Twenty- five years ago, Lester Grinspoon noted in his classic study, Marijuana Reconsidered, that "the single greatest risk encountered by the user of marihuana is that of being apprehended as a common criminal, incarcerated and subjected to untold damage to his social life and career." What was true then is even more true today: around 700,000 Americans are arrested annually for simply possessing marijuana, and more than 10,000 Americans are currently in jails and prisons because they have been convicted of marijuana possession, and no other crime.
The government's propagandists are taking full advantage of these statistics: A new anti-drug commercial depicts the potentially devastating arrest of a teenage marijuana smoker (drug convictions bar students from receiving federal educational loans), and concludes: "Marijuana can get you busted. Harmless?" The commercial's unintentionally surreal message - that marijuana is illegal because it's harmful, and it's harmful because it's illegal - is one that seems likely to fill any young person capable of independent thought with contempt for both our marijuana laws and the dangerously authoritarian logic that supports and enforces them.
Imagine if one were to extend this logic to, say, freedom of the press: The government could produce commercials depicting the arrest of young people caught reading "subversive" literature, in order to drive home the point that, if you happen to live under a sufficiently repressive regime, merely reading the wrong book can be hazardous to your health.
Anti-drug zealots will reply that books, unlike marijuana, are harmless. This is of course preposterous: few things are more dangerous than books. How many millions of deaths can be traced to the publication of The Communist Manifesto or Mein Kampf or, for that matter, the Bible and the Quran? Yet this is hardly an argument for the repeal of the First Amendment.
The idea that something ought to be criminalized because it isn't "harmless" is a key feature of the authoritarian mindset. It's an idea that allows for the criminalization of just about any imaginable activity, since almost nothing in this world is harmless. Marijuana isn't harmless, but it isn't nearly as harmful as for example, alcohol - a substance that that causes thousands of fatal overdoses every year (no one has ever died from an overdose of marijuana).
So why don't we make America an alcohol-free nation by criminalizing alcohol? The superficial answer is that we tried that once and it was total failure. (Attempting to eliminate marijuana use has also been a total failure: almost half the current adult population - nearly 100 million Americans - has used marijuana, and several million Americans continue to use it regularly). The more nuanced answer is that making America an alcohol-free nation would actually be a bad thing, even if it were possible.
This isn't merely because the costs of prohibition are so high. Most people who drink alcohol have benefited from the experience more than they've been harmed by it. What anti-drug zealots are incapable of acknowledging is that the same holds true for marijuana users. Indeed the evidence is overwhelming that, for the vast majority of marijuana users, their use has had no significant harmful effects, and many good ones.
Yet as Grinspoon pointed out a quarter-century ago, "reason has had little influence in this matter." The criminal prohibition of marijuana, he said, was due to "cultural factors that have nothing to do with the effect of the drug itself." In the years since, little has changed, as we waste billions of dollars, and give free rein to an increasingly dangerous authoritarianism, in the futile attempt to stamp out this largely benign practice.
(Paul Campos is a professor of law at the University of Colorado.
He can be reached at Paul.Campos@colorado.edu)