana does.
Now let's take a quick moment to contrast marijuana to each of these other, completely legal, drugs.
Cigarettes have an absolutely abominable record when it comes to public safety. Not only do 400,000 people die each year from smoking-related illnesses, but also the nicotine found in cigarettes has been tested as being the most addictive drug that's widely used, up to five times more addictive than cocaine. Meanwhile, just a few years ago, tobacco executives were swearing that nicotine wasn't addictive and that people were smoking cigarettes purely for personal enjoyment. It's a sad spectacle to say the least. However, tobacco, in all its forms, remains completely legal to anyone over the age of 18.
However, alcohol isn't doing much better. Another highly addictive substance, upwards of 50,000 people die each year from alcohol poisoning (this doesn't count drunk driving, other accidents, liver disease or kidney failure). To make matters worse, alcohol is implicated in over half of all domestic violence and rape cases, up to 2/3 of all assaults and a quarter of all suicides. Yet despite this tremendous societal impact, alcohol remains completely legal for anyone over the age of 21 who isn't operating a motor vehicle.
Caffeine, however, is much more innocent. But it too rings in as one of the most addictive substances available, ahead of PCP, and the negative health consequences of caffeine, including lost sleep, jitters and ulcers are well documented.
Compared to these three, marijuana, a drug with no physical dependency and one of the lowest overall addictiveness ratings, seems rather tame. While taking smoke into your lungs is never a good thing and some of the side effects of marijuana, including mental impairment and sexual dysfunction, are undeniable, it's no more dangerous than many over-the-counter medications. Combine that with the complete lack of a body count and marijuana becomes one of the safest things to breathe in a society surrounded by gas fumes and wet paint. Even the hardest skeptics of the drug have to admit, it's better for you than cigarettes and less of a societal problem than alcohol.
Despite this, the government has fought tooth and nail to keep marijuana illegal, including taking states that try to decriminalize the drug to court. But while the federal government ignores the obvious, nearly 750,000 people each year are arrested for mere marijuana possession costing taxpayers an estimated $10 billion. This number dwarfs the number of violent criminals arrested and most law enforcement experts agree that the "war on pot" has become nothing but a huge burden on the nation's police force.
But then comes the big question, why is it illegal in the first place? I've read about a dozen theories on the issue, but as I see it, it boils down to one critical factor, the users. The people who smoke cigarettes and drink alcohol come from all walks of life and any attempt to criminalize those two drugs would be resisted by A) powerful lobby groups and B) the wealthy and middle-class users of the products. However, pot smokers tend to be younger, less politically involved and smaller in number than any of the other groups in question. So while speaking out against cigarettes or alcohol is political suicide, it's completely safe to pick on marijuana users and, in fact, with the public crying for a "war on drugs" it's a very, very smart move.
Now, on an aside note, a lot of people have taken to calling pot a "gateway drug" to justify maintaining its criminal status. But the term "gateway drug", while it seems to implicate marijuana in causing more serious addictions, is actually a term that means very little for the simple reason that any drug can be a gateway drug. While there's a strong correlation between people who use pot and then move onto other things, a similar correlation exists for both alcohol and caffeine. The truth is, a lot of people who use marijuana never move onto harder drugs just like light drinkers don't always become raging alcoholics. In the end, it's just a convenient statistic to justify an unjustifiable law.
But there is hope. Several states and many nations are moving to decriminalize marijuana. By one estimate, 30% of the United States population lives under some form of decriminalization and in those states there's been no reported increase of marijuana use. Other states, like Nevada, are pushing legislation through to decriminalize marijuana possession despite the federal governments legal maneuvering to get the laws repealed.
What needs to happen is more political activism on the part of pot smokers. More than just protests and publicity stunts, there needs to be a serious push not just for the legalization of marijuana, but to promote the responsible use of it. Rather than simply fighting to lift the ban, there needs to be an understanding that any legalization of it is going to come with restrictions and the consensus among the current marijuana lobbyists is that the restrictions should be similar to those placed on alcohol (age, location of consumption, driving, etc.).
But most importantly, pot smokers needs to shake their image of being stupid, lazy and useless. Being politically active and promoting responsible use is one of the best ways to do that, but also important is being a productive member of the community, a law-abiding citizen (marijuana use aside) and a contributor to government both as a taxpayer and as a voter.
Perhaps then marijuana users and marijuana supporters will be able to show the people the error of the existing laws and take their case to government in a way that will earn them respect and, justice willing, a victory.