On Marijuana Legalization: The Unique Struggle of a Recreational Medicine
Over fourteen years ago, Portugal decriminalized all drug use and chose to treat addiction as a medical condition. It was a bold move that many saw as a last resort to combat out-of-control abuse of heroin and other hard drugs. To the surprise of many, drug abuse has been all but eliminated in the country.
The United States is not a progressive enough place for such a policy at the moment, but we are making strides toward legalizing cannabis nationwide — even while the conservative right rails against it. The challenge is in finding a model for a “recreational use” drug. It’s a concept that is unique to cannabis.
What Is Recreational Medicine?
Maybe you’ve heard about people getting high on Nyquil. Is that recreational medicine? The answer is no. There are laws against the purchase of specific quantities of the drug designed to combat exactly that behavior, and also to deter methamphetamine producers from accessing critical ingredients they can source from the cold medicine.
João Goulão, a Portuguese drug official who has seen the system evolve, has boiled down the psychology of drug use correctly: “People use drugs for one of two reasons — either to potentiate pleasures or relieve unpleasure,” he explains. However, marijuana in the U.S. is the first example our country has seen of a drug that might be used to potentiate pleasure that is not an illicit drug.
That sounds like an inconsequential statement at first, but it raises some serious questions. Should there be any sort of regulation of the substance whatsoever? What about drug tests? Are employers still allowed to judge a person based on their drug habits if use is recreational rather than medicinal?
Legal Substance Abuse
It’s a conundrum, particularly now, because of the way that states treat cannabis differently. In California, you could potentially fail an employer’s drug test while abiding by the letter of the law. In another state, where medical cannabis is legal and recreational use is not, you might be exempt. There is no clear precedent.
And yet, we allow substance abuse to go unchecked in the case of alcohol. Prohibition was an excellent example of how futile attempting to fully control a substance is. So we’re better off without prohibition, but you can’t deny that alcoholism is a problem in the United States. It satisfies all of the criteria of drug addiction, but the substance is entirely legal.
The State Must Get Its Cut
So, what’s the difference between pot and booze when it comes to allowing recreational use? One critical area of difference is the way in which the government makes money on the different substances. Alcohol sales are taxed and managed as part of an infrastructure the government is familiar with. But marijuana is not.
Jeff Sessions and the GOP are riling up conservatives who want to mount a last stand against legal weed, but in doing so, they’re making it more difficult for the government to manage funds tied to marijuana sales. They’ve repealed the Cole memo, the only thing that made marijuana business owners confident enough in their security to invest at federally-insured banks.
Declining confidence in banks has caused business owners to withdraw funds and change their investment strategy. Some are even using cryptocurrency. These alternative methods make it much more difficult for the government to tax marijuana. It’s a lose/lose situation, but it doesn’t have to be.
Toward True Recreational Use
Just as in Portugal, the United States can fully decriminalize marijuana use. We have scientific evidence that the drug is much less harmful than the alcohol and tobacco products people have readily consumed for over 200 years with the government’s blessing.
Embracing the true freedom of marijuana use is clearly the answer. It’s also where we’re going to end up almost unquestionably, but how quickly we get there relies on our government.
Liberals seeking a rallying cry for 2020 would be wise to get behind federal legalization. It would resonate (no pun intended) with the 18 and 20-year-old crowd who seldom vote, but have the power to overcome the older base that tends to help keep conservatives in power.
All it takes is to acknowledge that marijuana use is no longer a moral taboo. The country is there, but the government is lagging behind.