There’s a big difference between legalization and decriminalization

Nicholas Thimmesch II Media and Communications Consultant
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The legalization of marijuana gained more than the recent approval of two American states (Washington & Colorado): its supporters now have a poll result, conducted by that granddaddy of polling Gallup, that says 58 percent of Americans favor legalizing marijuana, although no question was reported about public usage, age requirements, driving under the influence or taxation and control by government.

There is more than just a semantic difference between the legalization of marijuana and the decriminalization of marijuana. The difference is that one is a mare’s nest of logistical and pragmatic questions and the other is a benign way of ending draconian laws that account for the incarceration of hundreds of thousands of American citizens over the last fifty years, billions of dollars spent by government on a flawed War on Drugs, ruined lives and careers, and sales by an industry that is grassroots at best, violent and criminal at worst.

Legalization appears to be the best remedy: not only does it remove criminal penalties but it’s yet another source of taxation and control by local, state, and someday, the federal government (which, with the “Marihuana Act,” is where this whole fiasco started eighty years ago) so how could that go wrong? The common notion put forth by the legalization proponents is a trade off of sorts: leave us alone to smoke our pot and you can tax and regulate the hell out of us. Even some Republican legislators beginning to warm to this notion. What government doesn’t want another source of revenue, another tax on a substance, or another commodity to control?

Decriminalization — which I favor — does none of that: it simply removes criminal and monetary penalties for possessing any amount of marijuana, including the “manufacture,” transportation, or storage of the substance. It does not address in any way the actual usage of marijuana, the sale of it, taxation, quality, driving under the influence, age restrictions, etc. because these are better left up to local, county and state governments to determine, certainly not the federal government which is the seminal reason marijuana became illegal and has stayed illegal throughout the United States in the first place.

Most recreational marijuana proponents are just that: they like if not worship marijuana, promote its responsible use, want unhindered access to it, and have a multitude of studies that say it is a benign substance: maybe. The icons of the marijuana “reform” movement are to be found at NORML, where I briefly served as Communications Director during the awful years under the zealously anti-pot Bush administration and his drug czar John Walters. Founder Keith Stroup, Executive Director Allen St. Pierre, and policy guru Paul Armentano — a nationally recognized expert on all things marijuana — have over a half century of combined experience working to reform American marijuana laws. The upstart Marijuana Policy Project, once funded by Progressive Insurance executive Peter Lewis, is less a proponent of its use as much as a reformer of marijuana laws: they have thrown millions of dollars at efforts to get the legalization issue on state ballot questions and referenda, with some success and some failure.

As for the “medicinal marijuana” organizations: with total legalization their cause will be moot. If there ever was what one recreational reformer once called “a red herring” it is the notion that smoked marijuana is some sort of acceptable medical treatment in and of itself. Of course smoked marijuana is a life saver for MS patients, AIDS patients and probably countless others with all kinds of maladies. But the vast majority of so-called “medical marijuana patients” I witnessed during my years in the movement were simply seeking a way to obtain and smoke marijuana unmolested.

In California medical marijuana cards are given out like candy on Halloween: at NORML conferences “patients” waved their cards in the faces of security guards who were telling them they could not smoke pot in hotel elevators or lobbies any more than they can smoke cigarettes, but to them, they had a government-issued license to do what they liked.

Which leads us back to legalization vs. decriminalization: cigarettes are legal but cannot be smoked in many places. Alcohol is legal but cannot be consumed in your vehicle nor for the most part in public, and public marijuana use is already being questioned in hindsight after being “legalized” in Colorado. Under the medicinal marijuana con, what other medicine cannot be taken anywhere in public? How will New York City, which has banned smoking everywhere from bars to Central Park, handle legalized or “medicinal” marijuana smoking in public?

Where is this legalization going? What confused message is legalization sending to our kids who are told by countless ads not to do any drugs (I do not consider marijuana to be a “drug” in the sense that cocaine, heroin, PCP, meth are) and suffer under “Zero Tolerance” school policies? Kids who “wake and bake” in adolescence can do serious damage to their bodies. Grown-ups who chronically smoke marijuana definitely do harm as well to their lungs and oral health. How silly is it for localities like Washington DC, which just opened its first medical marijuana dispensary, to fine people for possession?

Legalization, in some ways, is the same product as criminalization, sold in a different wrapper: government will still control the commerce of marijuana but instead of spending billions fighting it will now make billions taxing it along with regulations. With decriminalization, we can start with the federal repeal of marijuana listed as a Schedule One substance in the Controlled Substances Act, let individual
states adjust their own marijuana laws based upon the consensus of the voters, prosecute bad behavior by marijuana smokers, and educate people about the negatives of chronic marijuana use, but otherwise treat it as if it was just another herbal tea, not a drug.