Faith & Social Justice: In the spirit of Richard Overton and the 17th C. Levellers

Will the Recession (Depression?) Lead to Cannibis Legalization?

Since this is a blog where the Christian rightwing regularly denounces my faith, let me set some things straight right away:

  • Unlike our current U.S. president and the last two (Bush and Clinton), I have never used ANY controlled substance recreationally.  I have never smoked tobacco (not even one puff on a cigarette), never mind cannibis.  This is true despite having grown up during the ’60s and ’70s when going to the school BATHROOM could mean walking in on a drug sale. Yes, many of my friends, including several children of preachers or deacons, used pot.  But the stuff gave me a headache and a queasy stomach from across a room, so I was never tempted to try it personally.
  • I DID engage in teenage alcohol use–although after being drunk twice I decided I hated that and never drank more than 1 beer at a time ever since. (Even after becoming a Christian, I never bought the fundamentalist argument that all alcohol use is sinful, rather than its abuse.)
  • I am NOT promoting pot smoking.  Looking up the medical benefits and dangers, I conclude that it is only slightly less likely to cause cancer than tobacco use and, like alcohol, can be a gateway drug to harder use–but no more than alcohol. I have known too many burned out stoners to be sanguine about pot use recreationally–although it has medical  uses, especially for cancer patients where it has fewer side effects than many legal painkillers.

Now, having said that, I have to say that I have long thought the U.S. approach to drug policy was ludicrous.  The “war on drugs” is a complete and utter failure.  It has made no dents in the drug cartels, but has filled our prisons with nonviolent drug users, siphoning valuable law enforcement resources from other priorities and turning those drug users (often) into real criminals.  Drug enforcement should concentrate on going after the financing, especially the banks that launder the drug money.  It should treat drug abuse as a public health problem more than a law enforcement problem: Every dollar spent on prevention is worth $10 spent on law enforcement and every $1 spent on drug rehabilitation is worth $5 spent on law enforcement in terms of effectiveness.

During the Great Depression,  the U.S. repealed the failed experiment in government coerced alcohol abstinence called “Prohibition.” Prohibition had created the large scale crime syndicates. It’s repeal temporarily hurt organized crime, until it switched to gambling, prostitution, and illegal  drugs.  But legal alcohol consumption also created a thriving industry in an economy that needed thriving industries and a major source of revenue for a government that needed spend money to help the nation out of the Depression.

We face a similar context today and someone, San Francisco Assemblyman Tom Ammiano, has decided to combat California’s huge budget problems by introducing the legalization of cannabis, CA’s largest (though illegal) crop.  Consider what legalization for all uses, not just medical, could do:

  • CA would  save an estimated  $1.7 billion annually in law enforcement from not pursuing pot smokers.  That number includes savings from not incarcerating recreational pot smokers, but it does not include the money CA would save in fines from judges penalizing them for overcrowded prisons!
  • Taxation of cannibis could generate another $1 billion in revenue for CA.
  • It could generate jobs: cannibis farmers, cannibis cigarette makers, bong makers, etc.
  • Hemp, the form of cannibis that cannot be used as a drug (genetically identical) but is used for rope and other industrial uses would also be legal and generate more jobs and revenue.
  • Would this put a dent in at least some of the drug cartels, making our streets safer or would they just switch to harder drugs? Regardless, we have limited law enforcement resources and I would rather have cops pursuing PCP and Meth labs than pot farmers.

IF this passes in CA (it will be tough, but CA is just desperate enough for money that it might make it), it could be a bellwhether for the rest of the nation.  Would we actually see a decrease in pot smoking after awhile as the lure of the forbidden is removed? It has been too recent since Canada decriminalized cannabis to ask our neighbors to the north for hard data.

I am torn on the idea.  Not being a pot smoker–and not liking to be around people who smoke ANYTHING while they are puffing their foul odors near my lungs–I have zero personal interest in whether this law passes or not.  But I know that our current drug policy makes little sense from either a law enforcement, a prison reform, or a public health standpoint.  Will economics trump old movies about “reefer madness?”  Will churches still try to get government to enforce moral standards on their members that they cannot get them to observe without the heavy hand of the law?

I have no answers. And to be honest, I worry that economic hardship and the emotional strains it causes is already leading to increases in alcoholism. Will legalizing pot just cause those having trouble finding a job to drown their sorrows in weed–and become burnouts who CAN’T get work?? I don’t know.

I invite your responses, especially if you have data from public health, rehab, law enforcement, etc.–and cross-cultural experience  with other societies’ approaches would be especially welcome.


March 2, 2009 - Posted by | Uncategorized


  1. I have no great answers, either, but as someone with a similar background (not a smoker or a drinker or a drug abuser… except for caffeine in the form of Dr Pepper), I agree with you that the War on Drugs is largely a failure and especially our criminalization of marijuana.

    I’m a strong opponent of drug abuse of any sort. Drunk drivers should lose their license. Period. No second chances, you just lose it.

    Still, criminalization does not seem to be the answer. I say we legalize it, tax it, spend some portion of the tax money raised to implement drug abuse programs, “Stop Smoking/huffing/drinking” programs, and to pay for policing the ill effects of drug abuse and let it go.

    Comment by Dan Trabue | March 2, 2009

  2. Yeah, Dan. We live in KY. In some parts, Cannibis, whether as hemp or marijuana, is almost the only cash crop alternative to tobacco. So, with tobacco price supports disappearing (and good riddance), KY farmers could produce hemp or legal pot and raise much revenue for the state.

    Comment by Michael Westmoreland-White | March 2, 2009

  3. I too agree that the decriminalization of cannibis would free the legal system to pursue and address the many real ills that depreciate our society. Dr. Mike, I love your idea of creating jobs for bong makers, that’s just stinkin’ funny! Maybe California can solve some of it’s financial hardships through this change. Who knows? To argue against the use of medical cannibis is just plain uninformed and uncaring. Imagine the scene where the deacons all get together and have a smoke(pot) after church. Maybe it would create a kinder church.

    Comment by peacetrain5 | March 3, 2009

  4. I’ve smoked my share of cannibis in years past. Gave it up back in ’75 along with cigarettes. I’m not opposed to legalizing it. It does have medicinal purposes which I think should be made available to those it will help.

    Comment by Marty | March 4, 2009

  5. I too have never smoked anything in my life and have never taken so much as vicodin after my wisdom teeth were removed. But I feel the danger of legal cannabis is smaller than the danger posed by the illegal cartels. See the news of the thousands of people killed in Mexico every year from cartel violence? We could cut it down if these guys were legitimate business parters int he economy.

    However, these stats you give are hypotheticals. Medical marijuana has been legal in CA since 1996, but dispensaries are frequently raided and shut down by the DEA (a Federal agency). It certainly would cut down on California’s budget to convict and imprison offenders, but the revenues would not be there until the Feds gave up the fight in the state.

    Comment by Steven Kippel | March 4, 2009

  6. Steven,
    I think the Obama DOJ has different priorities.

    Comment by Michael Westmoreland-White | March 4, 2009

  7. I was a drug and alcohol counselor years ago and I saw the destructive effects of so called “hard drugs” like cocaine,heroine, crystal meth and alcohol on the users (addicts) and their families. Marijuana on the other hand did not (in my experience) wreck families and individual lives like the three drugs that I mentioned. Legalize and tax it and you reduce prison populations significantly. And just so you know smoking of any kind, in my opinion, is an odious habit !!

    Comment by Paul | March 4, 2009

  8. Everyone I know thinks we should legalize it.

    Comment by Kevin | March 27, 2009

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