One of the more interesting moments in this week's state Democratic Party meeting came at the end. Rather than taking a stand either in favor of or against Arizona ballot proposition 203, a voter-initiated ballot initiative to allow and regulate medical marijuana dispensaries in the state, the party allowed one proponent and one opponent to each make their case.
As is so often the case in these types of debates, both sides had a point but then both also did not have a point.
Let me first clarify where I stand on the issue of marijuana. Like most Americans, I do not use marijuana. But also like many Americans (and at least one poll suggests a majority though most other polls disagree) I support making it legal for adults (no prescription required.)
That said, let me address the arguments on both sides of the question, beginning with those made by the speaker in favor of prop 203. The speaker pointed out that we have several times in the past voted in favor of marijuana for medical use with a prescription (a position that agrees with the views of an overwhelming majority of voters) but that without dispensaries this is a meaningless 'right' because there is no legal way to get it. Certainly that is a legitimate argument. All marijuana, before being used, must be produced. Then, unless the grower is also the sole user, it must be transported, and then sold to the eventual user. Of course all of these things, growing, transporting and selling marijuana are felony crimes. The idea of a dispensary is it gives a regulated but legal (at least according to the state) venue where transactions that would be illegal anyplace else can be conducted freely and without fear of the police (though there are still federal agents who technically could-- but very unlikely actually would-- show up and make arrests.) One immediate problem that has come up (and this is something the anti- guy said,) is that in many states a whole bunch of dispensaries are popping up and very few of the people who get marijuana are actually sick.
The question I have, then, is instead of dispensaries why not push for pharmacies to distribute marijuana? I know why they don't-- fear of a federal raid, but that is not a fear that can't be argued against given the low number of such raids.
However, if you really believe in legal access to medical marijuana (as I do) then why not push for such a prescription to be filled in a Pharmacy? Not only are pharmacists trained professionals who may even know about drug interactions and other side effects, but in fact it is reasonable to expect that you will be able to get any prescription filled at your pharmacy. For example, I use an inhaler for my asthma, but it would be ridiculous to get that prescription someplace that only sold inhalers. So why is medical marijuana any different? SELL IT AT THE PHARMACY!!!:
The second guy suggested not passing the bill for essentially two reasons. The first was that, as a physician, he's seen children and teens who have used marijuana and argues that their mental congition skills are lacking. As a result they do poorly in school. This is a good point, except that by making it he's acknowleging that the kids get it anyway. And it's true-- you can walk into any junior high school in America and probably learn who to talk to if you wanted to buy some pot. In fact, one could argue that legalizing it for adults would make marijuana more difficult for children to get (I will make that case further down.)
His second argument is that the system of dispensaries is being abused everywhere it is being tried (he had some statistics showing that only 2-3% of the people who use them have cancer, glaucoma or other conditions that are commonly cited as being treated by marijuana.) He talked about corruptible doctors who write prescriptions for 'pain' and make virtually their entire business off of writing prescriptions for marijuana. He then went on to say that this is a 'back-door path' to legalization. And you know what? He's right about that.
And that's why I may end up voting against this (haven't decided yet.) As a supporter of legalization I think those of us who believe that it should be legal shouldn't try to sneak in through the back door but should instead walk in through the front door. Clearly this is a debate that needs to be had, but let's as a society have a candid and forthright discussion about marijuana legalization, and not try to 'trick' anyone into voting for de-facto legalization. There are some very good arguments to be made for legalizing it. Let me lay a few of them out:
1. Marijuana is not any more hazardous to our health than is tobacco or alcohol. They are all bad for us, but we have as a society decided that in the absence of an imminent danger just by the fact of use, that people have the right to be stupid and use tobacco and alcohol, and it is hard to suggest that marijuana is any worse for you. In fact in some ways it is better (for example, it is possible to die from an overdose of alcohol or nicotine, and some people have, but you can't O.D. on marijuana.)
2. We now spend tens of millions of dollars in Arizona (and billions nationally) catching and prosecuting growers, shippers and venders of marijuana, and our prisons and courts are stuffed to capacity. In this time of strained state budgets around the country (certainly including Arizona) can we really afford to keep millions of people in prison for selling pot?
3. Legalizing it would be a body blow to the drug cartels, as they now make most of their money from growing, smuggling and selling hemp. True that they also smuggle other, more expensive drugs like cocaine and methamphetamines but their bread and butter has always been marijuana.
4. It is true that local police departments make a lot of money under the RICO statutes from drug busts and their ability to keep a proportion of it. However, this money could easily be replaced by money collected in taxes from legalized marijuana, and let's be honest-- the RICO statutes have distorted law enforcement. I noticed a couple of years ago that there were far more police radar traps on the eastbound lanes of I-40 near where I live than in the westbound lanes. I asked a friend of mine who is a police officer why this is, and he told me that they are much more likely to make a drug bust from eastbound traffic, as it has become a major drug smuggling route, and of course with the statute that allows them to keep money from such busts there is a major financial incentive to watch the eastbound lanes more closely. The problem is that local (and clearly some out of state) drivers have noticed this too-- I drive on that highway every day and I see more speeders and reckless drivers going west than going east. So the drug war distorts the priorities of law enforcement, and this distortion is making life more dangerous for you and I even though I (and possibly you) don't use any drugs.
5. About that contention that legalizing it would make it harder for kids to get that I made at the end of the second paragraph:
I believe this is true, partly because kids have such an easy time getting it now but mainly because drug dealers don't care if you are 50 or 15 as long as you can pay, whereas circle K will check your ID if you try to buy tobacco or alcohol (they pay a substantial fine if they don't.) Drug dealers generally don't carry boxes of booze around with them, because adults would have no reason to buy it and it's still true that the majority of the drug dealer's clientele (especially those who can afford the more expensive or larger amounts of drugs) are adults. It's just not profitable for a drug dealer to charge a high price for something that most of the customers can get for less. The only ones who might have a difficult time with this are kids, but isn't our goal to discourage them from drinking (or smoking marijuana) anyway? A real eye opener was a study (and I wish I could find a link to it) that appeared in the Flagstaff Daily Sun about five years ago in which they found that more students in the Flagstaff school district reported having smoked marijuana in the past month than reported smoking tobacco. The reason why is pretty clear-- it's become easier for kids to get marijuana than cigarettes. So, if we made marijuana legal for adults then we could license it, regulate it and monitor sales in a way we can't do now.
Overall, prop 203 is far from a good law, and it's tempting to take a 'do no harm' kind position and vote against it in hope of getting a better law, but it's also still possible that I will vote for it because nothing is perfect and to vote to do nothing would be interpreted as a mandate to do nothing, and I do want to see reform get done.