Reefer Madness in the U.S. Senate

Friday, April 8, 2016

The two oldest U.S. Senators, Charles Grassley, R-Iowa, and Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., have been acting on a bias they developed in their youth.

The two senior senators conducted a hearing to validate their belief that a current Department of Justice policy is creating a public health hazard. That policy, instituted by President Obama, is to not enforce federal laws against marijuana in states where recreational marijuana use has been legalized.

The hearings have been widely criticized for lacking even the veneer of objectivity. No one who disagrees with the views of Grassley and Feinstein was invited to the hearing. There weren't any official from Colorado or Washington to testify about the impact of marijuana legalization in those states. Statistics presented at the hearing seem to have been pulled out of the air.

Of course, it is possible to find anecdotal evidence that marijuana use is harmful. It is a psychoactive drug. However, centuries of observation and research brings us to the conclusion that alcohol use is more harmful than marijuana. Alcohol is far more toxic, with more dramatic evidence of organ damage, including to the heart, liver and brain. Alcohol is more clearly associated with anti-social behavior, including violence. Both alcohol and marijuana can be psychologically addictive for vulnerable individuals, but alcohol use, unlike marijuana use, can develop into a physical addiction.

So any argument that marijuana use should remain illegal would apply even more strongly to alcohol use.

With rare exceptions, no one advocates that alcohol use should be prohibited at all times for adults. We had a great experiment that established prohibition was a disaster, feeding violent gang warfare, corruption and disrespect toward law enforcement.

Although Grassley and Feinstein have not noticed, marijuana prohibition has created the exact same problems.

People who've had typical experiences in their youth but who align themselves with old line conservatives often engage in convoluted rationalizations to dismiss their previous indiscretions.

Last year I cited the example of conservative columnist David Brooks. Forgive me for repeating a segment of that column here, but Brooks' commentary from January 2014 is such a classic example of hypocrisy and elitist self-delusion that I can't resist.

Brooks confessed that during a time in his teens, "my friends and I smoked marijuana. It was fun. I have some fond memories of us all being silly together. I think those moments of uninhibited frolic deepened our friendships."

So did Brooks think that what he needed during his teenage years was the traumatizing, future-destroying experience of criminal prosecution? No. Brooks doesn't think criminal law is really about prosecution.

He stated, "Laws profoundly mold culture, so what sort of community do we want our laws to nurture? What sort of individuals and behaviors do our governments want to encourage? I'd say that in healthy societies government wants to subtly tip the scale to favor temperate, prudent, self-governing citizenship."

In Brooks' world, laws are merely philosophical abstractions. The function of the criminal justice system is all about subtly tipping scales to favor prudent citizenship, at least that's the function of the criminal justice system for privileged white kids.

At least Grassley and Feinstein are not hypocrites. They actually believe that we can win the war against marijuana, and perhaps they believe that if we try really hard, we can spin straw into gold.