Public opinion and marijuana

NEW efforts by federal, state, and local officials to curb the illegal cultivation of marijuana within the United States warrants the attention -- and support -- of the American people. By traveling to Arkansas to personally inspect piles of marijuana plants removed from the Ozark National Forest, Attorney General Edwin Meese III was graphically reminding Americans of the widespread use of the drug by many people -- as well as the continued resolve of government agencies in tracking down and destroying marijuana crops.

The federal, state, and local program is named Operation Delta-9.

If that sounds something like a military campaign, you're right. The eradication campaign is just that -- a $2.9 million joint effort to do in the United States what other nations that grow marijuana have also been asked to do within their borders: namely, locate, and then eradicate, marijuana at its very source -- at the point of cultivation.

The overseas eradication campaign was given a major push by the Carter administration in the late 1970s. Mexico, for example, sprayed its crops with paraquat, a controversial herbicide. What happened, though, was that as traditional overseas supplies fell off, many dealers turned to importation of marijuana from Colombia and then, later, as that crop too began to be cut off, to the cultivation of the crop within the domestic United States. Domestic marijuana is known to be grown on private land as well as relatively inaccessible federal or state lands, such as in the Ozarks.

As Mr. Meese observed, cultivation of the plant on federal or state lands involves unique hazards that go beyond the issue of the effect of the drug on users. There is a danger that tourists might accidentally stumble across the crop -- and thus come face to face with its growers. And the cultivation of the crop also raises environmental difficulties for public lands, since many growers use chemicals to boost production.

As more scientific information has surfaced about the adverse effects of marijuana, the American public has taken a firmer stand against marijuana than it had in past years.

A Gallup poll released in June, for example, found that 50 percent of the American public now believes that possession of small amounts of marijuana should be considered a criminal offense. That is up from 43 percent of the public in 1980. According to the same June poll, 73 percent of all Americans are opposed to making marijuana legal, up from 66 percent back in 1977.

In this context, Operation Delta-9 is to be welcomed -- and encouraged.

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