Amollo: There’s room for weeding out criminalization of weed, other drugs


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Today, the term “420” and the date April 20 lend themselves to a variety of marijuana-related topics, including the legalization debate, growing the plant and drugs on campus, among many others.

Benson Amollo

Let’s talk about weed. Yes, the kind of weed that some would prefer to call marijuana, while some notorious users have called it “ganja.” Well, don’t get too excited: No one is getting high yet.

My introduction of this weed debate is an attempt to make up for the lost opportunity following President Barack Obama’s recent visit to Colombia, which culminated in a “weed-chat” with that country’s leader, Juan Manuel Santos. The two presidents expressed their concerns over the long-running border troubles with Colombian drug cartels that are feeding America’s insatiable appetite for weed — currently outlawed, except for medicinal purposes in given states.

Unfortunately, Obama and Santos’ talking points on this matter were hijacked by the more juicy reports implicating some Secret Service agents with Colombian hookers. Well, they got laid and also laid off, which then leaves us in a good shape to hook up some weed.

Both presidents expressed concern over the dangers posed by marijuana, especially to the United States where the demand is overwhelming and creates an incentive for the illegal Colombian supplier. The answer to the problem of drugs may not be total or instant legalization. However, more scientific and forward-thinking policies in Europe have shown there is a better solution than an outright ban.

What has made drugs more appealing to the swelling community of users is largely the criminalization. Thus, the first step to addressing the marijuana problem would be the decriminalization of its use. After decriminalization, the restricted, taxed and appropriately regulated sale of drugs might follow. Obviously, politicians bent on harvesting political capital would complain, thus making it hard for any change agents to swing into the issue and slowing the implementation process. Hopefully along the way, there would be a common ground as the benefits slowly but steadfastly draw near home to the skeptics, thus drawing a support base built on sobriety.

The widely tolerated policy of criminalizing drug users will one day be considered, by future readers of history, as a bizarre attempt to solve a complex social problem. First used by Richard Nixon in 1971, the phrase “war on drugs” summarizes the blinkered and dogmatic approach taken by governments throughout the world toward the misuse of drugs. It has been responsible for an untold degree of human suffering, both in the United States and elsewhere. Considering that the first international treaty on drugs was signed a century ago this year — and also that a number of states in the United States are considering legalizing weed — it is high time that we considered whether our current policies are fair or appropriate.

Politicians in Europe are even more concerned about loosening the legal noose on some of the drugs topping the abuse charts. The House of Commons, for instance, is considering reforming the United Kingdom’s policy on drugs and codifying them to depict health relations. And Portugal is a success story. Over the last decade, no one has been jailed for a drug-related offense following decriminalization.

Some statistics also indicate that new HIV infections in drug users fell by 17 percent in just four years after the change, and deaths related to heroin were cut by more than half. Portugal’s legal reforms were accompanied by campaigns that increased awareness of the harms of taking drugs and by health initiatives such as syringe exchanges. The effect was a success, and it showed a viable alternative to the approach taken by the U.S. government.

In 2009, David Nutt, a British scientist, compared the risks involved in taking ecstasy with the potential harms of horseback riding, stating that one in 350 regular horse riders will die or develop brain damage from the sport, whilst one in 10,000 users of ecstasy will die from the drug. His findings were based upon years of research and were grounded in evidence.

Criminalization apologists often waft lines like, “Drugs are illegal because they are harmful.” By that argument, however, alcohol should also be prohibited due to its harmful nature, or perhaps even fatty foods, which can lead to significant health problems. Admittedly this argument is as cliched as an undergraduate writing about the legalization of drugs, but it is true nonetheless.

If alcohol were discovered tomorrow, it would be considered Class A. It’s addictive and physically harmful. Yet due to its prominence in our history, we accept it as a cultural norm and celebrate its effects in our social rituals. With alcohol, however, a balance is found between the state’s duty of caring for its citizens and the rights of these citizens to harm themselves. The government’s restrictions on alcohol are created accordingly. Most drinkers in any pub would acknowledge the damage alcohol abuse and addiction can cause, yet very few would advocate an outright ban, if only because history has shown us the undesirable effects of prohibition.