Legal Marijuana: a Tale of Two Coasts

It's the week before Superbowl, a week full of hype and hyperbole. Be prepared for lame stoner jokes from TV anchors because this year we're celebrating the first ever Marijuana Bowl. Playing are teams from Colorado and Washington, the only two states to have legalized recreational marijuana.

Earlier this month, Ruth Marcus, columnist at the Washington Post, offered her thoughts on why she feels marijuana should not be legalized. Despite the fact that we have the same last name, Ms. Marcus and I couldn't be more different in our views on whether marijuana should be legal.

I have spent almost 30 years studying the history and progress of our nation's drug policy and working toward reform. I believe the harms resulting from the prohibition of drugs, particularly marijuana, put our children at much greater risk than legalization does.

The most cogent examples of where we've failed in drug policy are the lessons learned from the grand experiment of alcohol prohibition. The policy, expected to improve health and safety, had unintended consequences, leading to organized crime and police corruption as well as more dangerous "bathtub gin."

The intent of the policy, promoted primarily by well-meaning women of faith, was to protect children and families from the adverse effects of alcohol. It was these same women who then worked to repeal prohibition when they realized that outlawing alcohol and removing regulation actually resulted in it being more accessible to children.

Viewing our marijuana policy as prohibition allows us to develop a framework for determining why it failed the first time. We can then use that framework to change current policy and to reduce the harm to our children today.

Ms. Marcus mentions the oft-repeated warning that marijuana is a "gateway drug" that leads to other more dangerous drugs. In fact it's not the drug itself but the way kids get it that's the gateway. Keeping marijuana illegal means getting it from a "dealer" who can also
provide harder drugs like heroin, meth and LSD to teens who are into risk-taking.

Marijuana's illegal status has also led to the development of dangerous and potentially lethal -- but up to now legal -- chemical substitutes known as synthetic marijuana. Lawmakers are trying to catch up by crafting legislation to control this new threat to our kids.

If you ask a teenager whether it's easier to get beer or pot, they'll tell you pot is far easier because, unlike the cashier at the supermarket, the dealer won't ask for an ID.

I've wondered how Ms. Marcus and I have come to such different conclusions since it's likely we are from similar backgrounds. We are (or have been) working mothers raised in the Northeast. We both were brought up in traditional, observant Jewish homes and attended elite schools.

One possibility for explaining the difference is our work. Ms. Marcus trained as a lawyer while I trained as a policy analyst. Lawyers write and interpret the law while policy analysts study the effects of laws on people.

Another significant difference between us is that I left the East Coast early in my career and have lived in San Francisco's Silicon Valley for going on 37 years. Living in this hub of technical and social innovation where new ideas originate and spread has helped me develop a West Coast sensibility that's very different from more restrictive, tradition bound East Coast thinking,

I am, therefore, not surprised that the first two states to legalize marijuana are in the West with the strong possibility that Oregon, California and Alaska will follow with ballot initiatives this year.

Though I share Ms. Marcus' concern for the health risks posed to kids, I take issue when she and others point to research linking adolescent marijuana use to lower IQ and mental illness. According to the prestigious journal Nature as reported by Scientific American, the "convincing" study she sites is not conclusive since it doesn't establish causality and is flawed by not factoring in socioeconomic status which might affect IQ.

Certainly more research needs to be done, but any research on marijuana is hampered by its illegal status. In social science research, people are afraid to be honest about their smoking
behavior, wary of putting themselves at risk. In scientific and medical areas, researchers are not able to get cannabis samples, much less the consistent strains needed to do rigorous, double-blind research

Ms. Marcus' concern for the kids is somewhat self-focused. According to a recently published article, when New Yorker editor David Remnick asked President Obama about the legalization of marijuana, he reported that the President was "troubled by the radically disproportionate arrests and incarcerations for marijuana among minorities. " It's unlikely that Ms. Marcus' teenage daughters will be swept up in a stop and frisk operation that targets young black and Hispanic men who are at greater risk of going to jail despite the fact that their use of pot equals or is less than that of whites.

What Ms. Marcus and I do share is a commitment to Jewish values. It was Jewish values, seen through a West Coast lens, that led the women of the Pacific District of the Women of Reform Judaism to propose two drug policy resolutions passed by our national membership.

The first, in 1999, supported making medical marijuana legally available for palliative care. The second, in 2007, called for a change in the drug policy paradigm moving drug policy from the realm of the criminal justice system to that of the public health system. This is, in fact, the position of the Obama administration, though the appropriate budget commitments to make that change a reality have not yet been made.

I hope Ms. Marcus and others who question legalization can get beyond drug war thinking and apply religious values to the question of legalization. As Jews we are told that if we don't care for the welfare of the other, then we have failed to maintain our own social justice. How can we be caring for others if we fail to change laws that perpetuate injustice and squander resources that could be applied to other areas of need?

We are also told that a just society cares about how it treats strangers. The classic Biblical rationale for treating strangers properly is, "you yourselves were once strangers in the land of Egypt." We can better understand what it's like to be a stranger by having empathy for one another. We must have empathy for those who, through our maintaining unjust and outdated drug laws, have their lives and the lives of their families ruined by convictions for nonviolent drug crimes.

Perhaps the greatest harm to our kids in maintaining the prohibition against marijuana is that they see through it all and have lost respect for the law. They know that marijuana is not the "evil weed" that the culture wars have portrayed it as. And they know, as the President told David Remnick, that we are unfairly locking up kids or individual users for long stretches of jail time when many who are writing or perpetuating drug laws have probably done the same thing.