When it comes to the discussion of drug use in the United States, the conversation can go in about a million different ways all at the same time.
First, there are some people in the discussion who tend to put all illegal drugs in the same category, and make the point that the war on drugs doesn’t only need to continue, it needs to be stepped up.
Then you have those in the conversation who see a need for a completely new outlook on certain drugs, specifically marijuana, and according to the Pew Research Center, the majority (52%) of U.S. residents believe marijuana should be legal, which is the highest percentage of people sharing that belief in 40 years.
As has happened recently with gay marriage, public opinion seems to have reached a "tipping point," and, after years of slow change, now appears to be moving rapidly.
Time to catch up?
The research is providing added ammunition to proponents of legalized marijuana.
"It's time for politicians to catch up to the voters on this issue. Not too long ago, it was widely accepted in political circles that elected officials who wanted to get re-elected needed to act 'tough' on drugs and go out of their way to support the continued criminalization of marijuana
. The opposite is quickly becoming true," said Tom Angell of Marijuana Majority
. "A majority of Americans support legalizing marijuana
, and you're going to start seeing more politicians running toward our movement instead of away from it, just as we've seen happen with marriage equality recently."
In fact, it does seem the tide is changing in the favor of those who support legal marijuana use, as there are currently 14 U.S. states that have lowered the penalty for a person carrying small amounts.
In Rhode Island, for example, officials have decriminalized amounts that seem to be for personal use, so someone carrying less than an ounce of marijuana will be subject to a $150 ticket with no jail time.
John G. Edwards, a Rhode Island state representative, feels that decriminalizing small amounts of pot is a move towards a sensible solution to the nation’s drug problem.
“I am very proud that Rhode Island will be able to begin a new chapter in sensible drug policy today,” said Edwards in a press conference.
“As I have said many times before, I firmly believe that people should be able to work, volunteer and live their lives after being caught for a youthful indiscretion or two. What we have been able to do with this law is effectively punish those in possession of small quantities of marijuana while giving people opportunities to redeem themselves by allowing them to be productive members of society.”
Throwing kids in jail
And as far as teen marijuana use is concerned, Sen. Josh Mille of Rhode Island—like other state officials on his side of the argument—says proper education instead of throwing kids in jail may be the right move to get them to stop or at least remove the forbidden fruit aspects of smoking the controversial green stuff.
“It’s clear from what we’ve been able to glean from the Special Senate Commission to study the prohibition of marijuana that education and treatment are better for addressing teen marijuana use than incarceration,” he said.
“We’re also saving money by keeping people out of jail for minor marijuana infractions and putting money where it can best serve our communities: drug education programs for young violators.”
Surf's not up everywhere
However, a bill in Hawaii over the decriminalization of marijuana didn’t go quite the same way. State lawmakers there defeated a bill that would have followed in the footsteps of places like Rhode Island.
Those concerned about decriminalizing pot in the Aloha State, like former Congressman Patrick Kennedy, say lightening marijuana laws will only increase people’s dependence on it.
“Hawaii’s rates of marijuana use are significantly higher than in the rest of the country,” said Kennedy, chairman of SAM (Smart Approaches to Marijuana), an organization that considers itself bipartisan in the marijuana debate.
SAM wants the U.S. to shift towards laws that will neither criminalize low-level users, nor create policies that will increase people’s dependence on marijuana.
“Fewer kids in Hawaii think smoking marijuana is harmful compared to kids in the United States as a whole," added Kennedy. "I have seen firsthand the debilitating effects of marijuana addiction. It’s more than just the addict, it’s the families who suffer too.”
Advocates of legalizing marijuana note that the Pew Research survey does not support Kennedy's position.
"There is no significant difference in lifetime or recent use between people in states with some form of legalized marijuana and those in other states," the Pew researchers found.
"Opinions about legalizing marijuana vary little among states that have more permissive marijuana laws and those that do not. A majority (55%) of those in states that have legalized medical marijuana or have decriminalized (or legalized) marijuana for personal use favor legalizing marijuana. Yet 50% of those in states in which marijuana is not decriminalized (or legal for any purpose) also favor its legalization," the study found.
Obviously the debate on marijuana use will continue, as more states are tweaking some of their laws, some aren’t changing them at all, and others like New Hampshire are considering legal recreational use, so the conversation is likely to go in a million more places before all is said and done.
In Vermont, Attorney General Bill Sorrel said he’s in favor of the decriminalization of marijuana, and says it’ll lower those crimes that are attached to people seeking out dealers. Sorrel even said he’s in favor of Vermont residents growing their own marijuana plants for the same reason.
“This might be a surprise to some,” he said in a hearing held by the House Judiciary Committee.
“But the reality is possession of small amounts of marijuana has in effect been decriminalized for quite some time in this state. If you take away the ability to grow your own, you’re pushing someone who wants to possess and use marijuana into the marketplace of having to deal with marijuana dealers. And is that the behavior you essentially want to require and foster?”
It’ll be interesting to see where the nation is on marijuana laws at the close of this year. It’s likely that states as well as public opinion will be split for a long time to come.
When it comes to the discussion of drug use in the United States, the conversation can go in about a million different places all at the same time.First,...