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The Restraining Power of the Law comments (2)

February 27, 2014

By Bob Terry

The Restraining Power of the Law

One of the hottest topics on today’s political landscape is the legalization of marijuana. Already 20 states have approved marijuana use for medical purposes and two states have approved recreational use of the illegal drug. 

President Obama recently said smoking marijuana was no worse than using alcohol. The Cato Institute declares that prohibition efforts — whether for marijuana, tobacco, alcohol or hard drugs like heroin and cocaine — are bound to fail. NORML, the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws, must certainly welcome these allies to their cause of removing restrictions on the drug’s use. 

The Alabama Legislature appears poised to add our state to the list of those approving marijuana use for medical purposes. Privately some legislators say this will be the first step toward approving recreational use of the drug. Simply talk about marijuana being a new source of tax revenue and most anything will pass the Legislature, they joke.

As if to prove the futility of trying to limit undesirable conduct by law, these supporters of marijuana use point to the era of American history called Prohibition as proof that personal conduct cannot be controlled by the force of law. During that 13-year period (1920–1933), the manufacturing, distribution and sale of alcoholic beverages were largely illegal. General wisdom holds Prohibition a failure and many now say it is just as foolish to rely on the law to solve the nation’s drug problems. 

The trouble with this accepted dictum of popular truth is that it is wrong. If anything, Prohibition proved that individual behavior can be changed by the force of law. 

Consumption of alcohol dropped noticeably during Prohibition. According to the U.S. Alcohol Epidemiological Data Reference Manual, Americans of drinkable age consumed an average of 29.53 gallons of beer each in 1915. By 1934 when Prohibition ended, the average was down to 13.58 gallons per person. Some may wonder why the average was that high given the illegal status of beer. However, Prohibition did not impact beer, wine or spirits made at home for personal use. It focused on the manufacturing, distribution and sale of alcohol. 

According to Mark H. Moore, professor of criminal justice at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government, there were other results. Cirrhosis death rates for men were 29.5 per 100,000 in 1911 and 10.7 in 1929. Admissions to state mental hospitals for alcoholic psychosis declined from 10.1 per 100,000 in 1919 to 4.7 in 1928. 

Arrests for public drunkenness and disorderly conduct declined 50 percent between 1916 and 1922 as the saloons — one for about every 200 Americans — and their associated vices closed down. 

That alcohol consumption trended back upward after Prohibition indicates the power of the law to influence individual choices. While illegal, drinking dropped. Also one should not overlook the long-term impact of Prohibition. It took 45 years after Prohibition’s repeal before Americans got back to consuming a similar amount of beer that was consumed in 1915. 

Basing his conclusion on the past, Moore declared, “The common claim that laws backed by morally motivated political movements cannot reduce drug use is wrong.” 

State and federal laws can and should make a difference in the use and availability of marijuana. 

There is little disagreement about the physical and psychological results of marijuana use. The National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) is clear. Marijuana is addictive with about 9 percent of users becoming addicted to the drug. The numbers go up dramatically when users begin taking the drug in their teens — about 17 percent (1 in 6) become addicted. Among those who use the drug daily, the addiction rate is more than 25 percent; some studies indicate 50 percent. 

The active ingredient in marijuana (THC) acts on certain receptors of nerve cells in the brain. These receptors are found in part of the brain that influence pleasure, memory, thought, concentration, sensory and time perception, and coordinated movements. The results of using the drug can be altered perceptions of reality, impaired coordination, difficulty with thinking and problem solving, and disrupted learning and memory. 

Because it seriously impairs judgment and motor coordination, marijuana contributes to risk of injury or death while driving a car. NIDA cites a recent study that found “marijuana use more than doubles a driver’s risk of being in an accident.” 

Heavy use of marijuana by young people can impact brain development with effects being long-lasting or permanent. A New Zealand study cited a loss of eight IQ points for heavy teen users, and the lost cognitive abilities were not fully restored in those who quit smoking marijuana as adults.  

Because the drug increases heart rate, blood pressure and rate of breathing, NIDA reported adults have “a 4.8-fold increase in the risk of heart attack in the first hour after smoking the drug.” 

Problems mount as THC concentration increases and as more young people lose their inhibitions toward the drug. In the 1980s, the THC concentration of marijuana was about 4 percent. In 2012, the average was close to 15 percent, NIDA reported. While adult use of the drug has remained constant at about 4 percent, a recent government report placed teen use at 30 percent. 

Obviously the research information is clear and has been for decades. Marijuana use is dangerous to individuals and those using marijuana are dangerous to others. 

We are not trying to be heartless to people with extraordinary medical circumstances. Rather we are trying to be realistic. A recent article by CNN pointed out that only 2 percent of those prescribed medical marijuana in Colorado suffer from cancer and only 1 percent from HIV/AIDS. Ninety-four percent cite “unspecified pain” as the justification for their marijuana prescriptions. 

The same article pointed out the average user of medical marijuana in California “is a 32-year-old white man with no life-threatening illness but a long record of substance abuse.”  

According to Romans 13, one of the purposes of civil law is to restrain evil. Now is no time to change that approach concerning Alabama’s laws about marijuana use. Laws prohibiting its use have made a difference in the past and they can make a difference in the future. 

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Comments (2)

    Ann Allen 3/10/2014 9:10 PM

    This editorial is a "home run"...Excellent! Should be on the editorial pages of all state newspapers!

  • Paul Cleveland 4/26/2014 4:01 PM

    I just did some online research on the effects of marijuana and the impact of Prohibition. I found much of the same information mentioned in this editorial. However, I also found that a case can be made for medical uses of marijuana--such as the oil recently legalized in Alabama--but it should be controlled as tightly as any other powerful prescription drug. Unfortunately, there seem to be few such controls in states where "medical marijuana" has been legalized.

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