Six Ways That Cannabis Criminalization
Defies All Reason and Logic
[1. Pot smokers punished more than sex offenders] Drugs are so reviled in the US and many other parts of the world that using them is considered worse than any other crime. If you commit violent crimes – arson or rape, for instance – a judge will determine all the facts of the case and consider your criminal record, if any, in sentencing you to prison or not. But if you are caught selling or growing marijuana, there are mandatory minimum sentences involved at the federal and most state levels that take the power of sentencing out of a judge’s hands and turns it into a Chinese take-out menu – a marijuana plant from Column A, within 1000 feet of a school from Column B, that will be 10 years with no parole. Next!
Still don’t believe drug use is considered worse than violent crime? Then why does our federal government pay a bounty for drug arrests, but no other arrests? These monies are called Byrne Grants and they are awarded to local police department for the express purpose of fighting drug crime. In actuality, they incentivize police to go after low-level drug offenders for the easy stat-padding drug arrest, rather than the tougher-to-catch-and-prosecute drug kingpins or the actual violent criminals out there. Still not convinced? Then explain how the Supreme Court could find the death penalty unconstitutional to punish the raping of a child, but there still exists on the books a federal death penalty for growing 60,000 marijuana plants? Or how a serial raping arsonist in Montana gets less time than a guy who merely rented space to a medical marijuana dispensary? Or how a guy who pleads no contest to sodomizing a four-year-old in Oklahoma gets a year behind bars but a college student with a dorm room stash could get life in prison? Or why there are more arrests for marijuana possession almost every year than for all violent crimes combined?
[2. The separation of church and weed.] Even an American educated in one of our fine public schools knows our Constitution recognizes freedom of religious expression. You can be Catholic, Baptist, Mormon, or have no religion at all, and that right is so important our Founding Fathers made it part of our First Amendment. You may practice your religion any way you choose, so long as you don’t violate other laws. But even then, our courts have given believers some latitude to violate laws in the name of religion. Nowhere is this more evident than in the use of drugs as a sacramental rite. A parent allowing their seven-year-old child a gulp of wine at the Olive Garden might earn a visit from Child Protective Services, but the same gulp at the cathedral is acceptable for children when it symbolizes the Blood of Christ. Our Supreme Court ruled several years ago that the use of an illegal Schedule I drug can be allowed for adherents of a South American religion using ayahuasca tea, a powerful hallucinogen that is considered a sacrament by their believers. Our Congress even went so far as to pass a Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA) to protect such use when the Supreme Court allowed the State of Oregon to deny unemployment benefits to two Native Americans who were fired over sacramental peyote use. So it seems in the case of drug laws, the compelling state interest is preventing you from using drugs. Very few people use ayahuasca tea or peyote, it doesn’t grow everywhere, the religions that find them sacred are well-established in historical tradition, and the sincere adherents are easily identifiable. So allowing a few native religious believers their powerful psychedelic sacraments isn’t going to seriously hinder any efforts to prevent you from using those drugs. But your herb stash? That’s different, because there are 26 million Americans who are toking at least once a year and pot grows like a weed. In that event, trying to stop anyone from using, buying, growing, or selling pot would become nearly impossible.
[3. A patient on one of side of the border and a criminal on the other.] It is easy enough to find examples where differing state laws make you a criminal on one side of an imaginary line but not on the other. That applies to the numerous states that have passed medical marijuana laws and their non-medical marijuana neighbors. But what people don’t realize about medical marijuana states is that most don’t recognize each other. Only Arizona, Delaware, Maine, Michigan, and Rhode Island of the currently 17 states that recognize medical marijuana will accept the cards/recommendations from other medical marijuana states. So California and New Mexico patients who cross the border into Arizona would be safe, but Arizona patients who cross into California or New Mexico could be arrested for marijuana possession. Nowhere is it more absurd than the case of the Pacific Northwest medical marijuana states, Oregon and Washington. Both states have virtually the same list of qualifying conditions for medical marijuana. Both states allow patients to cultivate more than a dozen cannabis plants. Both states allow patients to possess up to a pound and a half (680 grams) of usable medicine. But if a Portland patient crosses the Columbia River into Vancouver with 40 grams of pot, he’s a felon. If the Vancouver patient crosses into Portland with 28 grams of pot, she’s a felon. Lesser amounts get you a 24-hour mandatory minimum jail stay in Washington but only a ticket and loss of driver’s license (even if you weren’t driving) in Oregon. Can you imagine if getting your driver’s license was something you had to do for each state you wanted to drive through? Now imagine that instead of a driving license, we were talking about licensing whether or not you would be able to eat today and not suffer bone-wracking pain and spasms, and you had to renew this license at full cost every year.
[4. Fine line between legal gardening and a felony.] In those 17 medical marijuana states, trying to determine which pot smokers are healthy enough to deserve a cage and which ones are sick enough to protect from arrest is bound to lead to logical absurdities. Fourteen of the states allow patients or their caregivers to tend a garden to grow their own medicine. To deter large-scale growing operations, some states have implemented limits on the number of marijuana plants a patient may grow. In a state like Washington, this is simple enough, as the state has specified fifteen as the total number of plants allowed. But in Oregon and some other medical marijuana states, a distinction has been made between “mature” and “immature” marijuana plants. Oregon’s limit is the most generous, allowing six “mature” and eighteen “immature” plants, to accommodate the fact that patients have to keep a continuous cycle of plants coming into maturity in order to maintain a steady supply of medicine. However, the law completely abandons horticultural science in defining what a “mature” marijuana plant is. In nature, a mature plant is one that is producing flowers, or in the case of cannabis, the buds that patients are putting into bongs, vaporizers, and brownies. But in the Oregon Revised Statutes, a “mature” plant is one that is greater than 12 inches in any direction or is producing buds. So your thirteen-inch pot plant vegetating in the closet is “mature”, even though it is weeks from being mature. It would be like setting the limits of sexual consent based on how tall a child is. This has led to situations where growers are diligently following the law, tending six flowering mature plants and the next three sets of six plants in three stages, only to have one set shoot up from ten inches to fourteen inches over a weekend growth spurt. Now the grower has twelve “mature” plants, even though only the six mature plants can produce any marijuana, and he’s no longer a patient, he’s a felon.
[5. Feds denying that marijuana is medicine at all costs.] The government’s intransigence on the medical utility of cannabis is the most stubborn and hypocritical federal policy ever. The feds will tell you, with a straight face, that marijuana is a Schedule I substance and as such has no recognized medical value within the United States, even as seventeen states expressly recognize its medical value. Now if you complain about the 17,000 peer-reviewed research papers sitting in the federal ‘PubMed’ database that demonstrate medical use of cannabis, you’re barking up the wrong tree. This is a federal government that itself has patented the medical utility of cannabis and still tells you it is not medicine. As if that weren’t hypocritical enough, the US government maintains a pot farm at the University of Mississippi. This is the one legal weed grow in America, expressly allowed under the 1961 UN Convention on Narcotic Drugs for the production of cannabis for research purposes. In 1975, a glaucoma sufferer named Robert Randall sued for the right to use marijuana, lest he go blind, and won. This decision led to the development of the compassionate, investigative new drug program that produced and delivered medical marijuana for Randall.
Shortly thereafter, more patients sued to get access to medical marijuana, expanding to a few more federal medical marijuana patients. In the late 1980s and early 1990s, AIDS activists began marshaling thousands of applications for HIV+ gay men who found marijuana to help combat the symptoms of their disease. So rather than expand the compassion to thousands who would have benefited, the Bush Administration in 1992 closed the program to new applicants and the Clinton Administration in 1999 declared it would not be reopened. However, the program was not closed to the patients who had already been approved. Today there are four remaining federal medical marijuana patients who receive a tin of eight or more ounces of pre-rolled federal medical marijuana from the federal medical marijuana farm every month. But, federally speaking, there is no such thing as medical marijuana.
[6. The Drug Enforcement Administration forbids cultivation of a non-drug.] Nothing is more absurd in the war on marijuana than the ban on industrial hemp. If you don’t know, hemp is also cannabis, but cultivated differently as to produce a seed and fiber crop that is exceptionally low in any drug value. It takes anywhere from 2% to 4% THC content (tetrahydrocannabinol, the “high” ingredient in pot) for someone to cop a buzz off weed. Some of the finer medical marijuana varieties may top 15% THC content. By law and international agreements, industrial hemp must be produced at less than 0.3% THC content. It’s safe to say that there is a greater alcohol concentration allowed in a “near-beer” than THC concentration in hemp. There’s more THC in my bloodstream as I write this than is found in a field of industrial hemp plants. But even though there is absolutely no way one can use hemp as a drug, its cultivation is banned by the Drug Enforcement Administration, because it contains any amount of THC. If this standard were applied to other drugs, you’d never have another legal poppy seed bagel, because they contain trace amounts of opium. SWAT teams would be raiding your grandma’s house for the decorative poppies in her backyard garden, as they could actually be processed into heroin. This is even more maddening when you realize how keeping hemp illegal works against the DEA’s stated goal of reducing outdoor marijuana cultivation. Though some cops seem to think hemp would allow pot growers to hide their illegal crop, cross-pollination of hemp into marijuana makes both crops worse. The marijuana becomes less “druggy” and the hemp becomes less “industrial”. The last thing a marijuana grower wants next to his prized plants is a hemp farm.
What is the most dangerous activity you can engage in? If you guessed doing illegal drugs, you would be wrong. Extreme sports like big wave surfing, base or bunjey jumping, cave diving, white-water rafting and mountain climbing all have a higher rate of risk to life and limb. Yet the question of a ban on these behaviors beloved by “adrenaline addicts” is viewed as ludicrous, even when the risk of death, say, in climbing Mount Everest once (until recently, about 1 in 3) is greater than the annual risk of dying from heroin addiction (around 1% to 4%). Or consider mundane activities like driving: Car accidents are responsible for 1% of annual deaths nationwide. Cigarettes and alcohol do at least as much, if not more, harm to each user than heroin or cocaine. Alcohol, cocaine and heroin have a 3% to 15% rate of addiction, depending on how it is measured—and tobacco’s rate is much higher. Yet the risks don’t align well with their legal and social status, especially when you consider that marijuana is safer than any of the legal drugs. The reasons for this inconsistency around risk are complicated. Driving has huge personal and economic benefits. Risky sports are seen as noble challenges that foster the human will toward exploration, adventure and growth. When it comes to non-medical drug use, however, discussion of benefits tends to be either dismissed as delusional or simply stifled.
I don’t mention these facts to promote drug use – not at all! That I feel compelled to immediately include such a disclaimer underlines my point: Our values shape our perception of risk and the way we make drug policy. If we recognize only the risks and ignore the benefits, we fail to understand that the real problems are addiction and harm — not the substances themselves and the people who use them. For instance, when we talk about the “epidemics” of Oxycontin, methamphetamine or heroin, we rarely acknowledge that the majority of users never become addicted. Over the course of a lifetime, only about 10% to 15% of regular users ever get hooked for an entire lifetime. That risk is not insignificant: Few people would fly on a plane that crashed every tenth flight. But focusing on use as the main factor in addiction obscures what is actually at stake. There are, decade after decade, headlines about the fall of one drug and the rise of another. Yet the overall rate of people with addictions remains fairly constant. Although population differences and other variables make the numbers hard to compare exactly, a large national survey in 1990 found a 3.6% rate of illegal drug problems (such as abuse or dependence) in people ages 15 to 54 during the previous 12 months. The most recent National Survey on Drug Use and Health, which includes people from age 12 to those in their 80s or older, found a 3.5% rate of abuse or dependence in 2014, the latest year such stats are available. While that rate may not seem much lower, the difference is probably due to the later survey’s inclusion of people over 55, who are numerous and had a 2011 addiction or drug misuse rate of a mere 0.8% or less. It is worth noting that 1990 was the peak of fears about a non-ending crack epidemic; by contrast, today, while there are concerns about growing prescription opioid addiction, the actual rates have been steady since 2006.
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