Asking Paul Kuhn: Is it finally time to legalize marijuana?

According to recent polls, most Americans think so. Paul Kuhn, chairman of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws, explains.

FLORIDA, August 1, 2012 — Now more than ever before, there is widespread popular support for decriminalizing cannabis.

In this year alone, three western states — Colorado, Oregon, and Washington — have marijuana legalization initiatives on the ballot. What will this mean for the future of America’s prohibition on pot? 

Why is there a prohibition in the first place? Do anti-marijuana laws actually reduce usage of the drug? How much has all of this cost our nation? Perhaps most importantly, would America be better off if cannabis were legal?

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Joseph F. Cotto: Marijuana legalization is a concept with which most of us are familiar. Many support a strict ban on pot. Why do you believe it should be decriminalized?

Paul Kuhn: Actually, there has never been greater public support for ending marijuana prohibition.  A recent nationwide poll by Rasmussen Reports found that 56 percent of Americans support “legalizing marijuana and regulating it like alcohol or cigarettes” with only 34 percent who oppose the idea. Every age group, including 65 and older, favored legalization. Separate nationwide polls by Gallup and Angus Reid report similar voter sentiment.

Most voters recognize that marijuana arrests waste law enforcement resources, tie up courts, ruin lives and encourage individuals to use more dangerous drugs like alcohol and tobacco. Lawmakers are waking up to the reality that supporting cannabis law reform isn’t just the right thing to do, but that it also makes for good politics.

Cotto: One of the gravest concerns cited with American anti-marijuana laws is that they can be very difficult to enforce. In your experience, are they at all successful in deterring pot use?

Kuhn: Unfortunately, it’s easy to enforce anti-marijuana laws: just arrest hundreds of thousands of Americans every year, which we do. Do these arrests deter pot use?  No.  

Marijuana use rates in states which have decriminalized possession, for example, are generally no different than in states with harsh penalties. We have much higher rates of marijuana use in America than in countries like Holland where use is de facto legalized.

Cotto: A great many say that marijuana should remain illegal due to its health risks, as well as the fact that it might serve as a gateway to harder drugs. What is your opinion on this?

Kuhn: The health risks of marijuana are far less than those of alcohol and tobacco and more akin to those of caffeine. In fact, thousands of studies show marijuana has potential health benefits in fighting diseases like Alzheimer’s, Crohn’s, MS and even cancer. A recent Mayo Clinic report found marijuana offers “potentially head-to-toe therapeutic breakthroughs.”

Most hard drug addicts start with tobacco and alcohol, not marijuana. I have friends who consider marijuana “the exit drug” because it helped them recover from dependence on alcohol and other addictive, deadly substances.

Cotto: Many also say that the prohibition on marijuana is comparable to that of alcoholic beverages during the early twentieth century. Which do you believe poses a greater threat to society; the over-consumption of pot or liquors?

Kuhn: Alcohol prohibition never criminalized private possession of booze, only production and distribution, so pot prohibition is far more expansive and invasive.

Overconsumption of liquors results in reckless driving, violent behavior, permanent damage to almost every vital organ of the body, and death. Long-time, heavy users of marijuana have the same life expectancy as those who never use, so it’s clear that liquor poses a far greater threat.

Cotto: In terms of dollars and cents, how much has marijuana criminalization cost the United States?

Kuhn: The costs in dollars and cents over the past 40 years is approximately half-a-trillion dollars. The costs in disrupted and ruined lives is immeasurable.

Cotto: Why, in your opinion, is marijuana currently an illegal substance in our country?

Kuhn: Marijuana is illegal in America because in the 1930s, our government needed a new prohibition to replace jobs lost when the Volstead Act was repealed. Marijuana was the perfect target because it was unfamiliar to the general public and could be easily demonized.

Top government officials claimed marijuana was “the most violence-causing drug in the history of mankind,” and a substance that “causes white women to seek sexual relations with Negroes.” The impact of those unscientific and racist charges lingers today.

Cotto: This fall, marijuana legalization initiatives are going to be on the ballot in three states: Colorado, Oregon and Washington. Do you believe that these decriminalization efforts will ultimately prove to be successful?

Kuhn: I am confident legalization is coming whether or not the different versions of legalization pass in these three states this fall.

Cotto: Over the next few decades, do you think that marijuana will likely be legalized from coast to coast?

Kuhn: Yes. According to the Gallop Poll, support for legalization has grown from 12 percent in 1970, to 25 percent in the mid-90s to 50 percent last year, and as I mentioned earlier, Rasmussen tags current support at 56 percent. The trend and the facts are clearly in our favor.

Cotto: For those of us who have never consumed marijuana, and have no interest in doing so, what solid reason can you give for supporting decriminalization?

Kuhn: Current laws are based on ignorance and racism, are selectively enforced, divert law enforcement resources from fighting real crime, disrupt hundreds of thousands of lives every year, engender disrespect for the law, deny citizens the choice of a safer alternative to alcohol and tobacco and prohibit the medical community from exploring the unique health properties of marijuana.

Cotto: Many readers are probably wondering exactly how it was that you came to be an advocate for marijuana legalization. Tell us a bit about your life and career.

Kuhn: I never saw marijuana in college (Vanderbilt, ‘65) but believed all the myths. I first encountered pot as an officer in the Navy hearing the case of a sailor apprehended with marijuana on the ship. I wrote the dissenting opinion because I thought the penalty should be more severe.  

In business school a few years later, I was stunned to see that most of my classmates smoked, so I read all I could about marijuana and learned it is relatively benign. The next time someone offered me a smoke, I accepted and one of my first thoughts was, “This is illegal?! I’m going to work to change the laws.”  

Marijuana is still illegal, but after 40 years, we are closing in on success.


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Joseph Cotto

Joseph F. Cotto is a social journalist by trade and student of history by lifestyle choice. He hails from central Florida, writing about political, economic, and social issues of the day. In the past, he was a contributor to Blogcritics Magazine, among other publications. He is currently at work on a book about American society.

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