GRAVES: The problem with potBoth ends of the political continuum seem to support throwing in the towel on at least some of the fronts on the war against drugs.
By: Joe Graves, Mitchell superintendent
Of the various election returns that mystified me from the most recent November plebiscite, the most confounding was the legalization of marijuana in Colorado and Washington. It’s not that I don’t have some libertarian leanings — I do — but the legalization of drugs isn’t one of them. To me, a simple historical example, the Opium Wars, settled the issue of decriminalizing drugs for all time given the relatively unchanging disposition of human nature. In those wars, set in the middle of the 19th century, the British Empire required China to allow the importation of opium and the Chinese emperor, already hobbled by English military and economic might, went to war rather than knuckle under because of the sheer number of his subjects whose lives were being destroyed by the drug. The Emperor could see that his people were better off fighting a hopeless war than accepting the social devastation that drugs brought to them.
Still, it didn’t surprise me that these two states voted to legalize marijuana. The societal trends in America just seem to be moving inexorably in that direction, the subterfuges in other states which allow medicinal use of marijuana (which even “South Park” couldn’t help but see through) are an obvious ruse, and an odd combination of both ends of the political continuum seem to support throwing in the towel on at least some of the fronts on the war against drugs.
Since then, however, probably prodded on by the realization that legalization is now no longer something that seems increasingly likely but is actually in place especially given the federal response — equivalent to a yawn — I’ve been progressively more bothered by what I suspect is coming. Allow me two examples and I won’t even go into the slippery slope argument of marijuana being the gateway legislative drug opening up legalization for every other form of chemical intoxicant, a pharmaceutical Pandora’s Box.
First, if marijuana is legal in some American states, it will be essentially impossible to stave off its legalization and thus increased and more pervasive use in our own state. I believe this to be true because I’ve watched so many other social trends begin at one level and move downward to all levels. Why do some student-athletes challenge officials, engage in on-court fisticuffs, display the most onerous lack of sportsmanship, and generally act like prima donnas? They do so because they have watched their heroes in the NFL and NBA do so for years. Emulation of sports heroes does not end with their good qualities; it extends to all qualities, and professional athletes who act like this is not the case or that it isn’t their concern are just wrong and at least slightly sociopathic. Why do increasing numbers of young people sprinkle their daily vocabulary with words that leave me wondering if they kiss their mother’s cheek with that same mouth?
They do because so many television shows and movies include a regular diet of profanities and use the “bleep” censoring tool as just another way to curse. Marijuana-using celebrities gave credibility to their drug of choice and aided in its legalization in these two states. These two states’ legalization is simply the next step to our entire society’s eventual acceptance of it, not for any well-argued rationales but simply because of its seeming inevitability.
That doesn’t mean that it wouldn’t be OK to legalize marijuana if it had no real ill effects on society or its users. But, of course, it does. In high school, I watched friends and fellow students change from people with a future to what we then described as “burn-outs.” If drunken driving isn’t enough of a threat and we think we even need to forbid texting while driving, do we really need a new method of mind-impairment while operating a motor vehicle?
Perhaps closest to home, though, is my second point. In the Mitchell School District, we have two employees — Karen Allen and Traci Moore — who lead our pretty darned successful efforts to prevent tobacco use among our students. We do so for a number of reasons but chief among them is the fact that people who begin smoking at a young age will, with all probability, face myriad health disasters as a result in the near, mid or far future. I was reminded of this recently when I read “The Emperor of All Maladies: A Biography of Cancer” by Siddhartha Mukherjee. It is a fascinating account of the medical profession’s battle with this disease. When, halfway through the book, Mukherjee finally begins to discuss medicine’s late-coming focus on prevention and the search for carcinogens, tobacco takes center stage.
It’s not the only example, of course, and the first cancer-causing substance discovered is actually chimney soot, an enormously lethal problem for English children employed as chimney sweeps or “soot boys,” but among the legions of cancer-bringers tobacco is its own emperor. Thus, the state of South Dakota provides tobacco settlement money (the source of which is its own modern irony) in the form of grants for us to prevent tobacco use among students, because it is just the right thing to do and because every student prevented from starting will mean huge health care cost savings later for them and for government programs.
Mukherjee explains this in length in his book, noting the decline of tobacco use has resulted in reduced disease among men, though only decades later, but that, among women, since smoking rates among the fairer gender increased more recently, the rates of such disease is still on the up-tick. In other words, it takes decades for reduced tobacco use to translate into a healthier society.
So what does any of that have to do with legalizing marijuana? Everything. Legalizing it will mean more users. More users will mean more people suffering the longer-term health effects from its use, the full extent of which are not even fully known because, unlike tobacco, marijuana has not yet been sufficiently pervasive or used for adequate durations to allow the type of longitudinal studies that can lead to the necessary scientific conclusions. In other words, as people like Moore and Allen work their non-tobacco-stained fingers to the bone to push back the horrifying medical effects of tobacco use, we are as a society inviting a new threat to engulf current and future generations in pain, suffering, death and gargantuan medical bills. As we clean up one problem at the front door, we allow another through the back.
Sisyphus, it seems, didn’t have it so bad. At least he had only one rock to push.