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Marijuana bill is wrong vehicle for legalization

At first glance, AB 390 by Assembly Member Tom Ammiano (D-San Francisco) to legalize the cultivation, sale, and use of marijuana under a regulation and taxation system similar to that applied to alcoholic beverages would seem to epitomize the sensible, humane policies for which he is known. By nearly every standard, marijuana is less troublesome than alcohol, better use can be made of law enforcement resources than to arrest and prosecute 70,000-plus Californians for marijuana every year, and regulating and taxing marijuana would reduce the violence involved in its distribution and provide needed state revenues.

Having said that, AB 390's framework for marijuana legalization is fatally flawed. The 75-year-old system of alcohol regulation on which it is based is a disaster that has fostered rampant overdrinking and crime that make the United States the worst alcohol-abusing society of any Western country except Finland. This framework limits policy debate to the wrong issues and worsens the legal repression and exclusion from cultural life and employment of young people. Simply extending California's antiquated alcohol regulatory system to another popular drug squanders a crucial opportunity to scrutinize this state's record-high drug abuse and rising alcohol abuse crises.

Consider California's "legal alcohol" catastrophe. In 2007, 206,196 Californians were arrested for drunken driving, 116,000 for public drunkenness, and 20,376 for other liquor violations. That is, one-fifth of all criminal arrests in 2007 were directly for alcohol violations, and alcohol's heavy contribution to property, violent, and other crimes is undisputed. In 2006, 1,600 Californians were killed and 31,000 injured in alcohol-related traffic crashes. These aren't kids; 170,000 Californians age 30 and older were arrested for drunkenness and drunken driving alone in 2007. Worse, once released from custody, current non-regulations allow even repeat alcohol offenders to continue to drink legally and perpetuate new offenses, as the 30% increase in intoxicated California drivers involved in fatal crashes from 1999 to 2006 shows. Obsession with 5.5 million teenage "binge drinkers" nationwide revealed in the National Household Survey (2007) has obscured the 18.9 million binge drinkers ages 40-59, the parents and models whose binge drinking numbers are up 42% since the first survey in 1999.

Now, consider California's "illegal drug" catastrophe. As law enforcement officers were arresting a record 293,333 Californians (another one-fifth of all criminal arrests) and imprisoning 13,380 (30% of all new imprisonments) for drug offenses in 2007, a record 4,000 Californians died from overdoses of illicit drugs--double the number in 1990. Drug overdose has exploded to become the second leading cause of premature death in California, worse than guns, murders, suicides, and AIDS and lagging only traffic crashes (all of which drug abuse contributes to). As with drunken driving and drunkenness, the fastest-growing drug abusers are middle-aged. Among Californians aged 40-59, overdose deaths erupted from 660 in 1990 to 2,500 in 2006;  drug-related arrests leaped from 25,000 in 1990 to 78,000 in 2007;  felonies rose from 53,774 to 117.089;  and new imprisonments rose from 4,800 to 19,300--all in less than two decades.

The unmentionable reality is that Americans of all ages suffer severe troubles with both legal and illegal drugs. Our death levels from drunken driving are double those of other car cultures like Canada and Australia, and our drug and alcohol poisoning mortality rates are seven times higher than the average of our peer Western countries. Compared to other affluent nations, the United States' drug-alcohol death rate ranges from five times higher for teens and young adults to 12 times higher for middle agers.

A major reason for America's globally disruptive addiction scourge is the narrow fixation of American lobbies, policy makers, programs, and media on blaming, isolating, and punishing young people while ignoring the larger alcohol and drug abuse crisis across society. AB 390 perpetuates this fixation by making the sole criterion for use of marijuana, like alcohol, as being 21 or older. This would not, as supporters claim, "end marijuana prohibition." Of the 74,119 Californians arrested for marijuana in 2007, 34,340, or 46%, were under age 21. While AB 390's drafters could have reduced criminal penalties for under-21 marijuana use as well, they chose not to.

If alcohol is any teacher, legalizing pot for grownups will result in further concentration of the drug war against young people--disproportionately, youth of color--as well as their increased banishment from jobs and public life and exclusion from adult society. Note that former San Francisco mayor Willie Brown vetoed allowing 18-20 year-olds to patronize bars even during late-night hours when no alcohol is served. The extreme, prohibitions piled on young people, and the increasingly hysterical and unscientific claims used to justify them, go hand in hand with weak alcohol controls on over-21 adults that foster dangerous drinking among all ages.

Add up the results of California's legal-illicit drug calamity: Today, 40% of all criminal arrests are directly for drug and drinking offenses, and a huge chunk of the remaining arrests stem from addiction and abuse. An estimated 10,000 suicides, murders, and accidental deaths every year in California relate to abuse of illicit drugs, legal drugs, and legal alcohol--and these are only the tip of the iceberg.

California's failed system needs tough, analytical rethinking based on rigorous research of current realities to redesign alcohol and drug regulation as a whole. Yet, AB 390 endorses and extends the age segregation that fosters heavier drinking and drug use among both teens and adults, maximizing the odds that even milder drugs like marijuana will be used abusively as alcohol now is in both adults-only and teens-only settings. Maintaining and expanding a system that facilitates adult partying with more intoxicating substances while imposing absolute prohibition on teenagers is not only demonstrably unworkable, it bans the family and multi-age settings that centuries of Mediterranean experience shows afford the greatest safety.

For more than a decade, I've tried to persuade policy makers and lobbies, including marijuana reform groups, to forcefully confront California's burgeoning middle-aged drug, alcohol, and crime crises that are filling jails, prisons, hospitals, and morgues, threaten families and communities, fuel violent drug-supply networks, and cost rising billions of dollars annually in public spending. The response I get (in the rare cases when I get one) is that the midlife crisis is not feasible to raise; drugs and drinking must be discussed only as problems of young people. The denial and falsification that all sides in this crucial debate present are deeply disturbing and will be detailed in later blogs.

This stifling politics that feeds California's out-of-control addiction crisis both contributes to and results from a legal structure in which age alone, not individual ability to handle drinking, is the criterion for legal access to alcohol and its substantial social and employment benefits. Marijuana should be legalized, but careful and comprehensive study is required first. Dynamic innovation to address California's and America's worsening alcohol and drug epidemics is badly needed, and progressive lobbies should be in the forefront. AB 390, representing outmoded thinking, is not the vehicle for vital innovation.

Note: These points are the views of Senior Research Fellow Mike Males. CJCJ is reviewing its position on AB 390.

Keywords: marijuana, Mike Males, state policy

Posted in Blog, Drug Policy

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