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POV: It’s Time to Legalize Marijuana

Why I’m voting yes on ballot question 4

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Amidst the current political debate over marijuana legalization in Massachusetts (Question 4 on this year’s ballot), state Representative Hank Naughton, chairman of the Public Safety and Homeland Security Committee, recently argued: “Marijuana is a gateway drug to the problems of the opioid crisis that we’re having today. It’s not just a business and it’s not like a six pack of beer. There’s a lot more to it.”

I’ve spoken with many well-intentioned politicians and police officers who prioritize protecting citizens and share legitimate concerns about the influence of marijuana on their communities. I understand the intuitive fears about increased marijuana use. However, they are often articulated through a long-held belief in the gateway theory. This stepping-stone narrative—that marijuana is relatively benign but leads to something much worse—has served as the foundation of a prohibition approach that treats young white users as victims and criminalizes the “invading pusher.” Looking at the gateway theory’s long, strange history, this central argument for opposing legalization lacks credibility.

As early as 1931, Dr. A. E. Fossier claimed that marijuana use led to heroin addiction. In 1937, however, as the first director of the Federal Bureau of Narcotics, Harry J. Anslinger eliminated any possibility that cannabis could be a gateway drug. When asked during Congressional hearings if “the marijuana addict graduates into a heroin, opium, or cocaine user,” Anslinger responded, “I think it is a different class. The marijuana addict does not go in that direction.”

Still, Anslinger explained the racialized difference between marijuana’s predators and its victims, as he warned that Mexicans were “selling cheap joints to white children.” In 1951, he pivoted and argued that marijuana led to heroin use in the context of the new American fear, the Cold War. Thus, the shift in American fears, from local concerns about adolescents, crime, and sexuality to panic over the foreign invasion of soul-numbing narcotics, encouraged antimarijuana activists to advocate cannabis’ gateway potential. In many ways, Anslinger’s adoption of the gateway theory acknowledged that Americans increasingly doubted marijuana’s “reefer madness” was worse than opioids.

In 1972, spelling out marijuana’s new gateway potential to Chicago Mayor Richard Daley, President Richard Nixon explained, “Once you cross that line, from the straight society to the drug society—marijuana, then speed, then it’s LSD, then it’s heroin, etc., then you’re done.” Nixon, the first president to declare a War on Drugs, railed against marijuana’s role in the youth revolt and drug culture as he urged his aides to “hit it hard” and “enforce the law, you’ve got to scare them.” But even as the War on Drugs began in the early 1970s, gateway rationale focused on enforcement and busting pushers while sparing first-time offenders—plenty of cover for white suburban pot smokers who avoided the punitive justice system.

Ronald Reagan’s drug advisor, Carlton Turner, offered a contradictory fear of cannabis that once again adapted the gateway theory. Turner connected the drug to a new scourge, AIDS, claiming that homosexuality “follows along from their drug use” and puts pot smokers at a higher risk of getting the disease.

Though these comments cost Turner his job, this Reaganesque fantasy of pot and social depravation showed once again why historians and more Americans have become skeptical of the gateway theory. In fact, the website for the DARE (Drug Abuse Resistance Education) program recently removed marijuana from its list of gateway drugs. The rise and fall of the gateway theory provides a clear picture of what is changing now and why the legalization effort has achieved so much success.

As historian Matt Lassiter explains, “The marijuana-as-gateway mystique…helped institutionalize two interlinked but spatially distinct approaches: public health campaigns in white middle-class neighborhoods and militarized interdiction in urban minority areas.” Despite the changing rhetoric that drove antimarijuana politics over the decades, the gateway theory connected these two principal motivations, one based on enforcement and the other on protection. Recently, the American Civil Liberties Union reported that blacks in Boston were 7.1 times more likely to be arrested for selling drugs, 3.3 times more likely than whites to be arrested for possession.

The dubious gateway theory and the resultant racial inequalities have convinced me to support Question 4 and the end of marijuana prohibition.

Seth Blumenthal (GRS’13), a College of Arts & Sciences Writing Program lecturer, can be reached at sblument@bu.edu. He will be teaching a course, Marijuana in American History, this spring.

“POV” is an opinion page that provides timely commentaries from students, faculty, and staff on a variety of issues: on-campus, local, state, national, or international. Anyone interested in submitting a piece, which should be about 700 words long, should contact Rich Barlow at barlowr@bu.eduBU Today reserves the right to reject or edit submissions. The views expressed are solely those of the author and are not intended to represent the views of Boston University.

16 Comments

16 Comments on POV: It’s Time to Legalize Marijuana

  • Richard Saitz on 11.07.2016 at 6:08 am

    Certainly disparities in criminal justice consequences and the lack of definitive proof of the gateway drug theory favor a move to legalization. However, one should consider alternatives to this current bill which does not adequately attend to public health issues (and there appears to be no disagreement about that among all health and public health groups in MA). Issues of disparate CJ application should be addressed to eliminate discrimination and people should not be arrested or jailed for marijuana use. We have medical MJ and decriminalization already and those issues can and should be dealt with without this particular referendum passing.

    The referendum puts the power come up with regulations in the hands of 3 people, none of whom need any public health expertise. With en estimated $5 billion industry predicted in just 3 years, the likelihood they will have the health of the public in mind and not be influenced seems low.

    What are the likely results of legalization? More use is likely. While some may not see that as a concern, studies are clear that 9% will develop addiction (serious consequences) to marijuana. While some see marijuana as 100% safe and healthy it simply isn’t 100% and there are some risks (I won’t review them here but the science is clear on these even if we need to know more). Whether the risks are more or less than alcohol and other drugs is not relevant. Fatalities from drugged driving will increase and we have no good way to address those.

    Lastly, one of the big holes that could be addressed with better regulation not contained in this proposed referendum is commercialization. Alcohol and tobacco, while legal, are regulated in part to reduce harms. For marijuana with this referendum there is minimal regulation. For example the tax proposed is less than the meal tax. High THC products (more harms) will be sold and MJ will be heavily promoted. The issue is that advertising works and this more will use and the more who use the more consequences, predictably.

    So while legalization with limited commercialization could be sensible, this particular proposal is not.

    Prof Richard Saitz
    BUSPH

    • Dr. Harold Altvater MD on 11.07.2016 at 9:30 am

      Professor Satz:

      You are correct that “So while legalization with limited commercialization could be sensible, this particular proposal is not.” You also hint about public heath concerns – this initiave takes the power of professionals in the Department of Public Health and cuts them out of the process – instead putting the Treasury in charge!

      However how you got to your conclusion is very weak- “Studies are clear” then you provide several poorly bases assumptions “Studies” the 9% rate comes from the early 1990’s and is accepted as fact despite the redefining of what it means to be addicted by the psychological community several times since the report was published. You mention accidents and “drugged driving” well seldom are these accidents solely related to cannabis – instead, it is a polypharmacy effect combined with alcohol that results in accidents.

      MA is currently a great state for cannabis users the drug is decriminalization for less than an ounce – compare this to New Hampshire where folks still go to court for a few grams and pay $500 fines – oh and the get a criminal record. If you have a medical condition the ability to get a card is just not difficult – nor is it expensive – no evaluation in the state cost more than one ounce of marijauna.

      We both agree it is a poor initive – 22 pages can hide alot of deception to the voters.

      I hope folks turn out and vote – this is the season of sending a message – the politicans in MA can now deal with the consenquences of setting on there hand versus crafting a good law by having a poor initive that will take years to make into a workable law.

      Dr. Harold Altvater
      Delta 9 Medical Consulting

  • Steve Fischer on 11.07.2016 at 6:08 am

    Unfortunately you have the Boston Diocese donating $850,000 to the NO side. How do they get away with this when we pay their property tax for them? Why don’t they concentrate on the victims of their pedophile Priests?
    I’ve served as an elected District Attorney in Conservative Texas. Every DA is on a limited budget. We have to make choices. I believe in strict punishment for violent offenders and burglars. I rarely gave probation. Unfortunately we had to deal with all these annoying pot cases. Even when pot users got probation the understaffed probation officers had to make sure they were in by 10PM – I’d rather they checked on sex offenders.]
    Revenues are another reason to legalize. The Washington Post reports for 2015 Colorado gained 18,000 pot-related jobs and $2.4 billion in revenue. 2016 will be much better.

    Use among teens has not increased both according to surveys from the Denver Post and Federal Government.

    It’s best to vote “Yes”.

  • gman on 11.07.2016 at 8:31 am

    Time for a wake up call. Health concerns, and concerns about youth addiction are completely inconsequential, for if they were, then you would then need to look at why Alcohol, the competing substance for fun and relaxation that has done more social harm and taken more lives than any other substance out there whether legal or not, the one we advertise on television with scantily clad women, is not also prohibited. You can’t argue that marijuana should be prohibited due to health and addiction concerns that also apply to alcohol for which the legal sale and consumption is allowed. If you are so concerned about health, safe driving, and kids, well then you will wake up and smell the coffee, because from where I’m sitting its pretty strong and smells a lot like booze.. The people want alcohol, to the point where they are willing to concede and accept the health problems it creates and the lives it takes. So if the people want marijuana, guess what, there really isn’t much you can argue against it without being a complete hypocrite. You simply can’t rationally be in favor of prohibiting the least harmful and be in favor of allowing the more harmful. But there is a reason for this line of thinking, its enculturated brainwashing. The government has been brainwashing people against marijuana for over 80 years and is still trying to continue this perpetuation of lies. If people who are dead against it would take some time to learn about its history, I firmly believe a good number would think and feel differently about it. If people who have never tried it gave it a chance, I think they would feel differently about it, not all of course, some would simply get too tired and fall asleep after they ate a bag of cookies.

    Remember when Dr Timothy Leary, former professor at Harvard University, was imprisoned for 30 years for possession of a single marijuana joint? Probably not, because you don’t really know anything at all about the history of marijuana and the governments unethical tactics to suppress it. After Dr Leary had the Marijuana tax stamp laws over turned in the supreme court for reasons of unconstitutionality, he was finally released from prison and marijuana was completely unregulated. About a year and a 1/2 later the FDA stepped in to classify marijuana right up there with heroine and LSD. Guess what folks? For those of us who have been indulging our entire lives, we know better. You can’t fool us. The public has been lied to for so long they don’t really know what the truth is. You try to call marijuana a gateway drug, but here is something to consider: when today’s youth try marijuana the first thing they typically come to realize is that “this isn’t bad at all why does the government try to say this is so bad? They are lying to us.” So then when you lie about marijuana and lump it in with dangerous, physically addicting narcotics that ruin peoples lives, the unconscious message being delivered is maybe these other narcotics aren’t that bad either. The gateway to a certain extent, if it didn’t exist prior, now exists on an unconscious level. People need to be educated truthfully.

    But in the end, when the people put forth their vote, stating they want to have marijuana legalized, whether its because they want to enjoy it legally, or because they are tired of our tax dollars being spent on useless task forces that incorporate expensive helicopters with commando like police repelling down into an 81 year old woman’s back yard to confiscate a single marijuana plant and then arrest her, well, I think you see my point. See full article here:

    https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/wonk/wp/2016/10/07/drug-cops-raid-an-81-year-old-grandmothers-garden-to-take-out-a-single-marijuana-plant/

    Also, within this link to the article contains another link showing the testimony of a woman, a legal care giver allowed to grow MMJ, trying to get her belongings back in from of the search and seizure committee after police raided her home at gun point with a no knock search warrant, whereby her home was completely destroyed and even her kids birth certificates were taken and not returned by police. Imagine when you are allowed to grow legally, and your home is still stormed by police and everything in it destroyed, even your kids school artwork and birth certificates. And yet you can sit here and debate whether it should be made legal.

    This is your wake up call. Time to wake up.

  • gman on 11.07.2016 at 8:50 am

    Also, final comment on gateway.. marijuana wasn’t a gateway for me, in fact, the gateway for me was alcohol in my parents liquor cabinet. When my parents weren’t home my friends and I would sneak booze and replace the level with a bit of water or something. This was where it all began. We tried alcohol first, liked the buzz, and then said “lets see if we can get some weed to try!” It is my guess that over 90% of all marijuana users tried alcohol illegally first, then tried ganja. Our parents were so quick to punish us for sneaking booze and so quick to tell us how bad it is, yet they consume it! Here lies the origin of the great hypocrisy, add in government propaganda and the hypocrisy is further reinforced. But why isn’t anyone talking about alcohol as the gateway drug? And also, ask any cocaine user if there are more likely to resort to cocaine after smoking pot or drinking alcohol and you will be surprised to find that the majority will state that alcohol will lead them back to cocaine, not marijuana. But this is information you don’t want to accept or consider in your pathetic arguments about legalization and gateways. Keep doing your research, keep the bogus studies flowing that all have the same predetermined outcomes and pretend you are doing some good, when in fact you are just wasting time and money and discrediting your professions as objective, unbiased researchers. We don’t need new research to tell us what’s what in the area of marijuana and alcohol, or the narcotics that start off as pain relief for an injury that turn into addiction and take so many lives. We simply need to start accepting the truth, and telling the truth.

  • Weylin Piegorsch on 11.07.2016 at 11:01 am

    I’m a bit confused by the article. There’s rhetoric claiming that previous claims about gateway use are fallacious. ok, fine… were they the only arguments? I’m struggling to understand how Congress would vote to prevent it’s use merely because of it’s gateway potential.

    The FDA listing it as a controlled substance, that’s an interesting data point – but, I’m not hearing an argument demonstrating why they were wrong, other than “because it was.”

    I’m open to the discussion, and to the potential either way. But I’m hearing no evidence-based arguments that Cannabis is harmless, either socially of physiologically; I’m only hearing that some previous arguments were flawed.

    • Seth Blumenthal on 11.07.2016 at 1:20 pm

      Great questions and comments! I would never argue cannabis is harmless, I only had the space to show that the main argument about marijuana’s dangers in support of prohibition do more harm than good. And yes, looking at congressional testimony and Nixon’s tapes, the gateway theory was crucial in making cannabis illegal, despite Nixon’s own research commission’s suggestions to decriminalize and its dismissal of the gateway theory.

  • Jim B on 11.07.2016 at 3:04 pm

    It is actually very easy to predict what will happen once pot is legalized. It will be just like the porn industry. Fifty years ago, when there were still obscenity laws on the books,Playboy Magazine’s topless photography was the limit of socially-acceptable prurience. If BU Today had existed back in the 1960’s, we would not have been surprised by a POV column claiming that fully-nude centerfolds were not gateways to hardcore pornography. But as will be the case with drug legalization, once the smallest concessions were made to legal obscenity, there was no logical place to draw the line. The inevitable consequence was that pornography became mainstreamed, and the content itself became far more explicit and perverse than anyone ever imagined it could be. We are now at the point where a large percentage of American men are regular consumers of – and in many cases addicted to – internet porn.

    The same race to the bottom is going to happen with legalized recreational drug use, because the same economic and psychological factors are in play. I am assuming that most advocates of pot legalization who are able to hold jobs and write coherent opinion pieces are quite confident that they would never “graduate” to the hard stuff, and hopefully that will be the case. Even so, they should ask themselves why they should expect other users to turn down opportunities for a quicker, cheaper, and more pleasure-inducing high – or for the cannabis industry to turn down opportunities for profit.

    Perhaps at one time it was possible to argue that marijuana was in a completely different league from other controlled substances, and that casual tokers were no more likely to become serious drug abusers than social drinkers become alcoholics. But as pot has become at least quasi-legal in many jurisdictions, there has been a technical revolution in the industry which has completely altered this dynamic. There is already a huge difference in potency and effect between smoking a cheap joint and vaping concentrated cannabis, to the point where the addictive and life-destroying effects are – or soon will be – on a par with heroin, meth, and other narcotics. Good luck trying to stop that.

    • Kevin Hunt on 11.10.2016 at 7:12 pm

      “once the smallest concessions were made to legal obscenity, there was no logical place to draw the line.”?

      Once the smallest concessions were made to those politicians who wanted to regulate private, consensual behavior, there was no logical place to draw the line…and now the police steal more cash and property than burglars (using drug war civil asset forfeiture), kick down citizens’ doors for the crime of growing tomatoes and okra, and drag people out of their cars for roadside body cavity searches.

      Your claim that marijuana will be ‘worse than heroin and crack’ proves that you are ignorant or lying.

  • Jay on 11.08.2016 at 1:39 pm

    End Big Prohibition.

    Legalize. Tax. Regulate. Educate. Reduce harm.

  • Ana Cor on 11.09.2016 at 7:13 am

    If any accident takes place and it is found the guilty party was under the influence of marijuana that person should NOT be allow to operate any vehicle or machine to the rest of their lives. Pot make people stupid to say the least!

    • Darius on 11.14.2016 at 8:55 pm

      Why should that be the case when a person would be able to drive again if he or she got into an accident under the influence of alcohol? Why does being under the influence of marijuana warrant such a different punishment than alcohol for the same crime?

  • Don on 11.10.2016 at 1:48 pm

    What next? Legalizing all hardcore drugs? Legalizing prostitution? Legalizing marriage between family members? Marriage with animals? Looks like a (bad/good)trend and all of these can increase government tax collection too.

  • bob on 11.14.2016 at 1:28 pm

    i just hope they tax the hell out of it
    it should be tax at a 50 to 75 % rate

  • Adrian on 11.19.2016 at 11:17 pm

    I would like to see both smokers and non smokers come with the pros and cons along with the safety issues of this subject talk to each other not with selfish an arrogant minds but with open minds to seeing and understanding each person’s ideas why or why should not this be a healthy substance be legallized for medical purposes or recreational activities we have issues with alcohol tobacco and fire arms people be be considerate of what could be probable in your ideas and decisions let safety be your first point in mind

  • Original Seeds on 11.25.2016 at 5:30 am

    The concept that marijuana is a “gateway drug” is an over-spill from decades of anti-marijuana & anti-natural medicine propaganda.

    Marijuana use if often used in the opposite direction, with clean access in the USA, many opiate users have been able to surface and gain access to medical marijuana to help them get over opiate addiction.

    As for the gateway concept, this is also entirely unfounded, your references of 1931 and 1972 show just how out-dated this theory is. The fact is that people will use and abuse substances, be it alcohol, tobacco or natural drugs such as marijuana, or pharmaceutical drugs. Of all of these, Marijuana causes the least damage, socially and physically as well as being the least addictive of all mentioned.

    Legalizing or decriminalizing marijuana has simply cleaned up the process of access, created a healthy culture and business sector and taken people away from illegal sources. All this without any mention of medicinal benefits? Food for thought?

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