Decriminalization of Marijuana In the United States

Public Policy Analysis


Central Washington University

May 31, 2004

Since the passage of the Harrison Act in 1914, the federal approach to drug abuse control has included a variety of ways for reducing both the supply of, and demand for, illicit drugs. At first the supply and demand reduction strategies were grounded in the traditional deterrence model: Though legislation and criminal penalties, individuals would be discouraged from using drugs; by setting an example of traffickers, the government could force potential dealers to seek out other economic pursuits. In time, other components were added such as enforcement, treatment, education, and pre-venting for the would-be user.

During the 1970s it became apparent that the war on drugs was winning few, if any, battles. New avenues for supply and demand reduction were added such as Coast Guard, Customs, and Drug Enforcement Administration operatives charged with intercepting drug shipments into the United States from foreign ports. On the surface, none of these strategies seemed to have an effect on illicit drug use.

In 1988 The White House anti-drug policy was “zero-tolerance”. Zero tolerance meant: (1) that if there were no drug abusers there would be no drug problem, (2) that the market for drugs is created not only by availability, but by demand, (3) that drug abuse starts as a willful act, (4) that the perception that drug users are powerless to act against the drug availability and peer pressure is an erroneous one, (5) that most illegal drug users can choose to their behaviors and must be held responsible if they do not, (6) that individual freedom does not include the right to self and societal destruction, (7) that public tolerance for drug abuse must be reduced to zero (Drug Abuse Report, April 19, 1988: 6; Drug Abuse Report, May 3,1988: 1-3;U.S. Department of Transportation, 1988).

The current drug policy in the United States is reminiscent of alcohol Prohibition. With the enactment of the Volstead Act in 1919, America embarked on a social experiment known as Prohibition. Prohibitionists rejected the idea that people could be trusted to drink in moderation, arguing that alcohol use inevitably led to moral corruption and undesirable behavior. Accepting these premises led Congress to conclude that a federal ban on the production and sale of alcohol would go a long way toward reducing crime and addressing a variety of other social problems. Within a decade, however, Americans discovered that the criminally enforced prohibition of alcohol produced harmful side effects. The rise of black markets empowered organized crime to an unprecedented degree. In some of America\'s largest cities, local governments had been heavily corrupted by the influence of organized crime. The black market provided minors with easy access to bootlegged alcohol, which was frequently of poor quality and unsafe to drink. Faced with the disastrous consequences of Prohibition, Congress decided in 1933 to repeal the Volstead Act. Since that time, the government has implemented the much more successful policy of focusing law enforcement efforts on irresponsible alcohol users who endanger the rights of others. Unfortunately, current drug policy fails to take into account the lessons of Prohibition. The law regards all users as abusers, and the result has been the creation of an unnecessary class of lawbreakers.

Current legal drugs such as alcohol and tobacco have a far worse effect on the body than marijuana. No evidence exists that anyone has ever died of a marijuana overdose. Tests performed on mice have shown that the ratio of cannabinoids (the chemicals in marijuana that make you stoned) necessary for overdose to the amount necessary for intoxication is 40,000:1. For comparison\'s sake, that ratio for alcohol is generally between 4:1 and 10:1. Alcohol overdoses kill about 5,000 yearly but marijuana overdoses kill no one as far as anyone can tell (MacCoun, Rueter, 2001).

Marijuana is psychoactive because it stimulates certain brain receptors, but it does not produce toxins that kill them (like alcohol), and it does not wear them out as other drugs may. There is no evidence that marijuana use is a cause of brain damage. Studies by Dr. Robert Heath claimed the contrary in experiments on monkeys, but Heath\'s work has been sharply criticized by the Institute of Medicine and the National Academy of Sciences on three primary counts: (1) its insufficient sample size