By Sam Mendez, Executive Director of the Cannabis Law and Policy Project
The following reflects the views of the author and not necessarily that of the Cannabis Law & Policy Project or the University of Washington.
Last Friday I had the privilege of presenting to the National Commission on Human Rights (NCHR), an office of the Mexican government in Mexico City, to provide a Washington perspective to their debate on marijuana legalization. As you may have heard, late last year the Mexican Supreme Court ruled in favor of four plaintiffs asserting the right to consume marijuana. What struck me the most about that case was that the plaintiffs weren’t asserting any medical necessity arguments. Instead, the plaintiffs argued that marijuana contributed to who they were as a person and thus had the right to consume it. While in their favor, the ruling was restricted to those four plaintiffs, and thus nothing changed for the rest of the country. Still, the Court seemed intent on sparking a national debate, which is exactly what it did.
I was introduced by Hector Devalos, the NCHR’s executive secretary. I was brought in to provide not only an American perspective, but also how legal marijuana has worked in Washington with the aim to touch on its economics, regulations, and impact on human rights. My presentation (text here) ran about thirty minutes and was divided into five parts: (1) a brief history of marijuana laws in the U.S., (2) the economic and regulatory aspects of legal marijuana in Washington, (3) claimed medical benefits of marijuana, and the need for further research, (4) acknowledging the dangers of marijuana, and (5) how the U.S.’s drug policies, particularly with respect to marijuana, have left many thousands imprisoned for nonviolent drug offenses and cost the country billions of dollars.
While I endeavored to keep the presentation measured and backed by data, it goes without saying that the presentation was pro-legalization. The audience, nearly all from the NCHR, was friendly and it seemed most shared my views.
There was time for questions, and I was asked the following (paraphrased):
(1) How do you think marijuana legalization has affected organized crime in the U.S.?
My answer: It clearly has reduced profits, as the graph here shows. When the U.S. outlawed alcohol, organized crime thrived in the alcohol trade, and citizens’ relationship with the government was never the same. Before there was a certain reverence for the law, but with Prohibition people simply stopped caring about breaking the law and enjoyed their beer. Once Prohibition ended, a lot of power was taken away from these illegal enterprises. The same is true for marijuana, and has been shown here by the reduced seizures of marijuana at the border. It’s simply not as profitable as it once was.
(2) As you said, marijuana is different from other drugs. Marijuana does not destroy lives, while harder drugs and even alcohol can. Should that be our barometer for whether a drug can be legal or not?
My answer: To be clear, marijuana certainly can destroy lives. It can be dangerous, must be kept from children, and users should not drive while intoxicated. But all the same is true for alcohol, which remains legal. Thus I believe marijuana should be treated similarly to alcohol: tightly regulated and kept from children, but legal. Your question on what the line should be for legality of drugs is a good one, and I don’t have a straight answer. It is tempting for some to simply say legalize all drugs, but I don’t agree with that. The potential for cocaine, heroin, meth, and other drugs to destroy lives and communities is too great. There’s likely a number of facets to the question, but I think addictiveness and potential for harm is a good place to start. There is research ranking many drugs in terms of addictiveness, and the most addictive are heroin and tobacco. Marijuana is far lower on the list.
(3) There have been studies that have shown children are susceptible to bullying and peer pressure, and how violence in the home can have lasting damage on a child’s life. With this in mind, would legalizing marijuana increase access to children and further cause harm?
My answer: Keeping marijuana out of the hands of children is one of the chief concerns of nearly all in this field. I believe we can achieve this objective much like it’s been done with alcohol. One of the Cannabis Law & Policy Project’s current projects is on edibles and children, and researching types of food that are more attractive to children. I think we can institute policies that, like alcohol, can keep marijuana away from children. But there remains concern about access from within the home. Like alcohol, I think we must also look to personal responsibility, and the parent’s responsibility to keep both dangerous products away from children.
(4) What is the U.S. Supreme Court’s criteria for the legalization of other drugs? What are the attitudes of Democrats and Republicans in Congress on this subject?
My answer: I’m not sure the Supreme Court has exact criteria for legalization, but as I mentioned, the Department of Justice does have criteria for placing a drug on Schedule I. As for Congress, given how dysfunctional it has been these last few years I do not expect much change from them any time soon. That’s why I admire the debate currently taking place in Mexico. Whatever the outcome is, it’s remarkable that you would engage in the debate nationally in the first place. I also wouldn’t necessarily want marijuana to be legalized nationwide in the U.S. anyway, as I believe that would be moving to fast and would likely lead to a backlash. That said, there’s good arguments for it both on the right and the left. On the left, you have all the points I made on incarceration and focusing on rehabilitation rather than punishment. On the right, you also can make a strong argument for limited government; let states regulate marijuana themselves, and focus government’s limited resources on more important objectives.
Tomorrow I will present again, hosted by the Federal Commission for the Protection Against Sanitary Risk (part of the Department of Health), before heading back to Seattle. Tomorrow I’ll do what I wish I had done on Friday, which is ask more questions myself, and try to get a sense of where some people stand on the issue in Mexico. I’ll provide a post about that experience as well.