3 views on whether states should legalize marijuana

This November, voters in Colorado, Oregon, and Washington will consider ballot measures to legalize and regulate marijuana, much as alcohol and tobacco are taxed and regulated. In this first in a series of "one minute debates" for election 2012, three writers give their brief take on the issue.

The 'yes' case is argued by Paul Armentano, deputy director of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws (NORML). The 'no' position is offered by David G. Evans, a special adviser to the Drug Free America Foundation. And a middle path is suggested by Kevin A. Sabet, who has worked on drug policy under three presidents of both parties.

1.Yes: Follow the model of tobacco regulation. Its use is at a historic low.

A sticker to support Proposition 19, a 2010 ballot measure to legalize marijuana in California, is seen on a power pole in San Francisco. Californians defeated that measure. But three other states will try again this year. (Mike Blake/Reuters/file)

A majority of voters support ending America's nearly century-long, failed experiment with cannabis prohibition and replacing it with a system of limited legalization and regulation. A recent Rasmussen poll found 56 percent of voters support "legalizing marijuana and regulating it like alcohol or cigarettes" versus only 36 percent who oppose the idea. No wonder voters in several states – Washington, Oregon, and Colorado – will face the issue on the ballot this fall.

Many Americans have grown justifiably weary of the federal government's war on cannabis. Since 1970, more than 21 million US citizens have been cited or arrested for violating marijuana laws. Yet more than 100 million Americans – including the president – acknowledge having consumed cannabis. One in 10 people older than age 11 admits to having used it in the last year.

Marijuana prohibition hasn't dissuaded the general public from experimenting with cannabis or hindered its availability, especially among young people.

Consuming cannabis may temporarily alter mood and pose other risks. However, such concerns are hardly persuasive arguments for maintaining the plant's illegality. Numerous adverse health consequences are associated with alcohol, tobacco, and prescription pharmaceuticals – all of which are far more dangerous and costly to society. That's why these products are legally regulated and their use is restricted.

A pragmatic regulatory framework that allows for limited, licensed production and sale of cannabis to adults, but restricts use among young people, would best reduce risks associated with its use or abuse.

Society already imposes similar regulations for tobacco, a legally marketed yet deadly recreational drug. Doing so has reduced consumption to historic lows. Why would we not apply these same proven principles to cannabis?

Paul Armentano is deputy director for NORML, the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws, and is the coauthor of "Marijuana is Safer: So Why Are We Driving People to Drink?"

No: Legalization will increase use – and health, social, and economic costs.

Marijuana advocates seek to demoralize the public by claiming "the war on drugs has failed." Now they've put measures to legalize and tax the drug on several state ballots.

But evidence shows that marijuana use has decreased in America by almost 50 percent since its peak in the 1970s. This is thanks to a three-pronged approach of prevention, treatment, and law enforcement.

If marijuana were to be legalized, businesses might attractively package it to increase sales by including marijuana candy, soft drinks, and ice cream (sold now in some "medical" marijuana states). Based on experience in Europe and Alaska, the number of young users will double or triple. Drug treatment facilities are already full of young people dependent on marijuana.

Marijuana use, especially regular use, can impair problem solving, concentration, motivation, and memory, and can cause birth defects. Teen users are more likely to become delinquent, schizophrenic, depressed, and suicidal.

Marijuana is the most prevalent drug found in drivers killed in crashes. Thirteen percent of high school seniors admit to driving after using marijuana, while only 10 percent admit driving after having five or more alcoholic drinks.

Employees who tested positive for marijuana use had 55 percent more accidents, 85 percent more injuries, and 75 percent higher absenteeism rates.

Prisons are not overflowing with people convicted of marijuana possession. In 1997, for example, less than 1 percent of all state prisoners were incarcerated for marijuana-only possession.

The potential benefits of legalizing and taxing this drug are far outweighed by the costs of expanded use. Alcohol and tobacco, while legal, are still deadly and still abused, and the tax revenue on them is far outweighed by the costly damage they cause.

Legalization of marijuana will have a substantial and irreversible adverse impact on our social and economic well-being.

David  G. Evans, Esq. is a special adviser to the Drug Free America Foundation.

A middle path: Find ways to access medical benefits without legalization

The media and marijuana legalization advocates would have Americans believe the only choices for marijuana policy are legalization or strict prohibition. Neither approach is right.

Marijuana should not be sold on the open market. Legal alcohol, tobacco, and prescription drugs kill more than 500,000 people a year. Research tells us that access and availability lead to greater use, and big tobacco showed that legal industries can play down harmful health effects of their products.

Neither is there any assurance, under legalization, that the underground market would disappear, because that market could very easily adapt to and undercut a legal, taxed product like marijuana.

But the United States should also not focus only on enforcement. Few people are in prison or jail for mere possession of marijuana, but even an arrest record can hamper chances for employment, education loans, or other public assistance. Laws that provide for a sanction but do not penalize an offender's future should be considered. Drug courts – which offer treatment with accountability – and probation programs that focus on intervention also make sense.

Finally, though existing medical marijuana programs represent little more than de facto legalization, cannabinoids – the chemical compounds present in marijuana plants – may have medical utility worth pursuing. Research should identify them and standardize their dosage and delivery form.

Just as we do not smoke opium to gain the medical effects of morphine, we should not smoke marijuana to obtain therapeutic benefits. Nonsmoked formulations (like Sativex, a mouth spray under Food and Drug Administration review) offer a safe, scientific, tested way to properly medicalize cannabinoids.

Such drugs may not mollify marijuana enthusiasts who want a "medical" excuse to smoke marijuana. But they represent a common-sense marijuana policy that the US would do well to follow.

Kevin A. Sabet, PhD, has worked on national drug policy under Presidents Barack Obama, George W. Bush, and Bill Clinton.