LACONIA --Even though it's a political hot potato, civil libertarians and several lawmakers say Granite Staters should have a discussion about illegal substances, including the possibility of decriminalizing at least one of them: marijuana.
Among the latter group is State Rep. David A. Welch, R-Kingston, who has served in the New Hampshire House of Representatives for 22 years and is chairman of its Criminal Justice and Public Safety Committee.
The committee recently decided that it was inexpedient to legislate House Bill 197 that would decriminalize the personal possession of marijuana.
"I would agree that at some point we need to take a look at the use of marijuana in a different light," said Welch. "I think that there's been a lot of discussion whether personal use ought to be decriminalized. The bill [HB197] would have decriminalized up to five pounds. That's a lot of joints and that was clearly something that we were not willing to consider -- but the discussion of marijuana use ought to take place but I'm not sure how it would take place."
He does believe, however, that, for practical reasons, that discussion must start from the top -- the federal government -- and move down to the state level.
Welch's view is shared by Claire Ebel, executive director of the New Hampshire Civil Liberties Union, who added that, in light of recent disclosures that he previously used both marijuana and cocaine, President George W. Bush should be the one to initiate the discussion on the use of illegal substances.
Welch agrees that the legal drugs -- alcohol and tobacco -- appear to cause more harm than the illegal ones.
According to the March 10, 2004, edition of the Journal of the American Medical Association, alcohol consumption killed 85,000 people in the United States in 2000 and was a contributing factor in 16,653 of the 43,000 motor vehicle deaths that year.
Meanwhile, 435,000 people died in 2000 as the result of tobacco use, said the JAMA; 400,000 from diet and physical inactivity; 75,000 from microbial agents; 55,000 from toxic agents; 29,000 from incidents involving firearms; 20,000 from sexual behavior; and 17,000 from all illicit drug use, although there were no deaths reported due to the sole use of marijuana, said a 1999 report from the Institute of Medicine's Division of Neuroscience and Behavioral Health.
A study by Canadian researchers published in the Nov. 25, 1998, edition of the JAMA estimated that between 1982 and 1998, an average of 32,000 hospitalized patients died in the U.S. each year from adverse reactions to prescription medications.
In 2001, other leading causes of mortality in the U.S. were suicide, 30,622 deaths, and homicide, 20,308 deaths, said the U.S. Centers for Disease Control.
Finally, a 1997 report in the Annals of Internal Medicine said non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs, including aspirin, ibuprofen, and naproxen, accounted for about 7,600 deaths per year.
All of the above references appear on the Drug War Facts website at http://www.drugwarfacts.org.
Speaking of the federal initiative to curb the influx and use of illegal substances, "I don't believe the war on drugs has been effective, said Welch. "It certainly hasn't been cost-effective, and it certainly isn't working.
"I think we need to take a harder look at it at the national level," he added.
"You're speaking to someone who has never done any drugs at all. I don't use alcohol, either, but I smoke a pipe," said Welch, who noted that "between the smoking and the alcohol is where we get the most of our deaths, between lung diseases and auto accidents."
Welch continued, "We've been very hard on people who drive while drinking, "but we're the only state in the union that sells alcohol on the highways, which is a little hypocritical."
Another conundrum that Welch winces at concerns the medicinal use of marijuana.
"It would appear that marijuana use alleviates some of the symptoms of the cancer treatment itself. So far as I know, nobody has been arrested for that, but it's clearly not legal and my question is, if someone's terminally ill and some drug would alleviate that situation, why would we not want them to have access to that -- but how we provide that is, again, something that the government seems to control."
THC, the active ingredient in marijuana, is available in tablet form as Marinol and is dispensed under federal supervision, "yet we have people who come before the committee and say they'd rather smoke it, and that's problematic," said Welch. "You have to wonder what gets them to testify to a bill in that way. I'm not going to second-guess them. It's just that the government frowns on it" -- getting the pot high by smoking it rather than from a pill.
That contradiction and others give Welch pause.
"I've thought that the [current] society is one that I didn't grow up in. I'd like to know why people feel the necessity for taking drugs. I can understand a social drink but I don't understand why people choose to get wasted or drunk."
As a society, "one thing that we have to address is how young people don't have much of a vision for their own future and that may the reason they get involved in the drug culture.
"If that's the case, then maybe we need to find out why people don't see a future for themselves. We need to address these things somehow, but if drugs are available, people will buy them, and as long as there is a willing customer, there will be willing seller, and as long as they're illegal, we'll have a war on drugs. It doesn't seem to make sense to me in the long run."
Welch added, "We know that there's more and more use of designer drugs; heroin is making an impact in New Hampshire; and, again, if we don't understand why people are using these drugs, we'll never be able to fight it or contradict it and I don't know if that discussion has ever taken place or had any results."
Until the public and lawmakers understand why people use drugs, "I don't know how we can have an effective war on drugs. Arresting people doesn't work," said Welch.
State Rep. Tim Robertson, D-Keene, whom Welch called the "conscience of our committee" and who was the primary sponsor of HB197, said that, if drugs were legal, people would not be dying of heroin overdoses in New Hampshire.
"Why do they get overdoses? Because they don't know what they were taking; but if they went to the drug store, they'd have got their high and forgot it. But because it's illegal they go to a criminal to buy it and he doesn't check its quality and he just sells it and tries to stay out of sight," said Robertson.
But Robertson is not out to decriminalize all drugs, just one.
"If we legalized marijuana, we would find that it wasn't the death knell for society in the way that the anti-marijuana people say. The whole drug war is quite similar to prohibition, which we gave up on."
Robertson said he knows that marijuana eventually will be decriminalized, but said he is not sure whether it will happen in his lifetime. He said he will keep trying to get such enabling legislation passed by his colleagues and may amend HB197 to make it more politically palatable.
"I stand on principle," said Robertson. "I hate hypocrites and I try not to be one."
The war on drugs, he said, is "creating a whole number of people who've been convicted and served time for not a very good reason" -- possession or use of marijuana.
"With marijuana, you usually don't do violent things, you usually don't drive, get into a fight. It's my understanding -- I have had a puff once in my life but I'm much too old to have been in the habit -- that you get hungry and you might get romantic but apart from that you keep your moral base. It doesn't attack the same parts of your brain that alcohol does."
Robertson said the federal government is conflicted about marijuana because it can not figure out a way to regulate it, and, ultimately, to tax it.
"It's very difficult to tax or make money selling a weed. Marijuana will grow anywhere. The average user probably could grow all they need in a window box or in their closet and a lot of them do. It's tough to tax something that you can go down the street and pick up in an empty lot. The average marijuana user is smoking 3-4 joints per week and it's not like cigarettes. It's not addictive and if the price got too high you could stop."
Robertson dismissed the notion that marijuana is psychologically addictive and possibly physically, too.
"It's not any more addictive than peanut butter can be to some people. If you compare the young and mature people who have used it, if it was addictive, we'd have a huge elderly population still using it and we don't. The majority of kids in their late teens and early 20's have tried it" but people in their 30s and 40s do not continue to use it regularly, even though they might still toke up occasionally, because "they understand that you can go to jail."
"I just know we're wasting money, we're wasting people," said Robertson, with regard to the war on drugs. "We have the highest prison population in the modern world on a per-capita basis. All of it isn't because of drugs, but a lot of it is and we ought to try to do something different."
Ebel, who said the war on drugs actually is "a war on the Bill of Rights," pointed out that the history of drug laws in the U.S. has deep, twisted roots.
"When the ladies of the Woman's Christian Temperance Union were in those streets fighting to ban alcohol" in the late 1800s and early 1900s, "they drank their tea flavored with a tincture of opium because it was legal," said Ebel. "So you have a group of devoted women who were campaigning against `demon rum' and they were using an opium derivative and never saw the conflict in those two positions."
When the temperance movement in the U.S. succeeded in the adoption of the 18th Amendment in 1919, that prohibited the manufacture, import, export and sale of alcoholic beverages, alcohol users reacted in two ways, said Ebel.
First, they brewed "bath tub gin' and set up outdoor stills to circumvent the law; and "millions of Americans turned from alcohol to marijuana, which was legal."
Prohibition of alcohol, repealed in 1933 by the 21st Amendment, was "an abysmal failure except that some of the market share that belonged to alcohol was shifted to a legal drug," marijuana, said Ebel.
In response to this encroachment on their industry, she said, alcohol distillers and manufacturers "created the fiction of `reefer madness' and sold it to the U.S. Congress, not because marijuana is a danger -- the only danger marijuana posed was to the liquor industry -- and, in 1937, marijuana was declared illegal in response to a marketing campaign by the liquor industry."
Given the number of deaths attributed annually to alcohol and tobacco, "it is preposterous beyond any reason for anyone to suggest that marijuana is a dangerous drug and should remain an illegal drug," said Ebel.
Marijuana is a weed, she said, and in New Hampshire, "it grows in a lot of people's south 40 and it is not a substance that causes people to become aggressive, homicidal; or otherwise anti-social. But does that mean we would defend people who smoke up and then drive? Absolutely not. The same penalties that attach should and do attach to drugs and drinking and driving."
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