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DRUG POLICY

High Crimes and Misdemeanors

September 15, 2002|MIKE MALES | Mike Males has written four books on youth issues and teaches sociology at UC Santa Cruz.

SANTA CRUZ — Whether Nevada voters approve or reject the Marijuana Policy Project's ballot initiative to legalize marijuana for adults, rational drug policy is the loser. A "yes" vote would change little in a state that has legalized gambling, gives counties the option of legalizing prostitution and where pot possession by adults, even after three arrests, is a misdemeanor.

What has changed is the drug policy debate. Reform groups like the Marijuana Policy Project now embrace harsh "war on drugs" ideas they once vehemently opposed. For example, the Nevada initiative, while entitling adults 21 and older to buy and possess up to three ounces of marijuana, would constitutionally require the state legislature to "provide or maintain" criminal penalties for persons under 21. Maintaining Nevada law means a young person caught with a single joint would face a $5,000 fine, four years in prison, a felony record and permanently jeopardized student loans, government benefits and employment.

The executive director of the Marijuana Policy Project, Robert Kampia, has claimed that his group's proposed initiative would "end the arrest of all marijuana users." Since half of all pot arrestees are under 21, Kampia's claim cannot be true.

Drug wars traditionally feature two elements. The first is an official crusade to link feared drugs to feared populations--the Chinese to opium, blacks to cocaine, Mexicans to marijuana, immigrants to alcohol, underclasses to heroin. The second is the lobbying of privileged groups for drug-use exemptions. Upper-class patronage of opiates, cocaine and bootleg liquor was rarely punished. Governors are not evicted from publicly funded residences because family members violate drug laws; indigent public-housing residents are.

The Nevada initiative similarly invites grown-ups to exempt their own cannabis partying from criminal sanction even as they condone ever-crueler punishments for today's drug-war scapegoat--young people. It doesn't matter that neither the Marijuana Policy Project nor anyone else has shown an apocalyptic difference between marijuana use by a 17-year-old and a 40-year-old--or, better, a 20-versus a 21-year-old--that would justify such different treatment.

"Marijuana Myths, Marijuana Facts," the reformist Drug Policy Alliance's bible, reviews hundreds of scholarly studies and reports none showing marijuana more harmful for adolescents than for adults. While a few users in all age groups become dependent, marijuana is not an addictive or so-called gateway drug leading to hard-drug abuse. Rather, as government-impaneled commissions consistently conclude, the biggest marijuana danger to young people is getting arrested for using it.

The Marijuana Policy Project and other reform lobbies have jettisoned the scientific rigor they once championed in favor of emotional appeals to public prejudice, a staple of drug-war proponents. They twist facts wholesale to support their new position that pot is a fearsome menace to youth in the hope of gaining political popularity. The marijuana-legalization groups invoke as their model a failed U.S. alcohol-regulation system world-famous for fostering drunken excess, further evidence of how these reformers have embraced the worst aspects of the drug-war regime.

Kampia, recently told CNN that because marijuana is illegal and unregulated, "the federal government's own surveys show that, year after year, high school seniors find marijuana much easier to obtain than alcohol or cigarettes." He never specified which federal surveys he had in mind. The only federally funded survey of high school seniors, "Monitoring the Future," consistently draws the opposite conclusion. Furthermore, teenagers actually get and use legal, regulated alcohol and cigarettes two to 25 times more often than any illicit drug.

Nothing shocking about that. It's normal for adolescents to experiment with adult behaviors. Accordingly, if Nevada's pot initiative passes, teenage marijuana use is likely to increase. After the Netherlands legalized marijuana, surveys conducted by the Trimbos Institute found that pot smoking tripled among Dutch youth. While, two decades ago, Dutch teens used marijuana one-third as often as U.S. teens, today the levels are equivalent, another matter both drug reformers and drug warriors misrepresent.

What reformers should be emphasizing is that the Dutch successfully implemented health measures to reduce hard-drug abuse by shifting resources away from policing youths and adults who use mild drugs. By contrast, the dismal campaign surrounding Nevada's initiative finds both sides hyperventilating over whether someone under the age of 21 might light up.

The fatal flaw in U.S. drug debates, past and present, is that while drug crises are real, the feared scapegoats rarely cause them. Addiction to opiates and cocaine was far more serious among white middle classes than among blacks or Chinese a century ago, just as today's white 40-year-olds suffer heroin, cocaine and methamphetamine abuse rates many times higher than teenagers or young adults of any color. Trumpeting drugs as a horror foisted on mainstream society by feared minorities and young people evades the fact that middle America harbors the most addicts.

Neither side in today's drug war will face up to this reality. Ultimately, the misguided debate over the backward notion of reform embodied in the Nevada initiative aggravates the uniquely American panic of young people acting like adults, ensuring perpetual teen-drug scares and endless wars on drugs.

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