Kentucky voices | Former politician: Time to legalize marijuana

Evidence and moral imperatives make the case for Gatewood's cause

January 15, 2012 

When my one-time political rival and always friendly acquaintance Gatewood Galbraith passed away this month, his eulogies invariably noted that his insightful political reform ideas were often overshadowed by his strident advocacy for marijuana legalization, consigning him to the role of perennial candidate and courthouse jester.

Part of Gatewood's problem was that he looked the part: often disheveled, always mellow. He also preached an admirably consistent, but widely controversial, libertarian philosophy that scolded government whenever it tried to establish moral standards for society.

Neither played well among a large segment of the commonwealth. Many Kentuckians associate pot smokers with the "anything goes" counterculture of the 1970s that they blame for the decline of personal responsibility. Others worried that the logical extension of Gatewood's libertarianism could lead to legalizing "harder" drugs, prostitution, even polygamy. Indeed, most Kentuckians believe that there must be some moral principles established to guide public policy.

Consider me the anti-Gatewood. I've never "inhaled"; I've never even handled a joint. And I'm so passionate about the value of values that I wrote a book about it: The Compassionate Community, in which I argue that the universal moral mandate "to love your neighbor as yourself" should guide our public policy.

But while Gatewood and I come from different places, now that I've removed my electoral blinders as a recovering politician and thoroughly analyzed the issue, I've concluded that Gatewood was right: It's high time to legalize marijuana.

As I summarize below, legalizing cannabis would enable our commonwealth to better reflect universally-shared moral values, such as compassion toward the sick, justice in our legal system and economic opportunity for all.

Health concerns

Despite last week's news of a new peer-reviewed study that suggests that casual marijuana use can have beneficial health effects without the adverse lung damage that tobacco wreaks, cannibis, like any drug — particularly when used heavily — might pose long-term health complications. However, there is a clear consensus around the following:

■ Cannabis is not as addictive as alcohol, tobacco or certainly drugs like cocaine and heroin.

■ Marijuana is much less physically debilitating than those drugs, as well as many legally-prescribed synthetic painkillers.

■ Deaths from a marijuana overdose are extraordinarily rare.

■ There's a significant and growing amount of evidence that cannabis helps relieve symptoms of many serious medical conditions — including cancer, glaucoma and AIDS — and can be a better alternative to narcotic painkillers.

Given the balance of equities, 16 states and the District of Columbia have chosen the compassionate route and legalized marijuana for medicinal purposes. Unfortunately, this half-measure has created an unexpected set of complications. Some state legislatures and public health advocates are up in arms about stories of doctors who abuse their authority and "patients" who game the system. And federal laws that conflict with the states can place physicians in difficult legal positions.

That's why the California Medical Association recently urged its state to move toward full legalization. The association understands that relieving their sickest patients — those among the least of us — is a moral imperative.

Criminal justice

There's no conclusive evidence that marijuana use or abuse leads to violent crime. Yet there have been more than 20 million arrests for marijuana-related crimes in the U.S. since 1965, taxing our already overcrowded corrections system. Not only is there a moral question associated with locking someone up for a victimless crime; there's a significant economic dimension.

Here in Kentucky, it costs taxpayers $19,000 a year to imprison one inmate. Incarcerating nonviolent pot smokers and distributors accordingly has cost Kentucky taxpayers millions, if not tens of millions of dollars — money that's desperately needed for essential public services.

A significant slice of corrections funding could instead be freed for proven, effective drug treatment programs (such as the nationally-celebrated Recovery Kentucky) that truly tackle the problem of drug dependence and empower addicts to take control of their lives.

Mere decriminalization of marijuana use would seem to help address our corrections crisis. But it would do little to mitigate the horrible violence associated with cannabis trafficking by organized crime cartels here and murderous drug gangs in Mexico. The creation of a legal, domestic marijuana industry — fully regulated like alcohol to ensure a safe product and to prohibit sales to minors — would cut off the financial lifeline that empowers gangs to disrupt our streets and threaten our southern border.

Economic opportunity

Kentucky's farmers — many of whom live in some of the nation's poorest counties — have suffered mightily in recent years, as global demand for Kentucky tobacco has plummeted. Marijuana legalization could be an enormous boon to state agricultural production. Cannabis is already Kentucky's number one cash crop — we're second only to California — with an estimated $1 billion worth seized here annually. That represents a fraction of potential income under a legal regime.

With state poverty and unemployment rates at morally unacceptable levels, legalizing marijuana could create thousands of new jobs in agriculture and associated industries such as warehousing, packaging, transportation, advertising and distribution.

Then don't forget the economic benefit to the rest of us. Taxing the legal product could produce over time a multi-billion dollar infusion into the state and local governments that are struggling to meet such basic moral needs as quality public schools, health care for the poor and affordable higher education.

It's always important to scrutinize any efforts to solve our economic and social problems through the legalization, taxation, or expansion of so-called "vices" that, when abused, can impair the lives of addicts and their families. That's why it's critical for any cannabis legalization regime to be strictly regulated, and significant sums be set aside for drug treatment programs.

As a matter of public policy, though, our focus shouldn't be on the private morality of individuals who choose to smoke pot, but on the public morality of the nation. The beneficial impacts of legalizing marijuana for our neighbors who struggle with serious illness, for our heavily-burdened system of criminal justice, and for the job creation and economic opportunity it would bring to our commonwealth would only serve to strengthen Kentucky's moral fiber.

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