The Other War

Nov 042003
Authors: Brent Ables

While the world keeps its attention on the wars in the Middle

East, there is another war being fought against a different kind of

“enemy” here in the United States. It is a war that is perpetuated

by a long history of cultural myths and unfounded popular

prejudices, but nonetheless millions of Americans have been

arrested and prosecuted as accomplices of the enemy in this war.

That enemy is the marijuana plant.

Despite years of research and evidence to the contrary, many

Americans still believe – and our federal government still claims –

that the use of marijuana is a serious threat to our country’s

wellbeing, and even that (as U.S. Drug Czar John Walters recently

opined) marijuana is on an equal footing with cocaine and heroin in

terms of danger to the public. As a result of such widespread

beliefs, our government has continued to wage a costly fight

against the private and medical use of the cannabis sativa plant;

in college language, smoking pot.

President Jimmy Carter said: “Penalties against drug use should

not be more damaging to an individual than the use of the drug

itself.” I agree, but I think that this statement can be expanded

into: penalties against drug use should not be more damaging to a

nation than the use of the drug itself. Apparently, however, our

Justice Department doesn’t agree.

According to the Federal Bureau of Investigation’s Uniform Crime

Report, released in October, police arrested approximately 697,082

people in 2002 for crimes relating to marijuana. This number

comprises about half of all drug arrests in the nation, and exceeds

by far the total number of arrests for all violent crimes combined:

murder, rape, robbery, assault, etc. Nearly all of those arrested

(88 percent) were not arrested for distribution, but for simple

possession of the drug, even for medical use. Included in these

arrests were those who distributed or used marijuana in accordance

with democratically-enacted state laws, such as have been passed in

Colorado and 11 other states.

These astounding numbers might be justifiable if marijuana was

truly the great threat it is perceived to be. However, decades of

research and popular opinion point to the opposite conclusion: that

it is not only dangerous, but could in fact be a potential goldmine

for medicinal purposes. Consider:

-Not a single person has ever died from smoking marijuana. This

can be compared to the hundreds of thousands that die each year

from legal drugs like tobacco, alcohol and even over the counter

drugs like aspirin.

– Most major medical journals have written that the health risks

associated with even long-term marijuana use are minimal. For

instance, the British medical journal, Lancet wrote that: “The

smoking of cannabis, even long-term, is not harmful to health. …

It would be reasonable to judge cannabis as less of a threat …

than alcohol or tobacco.” The American Public Health Association,

like many other organizations and several states, has called for

Congress “to move expeditiously to make cannabis available as a

legal medicine.”

– Marijuana has been linked in studies to relief of pain due to

a wide variety of afflictions, including AIDS, cancer and other

terminal diseases. This is why organizations as prestigious as the

American Medical Association have urged that more studies be done

on the subject, due to the potential medicinal uses of the


There are, of course, other issues besides the health risks and

benefits of marijuana. For example, readers might recall recent

commercial advertisements asserting a direct connection between

smoking marijuana and committing irresponsible or even violent

acts, the most graphic of which was a group of youths that hit a

girl on a bike because they were “high.” Despite the emotional tug

of these advertisements, they hardly amount to a logical


First, there are so many causes of irresponsible driving that to

focus on one that is relatively harmless is pointless and

rhetorically dishonest. To be consistent, the federal government

would have to sponsor ads condemning cell phone usage, alcohol

consumption, cigarette smoking, pain medication, fast food, car

stereos and probably cars. For good measure, why not assault rifles

and machine guns as well?

Second, this argument misrepresents the issue. Of course no one

advocates driving while significantly impaired by any substance,

marijuana or otherwise. Even those most in favor of legalizing

marijuana state clearly that ingesting marijuana is an issue of

personal responsibility and accountability, as is any decision to

partake in any potentially dangerous activity. “Although cannabis

is said by most experts to be safer than alcohol and many

prescription drugs with motorists, responsible cannabis consumers

never operate motor vehicles in an impaired condition.” (From the

Web site of the National Organization for Marijuana Law


Most of the civilized world has recognized that the benefits of

marijuana usage (medical, personal and otherwise) far outweigh the

risks. Britain, Spain, the Netherlands, France, Canada, Sweden,

Norway and other European nations have reduced marijuana possession

to the level of jaywalking, and, in some cases, eliminated

penalties for its usage altogether. Americans have also become

aware of the drug’s benefits. According to a Pew Research Center

Poll in 2001, for example, approximately 73 percent of Americans

favor legalizing marijuana for medicinal use.

While popular sentiment does not necessarily make something

right, the point is that a consistently democratic government would

recognize the currents of reason and legal change. Any objective

comparison between the benefits and risks of marijuana finds the

evidence on the side of the benefits, as much of the world has

realized. Not only are there not any compelling reasons to outlaw

the drug, there are in fact positive arguments for its use –

medical and otherwise.

As there are more issues than I have had space to bring up on

the subject, however, I would encourage those interested in the

subject to look for themselves into this important and contentious

issue. I think that most will find that our government is fighting

a costly and ultimately futile battle against what could

potentially be a great benefit for our collective community.

Brent is a freshman at CSU studying philosophy. His column runs

every other Tuesday.




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