Robert McCartney: Young People Speak the Truth on Legalizing Marijuana

By Robert McCartney
Sunday, September 13, 2009

As Maryland weighs legalizing medical marijuana, it should consider my experience when I visited the student lounge at Montgomery College's Rockville campus at lunchtime last week and began interviewing randomly selected students about their views on weed.

Among the first group I approached, one of the four young men volunteered within minutes that he not only smoked marijuana but also sold it. He told me his price list: $10 a gram for "middies," the least potent and most readily available variety; $20 a gram for "headies" with more THC; $35 for the strongest, "exotic" types, like "white widow."

The youth's matter-of-fact attitude highlights a reality that's under our nose but is often overlooked in the oh-so-earnest debates over drug policy. When it comes to marijuana, American society has lost the war on drugs--and that's okay. We should stop squandering time and money trying to reverse history and instead legalize both medical and recreational use of this mild narcotic widely seen as no more harmful than alcohol.

Here are some facts:

Pot is widely available. A sizable chunk of the population thinks that's not a problem. In many locales, including Montgomery, prosecutors routinely send offenders caught with small quantities to a few days or weeks of drug education rather than prison. California and 12 other states will let you buy marijuana for health reasons, such as to control vomiting or relieve glaucoma. Four of those states permit collectives in which members grow their own.

In our region, advocates in Maryland and the District are pushing to legalize medical cannabis. (Virginia is sitting it out for now.) Maryland's policy recently attracted attention when a little-noticed 2003 law, which sets a maximum fine of $100 for medical use, was applied in two separate cases Aug. 27 in Rockville. Otherwise the penalty for pot possession in Maryland is up to one year in prison and a $1,000 fine.

My campus interviews indicate that the younger generation overwhelmingly favors legalizing cannabis. Fifteen of 20 students said they supported it, and the opponents acknowledged that they were in a small minority.

This, mind you, is the generation raised since the onset of well-financed, high-profile, anti-drug education campaigns, such as DARE.

Students offered numerous thoughtful reasons for legalization. The most frequent, by far, was the common-sense point that current laws aren't working. "For most people my age, it's a popular thing. People are going to do it anyway," said Simone Brewer, 17, a freshman from Rockville.

Several also argued that the economy would benefit. The government should tax marijuana and save the money now spent on prosecuting and imprisoning users, they said. "People are doing it every day, but the government isn't making money off of it," said Billy Vivian, 19, of Wheaton, who is studying criminal justice. "The prisons wouldn't be so filled up with nonviolent offenders."

All the students who supported legalization also favored keeping laws against such stronger drugs as cocaine, ecstasy, heroin and methamphetamines. They said those can cause severe mental and health problems or even kill you. They said legal marijuana should be subject to restrictions similar to those on alcohol, with strict prohibitions against underage use and driving while high.

Many of the students said they thought alcohol is more harmful than pot. It is more dangerous to drive drunk than stoned, they thought, and pot makes people mellow while alcohol makes them belligerent.

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