THE ISSUE: When Congress passed the Controlled Substances Act in 1970, it listed marijuana as a Schedule I dangerous drug. Some states, including California, have decriminalized possession and allow people to cultivate and distribute marijuana for medical purposes. State law, however, doesn't protect doctors, dispensaries and growers from federal prosecution, as the recent federal crackdown shows.
Should U.S. change law to treat marijuana like alcohol and tobacco?
Pia Lopez: Yes
The current regulatory regime is schizophrenic at best.
On the one hand, we have a "zero tolerance" federal policy that has little bearing to reality. Marijuana does not belong on Schedule I with heroin and LSD.
On the other hand, we have states with virtual "anything goes" policies, like California, under the guise of "medical marijuana."
Got a headache or insomnia? You can get a long-term "recommendation" to buy stuff with names like "purple wisdom," "sweet tooth" and "twerp." You can get all kinds of "special" price deals, including "happy hour" specials. In California, there is no state regulation or standard for cultivation and distribution of medical marijuana; that's left to locals. Who are we kidding?
Regulating marijuana like alcohol and tobacco would be a giant improvement over the current mess.
At the federal level, we've seen virtually no movement since the 1972 National Commission on Marijuana and Drug Abuse found "little proven danger of physical or psychological harm from the experimental or intermittent use of the natural preparations of cannabis." It concluded that "the actual and potential harm of use of the drug is not great enough to justify intrusion by the criminal law into private behavior."
Marijuana is not physically addictive, unlike drugs such as morphine or barbiturates where withdrawal can bring on convulsions and delirium. Alcohol and nicotine are more addictive and physically harmful. Cigarettes are responsible for about 443,000 deaths per year; alcohol for more than 80,000.
And state-supported clinical trials at the Center for Medicinal Cannabis Research at UC San Diego have found legitimate medical uses. Marijuana can help with pain for those with traumatic injury, HIV or cancer; with muscle spasticity for those with multiple sclerosis; and with nausea for people undergoing chemotherapy.
Certainly excessive marijuana consumption, as with alcohol, can impair motor skills and make it dangerous to drive or perform work tasks.
So why not regulate marijuana along the lines of alcohol? Set up federal regulation of production permits and advertising; state and local licensing of sales and hours. Prohibit underage use. Discourage excessive consumption by adults.
Some would continue to grow marijuana for personal use instead of buying from a state-regulated store. Bust 'em if they sell to others. And, yes, we would still get some underage use as with alcohol and cigarettes. But as one set of researchers has noted, "For the past 30 years, studies have shown that between 85 and 90 percent of high school seniors say marijuana is easy to obtain; a reform policy could hardly do worse."
Yes, we could hardly do worse. The president, Congress and the states need to get past the current unworkable regime of federal prohibition vs. irresponsible state non-regulation.
Pia Lopez is an editorial writer at The Bee.
Ben Boychuk: No
This is one of those questions where my essential libertarianism clashes with my temperamental conservatism where my inner Bill Buckley butts heads with my inner Bill Bennett.
Bennett would say the law shouldn't encourage a population of unproductive lotus-eaters. Buckley would have agreed, while insisting the laws against marijuana possession and use have done far more harm than good.
Besides, one would need to be blind, deaf and devoid of a sense of smell to deny that medical marijuana laws have led to de facto legalization. Although state laws technically conflict with federal drug laws, public opinion has shifted too far in favor of tolerating medicinal and recreational marijuana use.
If we're to accept that as a fact, then those of us with reservations about the mainstreaming of marijuana use should insist that great freedom must come with greater responsibility.
Put another way: You cannot have liberal drug laws as long as you have an Americans with Disabilities Act.
The ADA requires governments and businesses to make reasonable accommodations for people with disabilities. The law eased access to buildings and crosswalks for millions of Americans. The law also created an industry built around frivolous and expensive lawsuits. And as the definition of "disability" has expanded, so has the law's disruptive reach.
For years, the feds have struggled with how the ADA should apply to substance abuse cases. And the state Supreme Court a few years ago ruled that although California's medical marijuana law protects card-holding users from prosecution, the law does not bar employers from firing workers who take pot for medicinal purposes.
But that may be changing. The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission in August sued Old Dominion Freight Line, a trucking company, for firing an alcoholic driver. According to the EEOC, "an employer's concern regarding safety on our highways is a legitimate issue, an employer can both ensure safety and comply with the ADA."
This is new. And crazy. No employer should be forced to make that kind of trade-off, not when he's facing tens of millions of dollars in liability if his alcoholic driver falls off the wagon and kills somebody.
The same can and should be true of employers who may not want pot smokers on the payroll. People should have the right to smoke marijuana off hours at home, just as people should have the right to have a couple of cocktails.
But with choice comes risk. You make your choice; you not your boss, not the state bear the consequences.
Ben Boychuk is associate editor of the Manhattan Institute's City Journal. (http://city-journal.org/california)