GOP candidates need to debate legalizing marijuana

As GOP candidates debate values, I have not heard them address legalizing marijuana. The words of a narcotics agent ring in my ears: 'I can’t say every pot smoker goes on to get hooked on the hard stuff. But I can say every addict I know on the hard stuff got started on pot.'

Randall Benton, The Sacramento Bee, AP, file
Members of the California El Dorado County sheriff's department prepare to hook approximately 300 pounds of marijuana plants to a helicopter at a marijuana garden in a remote area of El Dorado County in August 2009. The US Justice Department says it will enforce federal marijuana laws in California and other states.

In the current debates among GOP presidential contenders about “values,” I have not heard any discussion about the legalization of marijuana. I think there should be.

Last year, Rep. Ron Paul (R) of Texas introduced a bill with Rep. Barney Frank (D) of Massachusetts to decriminalize marijuana and hand regulation to the states. Fortunately, it went nowhere – but legalization advocates persist. Americans need to hear more from the other candidates about their views on this.

When I worked as a foreign correspondent in Asia for the Monitor, I recommended to my editors that we pay serious attention to international narcotics traffic.

I had seen a fair amount of drug abuse by American soldiers in Vietnam and was aware of drug trafficking in Laos and Thailand and other Asian countries. My editors agreed, even though it would cost considerable time and money. Their judgment was justified when the Overseas Press Club of America gave the published series the prize for best foreign reporting.

The project took me around the world for five months, visiting not only Asian lands but nations in the Middle East, Latin America, Europe, and Africa. I met dealers in marijuana, opium, heroin, and victims of a traffic that sickened me.

The words of a narcotics agent came back to me when singer Tony Bennett recently supported the legalization of drugs at a pre-Grammy gala where various Hollywood personalities were depicted smoking pot on TV.

The agent’s words were: “I can’t say every pot smoker goes on to get hooked on the hard stuff. But I can say every addict I know on the hard stuff got started on pot.”

Some 16 states and the District of Columbia already allow marijuana use for medical purposes. In both Washington and Colorado there are serious moves to make recreational use of pot legal.

In one Washington State poll, proponents of legalizing marijuana narrowly outnumbered opponents, though because of the margin of error, the result was a statistical tie.

In Colorado, supporters of legalizing marijuana have been seeking enough signatures on a petition to secure a formal vote in state-wide elections later this year. In a number of other states, proponents of legalization are organizing.

Fortunately, the Obama administration is standing firm in opposition to legalization. Federal agents say they will not shrink from arresting growers and distributors who are obviously supplying recreational users. The Office of National Drug Control Policy has declared: “Legalizing marijuana would not provide the answer to any of the health, social, youth education, criminal justice, and community quality of life challenges associated with drug use.”

Supporters of legalization argue that prohibiting marijuana is an assault on personal freedom. They maintain that prohibition stimulates a black market in the drug and increases prices. They say that by providing legal supplies of a currently illegal drug, prices would fall and there would be fewer crimes committed by both drug users and suppliers.

But opponents cite a variety of reasons for their positions. There is the opinion of the narcotics agent I quoted that such use can lead to addiction to more serious drugs. There is the threat of violence, and neglect of children, by parents on pot. Greater availability of legal marijuana could encourage new consumers. Drivers under the influence of marijuana could cause as much damage and misery as drivers under the influence of alcohol.

California authorizes the sale of marijuana for medical reasons, but its voters balked in 2010 at legalization for recreational use. Let us hope that supporters of recreational use who are renewing their campaign to get it voted on again and approved this year are not successful.

If the seasoned narcotics agent I met is correct, and every addict he knew on hard drugs started on marijuana, why in the world would we want to make it more respectable, cheaper, and readily available?

John Hughes, a former editor of the Monitor, writes a biweekly column.

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