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Drug Legalization


On your left is a document that probably won't make it into the National Archives, but maybe should.  It's the receipt for the first legal purchase of purely recreational marijuana in this county.  It was given to Iraq War veteran Sean Azzariti for his purchase of an eighth (about 3.5 grams) of Bubba Kush.  With tax, it cost $59.74.  That's a bit on the high side, no pun intended; according to Price of Weed, a web site created to provide a "global price index for marijuana" and allows users to anonymously submit data regarding their latest transaction, an eighth of high-quality marijuana is going for $50 in Lubbock, Texas, and Las Vegas.  And Bubba Kush doesn't quite fall into that category:  the good folks at StrainSpot give it only a 7.5 rating ("flavor" gets an 8.5, but "head effects" clocks in at a disappointing 6.4), below the 8.1 garnered by the Space Queen Marijuana Strain, which was only good for 6th place on StrainSpot's list of the top 10 of all time. 

The year before I graduated from law school, people were sentenced in Ohio to 20 to 40 years in prison for possession of a couple of joints.  How did we get from there to here? 

The case against marijuana was always shaky.  Yes, you shouldn't do it, especially on a regular basis, and kids certainly shouldn't do it.  But they shouldn't smoke cigarettes or drink alcohol, either, and we don't subject people to a prison sentence of up to a year for selling a pack of smokes or a six-pack of Coors to a 17-year-old.  And then there's the futility:  despite the fact that about half the drug arrests in this country are for marijuana -- that's three quarters of a million arrests for marijuana crimes in 2012 -- usage is just about the way it's been, and potency is way, way up.  (For that matter, that's true of the War in Drugs in general:  cocaine is actually selling for a lesser inflation-adjusted price than it was in the 1980's.) 

The door cracked open in 1996 with California's adoption of a medical marijuana law.  Nineteen other states have adopted something similar since.  (In fact, only South Dakota rejected a referendum allowing it.  Arizona adopted one, but required a doctor's prescription, which ran afoul of Federal law.  The District of Columbia also adopted one, but that was quashed by Congress.)  Once it was conceded that marijuana could have beneficial effects, the days of locking up people for selling it, let alone using it (at least in small quantities), were pretty much over.  Last year, Colorado and Washington decided to go the full Monty and legalize it for those who don't have even the sketchiest medical claim to support their need for it.  So what's going to happen?

Nobody's real sure.  Portugal's relaxed its drug laws over a decade ago, and the parade of horribles that opponents trotted out didn't come to pass; Lisbon hasn't become a Mecca for abusers, and drug use has actually declined.  That was decriminalization, though.  This is legalization.  I don't think there's much question that you're going to see increased usage, not because it's more readily accessible -- it's not too difficult for anyone to find marijuana now, and if you're in high school, it's almost impossible not to find it -- but a number of people do not use marijuana simply because it is illegal.  That barrier has been removed.

It'd be nice to think that the only downside to that is more people sitting around engaging in hours-long debates about whether Yoko Ono really broke up the Beatles.  Indeed, there's some basis for that belief.  The next person who dies from overdosing on marijuana will be the first, and I think you'd be hard-pressed to find a cop responding to, say, a domestic violence call, who'd prefer to be confronted with someone high on grass than someone drunk on Jim Beam.  While Washington has already reported an uptick in drivers stopped while high, even that's a mixed bag.  (Okay, so that pun was intended.)  While there's no question that being high, especially being really high, can seriously affect your driving, studies, like this one by Business Insider, shows that marijuana doesn't have nearly the effect on driving skills as does alcohol.

The real question is, where do we go from here?  There's a strong libertarian argument behind marijuana legalization -- that you should have the right to do what you want with your own body -- but that argument can be extended beyond marijuana.  That can be coupled with the pragmatic argument that we should be treating drugs as a medical problem, not a legal one, and that the War on Drugs is just as abysmal a failure with regard to cocaine and other drugs as it is to marijuana.  But you're not going to be able to make the argument that heroin, say, is no more dangerous than alcohol or tobacco; there were over 200 deaths from heroin overdose in Cuyahoga County last year, a 24% increase from 2012, and more than from homicides or car accidents. 

And then, of course, there's the "me" question:  what's going to happen to criminal defense lawyers without the income stream from defending marijuana cases?  Well, it wasn't that big a stream to begin with (more like a rivulet), and Washington state lawyer Hilary Bricken of the Canna Law Group might point to some new opportunities for lawyers arising from legalization of the Demon Weed.  Her firm provides advice for businesses entering the marijuana sales field, and her efforts just earned her the award for 2013 Top Deal Maker by the Puget Sound Business Journal, to say nothing of Marijuana Industry Attorney of the Year at the inaugural DOPE Industry Awards.

That would look mighty good sitting on your mantel, wouldn't it?


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