October 28, 2003
First, let me take this opportunity to thank the committees for providing me this opportunity to speak.
Help NORML Testify in State Legislatures
to Legalize Pot
The purpose of this hearing is to respond to the recommendations of a recent Baltimore City Grand Jury Charge Committee Report 1 that advocates several alternative strategies for Maryland's drug policies. I applaud the members of the Grand Jury Committee for their input and insight on this difficult and controversial topic, and commend them for their willingness to embrace health-based strategies such as treatment rather than incarceration for non-violent drug offenders. This report and the recommendations of this committee are, no doubt, a step in the right direction that I hope will open the door to future hearings and continued discussions on Maryland's drug policies, including the topic I wish to speak upon today -- the responsible use of marijuana by adults.
Though the Committee's report made no recommendations specific to the use of Maryland's most popular illicit drug -- marijuana -- their request that law enforcement impose civil citations rather than criminal penalties for certain non-violent drug offenders is directly applicable to marijuana policy. This proposed policy, known commonly as "decriminalization," removes the drug user (and, in most cases, any non-profit distributor) from the criminal justice system, while simultaneously maintaining criminal penalties against those who sell or traffic large quantities of illicit drugs.
As early as 1972, then-President Richard Nixon's National Commission on Marijuana and Drug Abuse 2 recommended that Congress adopt this policy for marijuana. (Similarly appointed federal commissions in Great Britain 3, Canada 4, Australia 5, Jamaica 6, New Zealand 7, Switzerland 8 and elsewhere have also endorsed marijuana decriminalization as a national policy.) Following the National Commission's recommendations, 12 U.S. states -- Alaska, California, Colorado, Maine, Minnesota, Mississippi, Nebraska, Nevada, New York, North Carolina, Ohio and Oregon -- adopted marijuana decriminalization laws. In each of these states, adults may possess up to approximately an ounce or more of pot (28.5 grams) without criminal penalty, and in one state -- Ohio -- adults are allowed to possess in excess of three ounces of marijuana for their own personal use.
To assuage opponents' concerns that liberalizing marijuana laws would trigger an explosion in marijuana use, the U.S. government commissioned a study examining the prevalence of marijuana use in these states compared with those that maintained criminal prohibition. That study, conducted by the University of Michigan's Institute for Social Research, concluded that decriminalizing marijuana "had virtually no effect on either the marijuana use or on the related attitudes and beliefs about marijuana use among young people." 9 In other words, citizens who live in states that have decriminalized marijuana use it at rates no different than those living in states that enforce strict criminal penalties.
While NORML lobbies for decriminalization, we also support the eventual development of a legally controlled market for marijuana, where consumers can buy marijuana for personal use from a safe legal source. This policy, generally known as "legalization," exists on various levels in European nations such as the Netherlands, Switzerland, Italy, Spain and Portugal -- all of which enjoy lower rates of marijuana use than the United States. Most recently, a special select committee of the Canadian Senate 10 endorsed legalizing the possession and distribution of marijuana for anyone over 16 years of age, concluding: "We believe ... that the continued prohibition of cannabis jeopardizes the health and well-being of Canadians much more than does the substance itself or the regulated marketing of the substance." 11
Supporting the Select Committee's recommendation were the following findings of fact regarding marijuana's relative safety, particularly when compared to other intoxicants.
These findings of fact demonstrate that any risk presented by marijuana smoking falls within the ambit of choice we permit the individual in a free society. As such, NORML believes that marijuana's low potential risk to the user and society fails to justify its criminal prohibition. Therefore, NORML supports not only the liberalization of current marijuana laws, but also the eventual establishment of a taxed and regulated marijuana market, similar to that which currently exists for alcohol and tobacco.
LEGALIZATION AND ITS IMPACT ON THE CRIMINAL JUSTICE SYSTEM
The argument in favor of a legal, regulated adult market for marijuana (with strictly enforced age restrictions) acknowledges certain realities regarding marijuana and its use. If the expressed purpose of any criminal law is to deter or at least significantly discourage behavior, then by this standard alone, America's marijuana laws have been a categorical failure. Notwithstanding more than six decades of federal prohibition, marijuana remains the third most popular recreational drug in America (behind only alcohol and tobacco), and has been used by nearly 80 million Americans. 18 According to government surveys, some 20 million Americans have smoked marijuana in the past year, and more than 14 million do so regularly despite harsh laws against its use. 19 Our public policies should reflect this cultural reality, not deny or denounce it.
Nevertheless, federal and state drug law enforcement continue to disproportionately target marijuana and minor marijuana offenders. In fact, data compiled by the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) reports that nearly half of all drug arrests in America are for marijuana only. 20
In 2001, the last year for which statistics are available, law enforcement arrested an estimated 723,627 persons for marijuana violations. 21 This total far exceeds the total number of arrests for all violent crimes combined, including murder, manslaughter, forcible rape, robbery, and aggravated assault. 22 Today, it is estimated that taxpayers spend between $7.5 and $10 billion dollars annually arresting and prosecuting individuals for marijuana violations 23 - money that would be far better served targeting violent crime, including terrorism.
Since 1992, approximately six million Americans have been arrested on marijuana charges, a greater number than the entire populations of Alaska, Delaware, the District of Columbia, Montana, North Dakota, South Dakota, Vermont, and Wyoming combined. 24 Nearly 90 percent of these total arrests were for simple possession, not cultivation or sale. 25 During much of this period arrests for cocaine and heroin have declined sharply 26, indicating that increased enforcement of marijuana laws is being achieved at the expense of enforcing laws against the possession and trafficking of more dangerous drugs.
Marijuana legalization would remove this behemoth financial burden from the criminal justice system, freeing up criminal justice resources to target other more serious crimes, and allowing law enforcement to focus on the highest echelons of hard-drug trafficking enterprises rather than on minor marijuana offenders who represent little -- if any -- threat to public safety.
Such a regulated system would also -- and equally importantly -- remove the individual marijuana user from the clutches of the criminal justice system. Roughly one-third of the adult population has smoked marijuana. The overwhelming majority of these people are upstanding, hardworking, productive, tax-paying citizens. Some, like former President Bill Clinton, former Vice President Al Gore, former Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich, and current California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger even succeed in achieving higher office. They are not criminals, yet the criminal law continues to treat them as such.
Over 700,000 Americans are arrested each year on marijuana charges, and approximately one out of seven drug prisoners is incarcerated for marijuana violations. 27 For those individuals not sentenced to jail, the repercussions of a marijuana arrest alone are also quite significant -- including (but not limited to):
In other words, regardless of whether or not marijuana offenders ultimately serve jail time, the fact is that a criminal marijuana arrest alone has severe and long-lasting repercussions. Marijuana legalization would conclusively remove the responsible adult marijuana smoker from the threat of arrest and incarceration, and would put an end to the State's needless destruction of the lives of hundreds of thousands of otherwise law-abiding citizens whose only "crime" is that they prefer cannabis to relax rather than alcohol.
Finally, the legalization and regulation of marijuana removes the grossly (black market) inflated profit motive from the marijuana trade. As did the lifting of alcohol prohibition, marijuana legalization would significantly reduce the involvement of criminal enterprises in the marijuana trade, and eliminate the violence (primarily disputes over drug trafficking territories) and associated black market related activity inherent to the illicit drug trade.
LEGALIZATION AND ITS IMPACT ON CHILDREN
Marijuana smoking is for adults only, and is inappropriate for children. 28 Therefore, any regulated marijuana market must be accompanied by strictly enforced age restrictions limiting its use and consumption to adults. Those licensed by the state to sell or distribute marijuana should face harsh penalties (including fines, loss of business license, and possibly criminal penalties) for supplying marijuana illegally to minors -- just as those businesses entrusted with the public sale of alcohol and tobacco face similar sanctions. In addition, minors who illegally possess or consume marijuana should also face strict civil penalties, such as fines and community service. Minors caught possessing or consuming marijuana on school grounds or other public areas might also face additional sanctions.
It is our belief and hope that such a strictly regulated system would provide adolescents with less access and exposure to marijuana than they have now. According to a 2002 study by the National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse (CASA) at Columbia University, teens say that they have easier access to marijuana than they have to either alcohol or tobacco, and more than one-third say that they can purchase pot in just a few hours. 29 By comparison, only 14 percent of respondents said they could readily purchase alcohol. 30 Similarly, annual reports from the University of Michigan's Monitoring the Future project find that an estimated 85 percent of 12th graders say that marijuana is "fairly easy" or "very easy to get." 31 This percentage has been virtually unchanged since the mid-1970s. Faced with this reality, NORML believes that regulating marijuana for adults would make it harder -- not easier -- for children to obtain cannabis.
There are many activities in our society that are permissible for adults, but forbidden for children, such as gambling, skydiving, signing contracts, getting married, drinking alcohol or smoking tobacco. However, we as a society do not condone arresting adults who responsibly engage in these activities in order to dissuade our children from doing so. Nor can we justify arresting adult marijuana smokers on the grounds of sending a "message" to children. Our expectation and hope for young people is that they grow up to be civil-minded, responsible adults, and our obligation to them is to demonstrate what that means.
LEGALIZATION AND ITS IMPACT ON HEALTH
Marijuana is far less dangerous than alcohol or tobacco, and fails to inflict the types of serious health consequences these two legal drugs cause. According to the Centers for Disease Control, approximately 46,000 people die each year from alcohol-induced deaths (not including motor vehicle fatalities where alcohol impairment was a contributing factor), such as overdose and cirrhosis. 32 Similarly, more than 440,000 premature deaths annually are attributed to tobacco smoking. 33 By comparison, marijuana is non-toxic and cannot cause death by overdose. 34 In a large-scale population study of marijuana use and mortality published in the American Journal of Public Health, marijuana use, even long-term, "showed little if any effect … on non-AIDS mortality in men and on total mortality in women." 35 And according to the prestigious European medical journal, The Lancet, "The smoking of cannabis, even long-term, is not harmful to health. 36 … It would be reasonable to judge cannabis as less of a threat … than alcohol or tobacco." 37
Nevertheless, NORML concedes that marijuana is an intoxicant, and as such, marijuana smoking can never be an excuse for misconduct or other improper behavior. For example, alcohol is legal in America, yet every state maintains tough laws punishing those who choose to drive impaired by it. In any legal marijuana market, similar principles must govern cannabis consumption. Like alcohol, marijuana can cause temporary impairment and under a legally regulated market, driving or operating heavy equipment (or engaging in other activities that present a significant risk to the public such as flying airplanes, driving public buses, performing surgery, etc.) while under its influence would still be prohibited and criminally penalized. Marijuana use in public would also be highly regulated and/or restricted, just as the public consumption of alcohol and tobacco remains off-limits in many areas and establishments. In short, as with alcohol, the law would sanction responsible adult use of the drug while punishing its abuse.
In addition, money raised by the taxing and sale of marijuana in a legal market could be redirected to the public health system to pay for drug treatment and drug education programs. According to one study, federal excise taxes on marijuana could raise between $2.2 and $6.4 billion per year. 38 These additional funds would be a welcome asset to the treatment and drug education community, two areas of public health that currently are vastly underfunded -- particularly in Maryland, where national statistics show that drug offenders -- primarily addicts -- now account for 24 percent of the state's prison population. 39
It would also be our hope that under a legalized system, drug education programs that focus on preventing young people from experimenting with marijuana would move in a more health-and-science based direction, such as those that currently dissuade teens from trying tobacco or driving under the influence of alcohol. These latter campaigns, which rely on scientific facts and health concerns as opposed to hyperbole and scare-tactics, have effectively reduced undesirable teenage behavior whereas similar government-financed ad campaigns targeting adolescent marijuana use have not.
Finally, it should be noted that while marijuana alone poses a relatively low health and safety risk to the user, there is no way for the marijuana consumer to determine the purity and potency of marijuana sold on the black market. Under a tightly controlled, regulated market, marijuana would be sold under strict quality controls. For example, marijuana sold in government-licensed stores would be purchased from reputable, licensed cultivators and varying grades of cannabis would prominently state their potency and source of origin. Such regulation would all but eliminate the existing health risks and law enforcement concerns presently associated with black market marijuana. Also, the establishment of a legal market would pave the way for the legalization of so-called "drug paraphernalia" products such as vaporizers and other items that offer marijuana smokers alternative, safer routes of administration than smoking.
America tried alcohol prohibition between 1919 and 1931, but discovered that the crime and violence associated with prohibition was more damaging than the evil sought to be prohibited. With tobacco, America has learned over the last decade that education -- not prohibition -- is the most effective way to discourage use. Yet, we fail to apply these same lessons to the responsible use of marijuana by adults.
By stubbornly (and irrationally) defining all marijuana smoking as criminal, including that which involves adults smoking within the privacy of their own homes, we as a society are wasting precious police and prosecutorial resources; clogging the courts; filling costly and scarce jail and prison space that would otherwise house violent offenders; exposing our children to black market profiteers; undermining our drug education efforts; acting against the best interests of public health and safety; and needlessly wrecking the lives and careers of hundreds of thousands of otherwise law-abiding citizens every year. Responsible marijuana smokers present no legitimate threat or danger to society, and there is no reason to treat us as criminals. To do so is to wage war without cause against a significant segment of our nation's adult population.
Speaking before Congress on the 40th anniversary of marijuana prohibition -- August 2, 1977, then-President Jimmy Carter stated: "Penalties against drug use should not be more damaging to an individual than use of the drug itself. Nowhere is this more clear than in the laws against the possession of marijuana in private for personal use." 40 Twenty-six years later, the former President's words ring truer than ever. After nearly 70 years of this failed and destructive policy, it's time to end marijuana prohibition and establish a safe, legal, regulated adult marijuana market.