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April 23,2007 - Campus Press (CO Edu)

OpEd: Marijuana's Long And Colorful History Taints Its Reputation Today

By Amanda Pehrson

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There is much disapproval toward any positive stance on marijuana, especially its non-medical legal use. In November 2006, voters were asked to decide on Amendment 44, which would have allowed the possession of less than one ounce of marijuana for persons 21 and older.

In many of my classes I am studying the topic of differential social power. This is the idea that dominant groups use power to subjugate subordinate ones. Dominant groups are able to pass and enforce rules that define other's behavior as deviant.

At the start of marijuana prohibition in 1937, this was exactly what was going on. At this time, many people from Mexico were moving into the southwest of the U.S. Marijuana, a popular plant among Mexicans, was brought with them.

Many Americans were hostile to the Mexican immigrants, and concluded that if there was a particular action or characteristic that they did not like about the Mexican immigrants, that it must be the affects of marijuana, according to Professor Charles Whitebread, author of a speech entitled "The History of the Non-Medical Use of Drugs in the United States". The drug caused a moral panic.

In 1937, a set of very brief hearings known as the Marijuana Tax Act, determined that marijuana was a "highly addictive drug that produces insanity, criminality and death." I would also like to quote a statement from the Act by Texas prosecutor Harry Anslinger: "All Mexican's are crazy and this stuff [marijuana] makes them crazy."

There was little hostility toward the actual drug; it was really about how Americans at the time felt toward the Mexican immigrant community. But today, we are still suffering from what was really an uninformed, racist drug scare over seven decades ago. Criminalization of marijuana stems from an outdated perception of what its effects are. I am sure you have heard that marijuana use does not cause death.

It is true that everyone reacts to the drug a little differently, but the fact is that it is much safer than legal drugs such as tobacco or alcohol.

These drugs come in as first and second in the statistical analysis of substance-related deaths per year. Students die almost annually at CU due to alcohol-related activities. Marijuana weighs in last, killing zero people per year. Seeing these hard facts only strengthens my idea that marijuana prohibition can easily fall into the category of differential social power.

Why alcohol and not pot? Now, we obviously don't think these things about pot. Now, we use the idea of a "gateway" drug.

There is no doubt that there are people who are pot-smokers and eventually come to use heroin.

But there is a key difference between the words correlation and cause.

Smoking marijuana is not what makes people try cocaine.

People who start experimenting with drugs use them in a particular order.

The same could be said for alcohol.

A first time user is more likely to pick up a Bud than take a shot of Everclear. But does drinking beer cause people to drink Everclear? Or are there just an unequal number of people who like beer and also like to drink 190-proof alcohol? And aren't these people more likely to try the less potent, less expensive one first?

Couldn't the cause also be related to the scary label that has been put on marijuana?

If someone smokes pot and then sees for themselves how harmless it is, wouldn't that person be more likely to try other drugs based on their assumption that all popular information on substances is skewed?

I would also like to say that criminalization of marijuana has in turn put an overwhelming number of people in prison since the Reagan era, which only made these laws more strict, according to Whitebread. If we choose to look at cause and effects of high imprisonment rates, it is obvious that many people who have served time in prison have a hard time getting a job afterwards.

Supporting prisoners is a heavy burden on our taxes. Many people in jail for marijuana possession and distribution are the victims of a very outdated moral panic and make up a large percentage of the expenses that come with our prison system.

Here in Boulder, members of the Municipal Court are looking to increase the punishment for possession from $100 to $1000 and up to a year in jail.

The only drug law that ever reduced the consumption of drugs in the United States was the 1906 Pure Food and Drug Act, which in turn created the FDA and required that any potentially habit-forming drug say so on its label.

This is a response to the use of morphine in the early 1900's when the drug was in a large percentage of patent medicines, and users unknowingly became addicted, according to Whitbread. Since then, no criminal law of drug use has effectively reduced the use of any drug.

The key difference here is the idea of regulation versus the idea of a criminal law. When something like marijuana or morphine is regulated and labeled because of its altering effects, these kinds of laws do not punish, but instead caution.

Open discussion and warnings.

This is exactly what needs to happen with marijuana.

America needs to stop regulating it the wrong way. I agree that like alcohol, marijuana should have a legal age of possession and consumption. I am not asking for a marijuana free-for-all that legalizes it to anyone, anytime, anywhere.

All I am asking is that politicians look at the out-dated and ineffective, severe criminal laws that we have against marijuana today in relation to the reality of its factual effects and in relation to what is really best for our economy.

I believe through open discussion about drugs we can educate about truth and understanding, and eliminate the lies that moral panics have told us.

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