Penalties against drug use should not be more damaging to an individual than use of the drug itself. Nowhere is this more clear than in the laws against possession of marijuana in private for personal use.
– Jimmy Carter, Aug. 2, 1977
Marijuana laws in Rhode Island are in drastic need of reform. For more than 30 years, the federal government has impeded the development of all aspects of the cannabis industry, not only denying basic human rights regarding consumption, but also prohibiting medical research and disallowing industrial hemp use from competing in the market. But after an August 2013 Justice Department memorandum, states have the green light to enforce drug policy of their choice. This is a momentous step for both personal freedoms and common sense. Not only does the war on pot hurt individuals, it also takes out needed tax revenue that Rhode Island coffers can ill afford to lose.
Even our president recognizes the flaws in U.S. drug policy. Cannabis use has been scientifically proven to be less dangerous than the legal drugs in our society, such as alcohol, tobacco and prescription painkillers. President Obama has recently advocated the continued decriminalization of marijuana use by state legislatures, saying, “I view it as a bad habit and a vice, not very different from the cigarettes that I smoke … I don’t think it is more dangerous than alcohol.”
I agree with our president on the issue of decriminalization, but you just cannot try to compare alcohol abuse to cannabis “abuse.” (I use quotations because I smoke liberally all day, every day, and I have yet to develop the mental and moral inadequacies that accompany the stigma of a stoner. But I digress.) How many deaths does cannabis cause a year? None, in its entire history of use, thus making it less toxic than penicillin or ibuprofen. (Ibuprofen is part of a class of drugs called NSAID’s, these drugs accounts for an estimated 7,600 deaths and 76,000 hospitalizations).
Marijuana also has a plethora of widely accepted medical benefits ranging from assisting veterans with chronic post traumatic stress disorder (Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies, 2013) to anti-seizure properties (according to Ben Whalley of the University of Reading in Britain) to anti-carcinogenic properties (as documented by Complutense University, in Spain, in 2009).
Unfortunately, rather than let individuals grow a natural herb to remedy their malady, deadly painkillers such as Oxycodone and Hydromorphone are prescribed daily. We know these drugs cause crippling addiction and withdrawal. We also know that long-term use is extremely harmful.
You might not be persuaded by the universal right to consume what you wish. Fine. You might not be persuaded by its decades of widely supported medical benefits. Odd, but still fine. One thing every American must bow to is the almighty dollar.
Recently, the state of Colorado fully legalized the sale of cannabis for personal use. The sales exceeded $5 million in the first week alone. Rhode Island taxes $3.50 on every pack of cigarettes, approximately one-third of total cost. At a similar tax rate, the state of Colorado could have brought in $1.7 million.
In January, Colorado took in $2 million in marijuana tax revenue. Why deny Rhode Island this huge economic bonus? Especially when Gov. Lincoln Chafee said he was open to discussion, even tossing in the pun “pot for pot holes.”
If the state’s new House speaker, Nicholas Mattiello, is as dedicated to creating a more stable and productive economy as he says he is, there should be no question about whether to regulate America’s next big cash crop. Rather, we should focus on how to do it.
The benefits do not end with direct taxation. Being the first state on the East Coast to allow industrial hemp, along with medical and recreational sales, would result in a massive regional advantage in cannabis production and processing. We could have Netherlands-style coffee houses, cannabis culture gift shops and a wonderful export product for neighbor states.
On top of the reduction in administrative strain, regulation would reduce law-enforcement costs by decreasing time and funds spent pursuing, housing and feeding non-violent marijuana offenders. The birth of a new industry would create a plethora of jobs, ranging from chemical engineering to retail. This new industry would also need raw goods, shipping and other complementary industries and therefore help the entire Rhode Island economy get out of its slump.
A well-crafted bill concerning cannabis regulation, with ample room for oversight and adjustment, is the key to reviving our struggling economy.
Corey Agin, an East Providence High School graduate, is executive director of the Rhode Island chapter of the National Organization to Reform Marijuana Laws. He is studying political science at the Community College of Rhode Island.