Patterson: GOP should lead movement on marijuana - East Valley Tribune: Columnists

Patterson: GOP should lead movement on marijuana

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East Valley resident Tom Patterson (pattersontomc@cox.net) is a retired physician and former state senator.

Posted: Monday, March 11, 2013 10:15 am | Updated: 7:23 pm, Fri Mar 29, 2013.

Republicans should get out front for once and lead the movement to legalize marijuana. It makes sense any way you look at it.

“Medical marijuana” has turned out to be the farce that many of us suspected. Patients with glaucoma, AIDS and cancer were shamelessly paraded as the poster children for the initiative, yet they make up less than 10 percent of the patients at the marijuana dispensaries. The bulk of the clientele is 18- to 30-year-old males with “pain” and “mood disorder” problems that can’t be proved or disproved.

One naturopath alone has written thousands of prescriptions. High school students are ending up with a lot of the pot. The feds won’t promise not to prosecute and when state legislators discuss doing something about this mess, the howl of “defying the will of the people” starts up.

So what could be a better time to take a different tack and do what a growing number of Americans want anyway: legalize, regulate and tax it. Policymakers seem still influenced by “Reefer Madness”, the movie that ludicrously exaggerated claims of marijuana’s supposed tendencies to turn users into crazed maniacs.

In fact, marijuana is safer and has fewer bad consequences than alcohol. Alcohol claims an estimated 76,000 lives per year while marijuana advocates claim that pot has “never killed anyone”.

I doubt that’s strictly true, but in my emergency physician days, dealing with alcohol problems – auto accidents, domestic abuse, end-stage liver disease – was part of the daily grind. Hard drugs also commonly caused sickness and death but marijuana just never came up.

Every substance on earth can cause harm if abused or taken in excess. But, unlike alcohol, marijuana doesn’t stimulate aggressive behavior or cause “mean drunks”. And while chronic, heavy use may induce apathy, medically speaking there is no such thing as marijuana addiction or fatal overdoses. When we try to scare teens by claiming that marijuana is worse than it is, we look foolish and untrustworthy.

Many understandably worry about the effect of legalization on teenagers. But our current drug laws don’t work now to protect teens, who report that pot is easier to get than beer. In fact, drinking and cigarette smoking have dropped by 10 percent among high school seniors over the last five years, while pot smoking has risen by 23 percent. More teenagers smoke pot here than the Netherlands, where it is legal for adults.

Others worry about marijuana being a “gateway drug” to the hard stuff. But there’s no medical reason why pot should lead to hard drugs. In fact, it’s likely that if marijuana were purchased from a pharmacy rather than an illegal drug seller, the probability of being graduated to addictive drugs would be reduced.

More importantly, marijuana is a freedom issue. In a free society (that’s still us, isn’t it?), we have a natural right to do what we want with their own bodies. We don’t have to prove to government that is healthy or safe. In fact, it’s government that has the heavy burden of proof to show that our behavior is harmful to others to justify criminalizing it. That’s mighty hard to do.

But here’s the clincher. Even for those who believe on balance that there is some to benefit of criminalizing marijuana, we can’t afford it. At a time when government is flat broke, the War on Pot is estimated to cost $42 billion annually in direct expenses of enforcement, adjudication and incarceration. That doesn’t even include the massive human costs to the 700,000 arrested each year for marijuana offenses, much less the horrible toll of financially supporting the murderous drug cartels who control marijuana distribution.

We could end all this and use the money instead to reduce public debt or lower taxes while controlling marijuana use and abuse. It wouldn’t have to work perfectly to be far better than what we have today.

Republicans can get on the right side of a freedom and finance issue that is massively popular with the youth demographic. What are they waiting for?

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