JHU Politik hosted the second part of its Politik Conversation Series on Sunday evening, with participants engaging in a lively discussion about the pros and cons of changing the legal status of marijuana in the United States.
“I’m really interested in this issue of whether or not minimizing drug use is a societal good —and if it is a societal good, then is legalization probably the best way to do it? —maybe, but then what else do you have to do to minimize it?” Jeremy Orloff, co-editor-in-chief of JHU Politik, said.
The issue of medical marijuana was a major focus of the discussion. A common refrain was that medical marijuana laws in the States are frequently misapplied.
“On the medical marijuana issue, obviously for people who are dying of cancer and suffering, I have no problem,” Matt Varano, co-editor-in-chief of the JHU Politik, said. “I view the medical marijuana issue as kind of a ruse, to be honest, for people who want to buy marijuana in states where it is otherwise illegal.”
Much of the event focused on the distinction between decriminalizing possession of small amounts of marijuana and entirely legalizing the substance. The cost of the Drug War was also a frequent talking point.
“[I’m] from Chicago, and it was recently decriminalized in Chicago this past summer, and I know most of the youth culture surrounding marijuana almost treated that as legalization. I think a lot of people were like, ‘Oh, it doesn’t matter whether we get caught, nobody is going to say it’s a big deal,’” one participant said. “The debate between decriminalization and legalization is very interesting because the line is very blurred, particularly for younger generations.”
Other participants cited rapidly shifting public opinion polls on the marijuana question. For the ﬁrst time, polls show that a majority of Americans are in favor of some sort of legalization legislation.
“Given that society is moving toward a more mainstream acceptance of this, it just depends on how much we go about achieving this policy goal,” another participant said.
However, not everyone in the debate was willing to accept that viewpoint.
“I agree that public opinion is definitely moving in that direction, but I would challenge the premise of its inevitability. I think if you look at a number of nations who have taken steps to decriminalize or legalize some of these drugs, the percentage of people post-decriminalization or legalization that support that measure has actually declined rapidly to the point where it is in the low thirties,” senior Stuart Johnson said.
More than one participant compared the federal laws targeted at marijuana to prohibition. Another topic that came up frequently was the incarceration of millions of people over the course of decades for drug offenses as well as what some said was the unequal treatment of different socioeconomic classes with regard to the possession of marijuana.
“When things are against the law, what drives up the cost of something? It’s about how much money you can make. Look what happened during prohibition. We created a whole industry of criminals. For people who are poor this is something that can be money making because it is illegal,” a participant said.
Others disagreed, saying there were legitimate differences between alcohol, tobacco and marijuana that warranted different rules and regulations. Participants cited studies about marijuana as a gateway drug and the “slippery slope” toward decriminalization and legalization of other “harder” drugs.
“If this has been tried elsewhere, what lessons can we learn from [other nations]?” Johnson said.
This discussion took place as Maryland moved to decriminalize possession of small amounts of marijuana.
“I think this recent decriminalization is great progress for Maryland. The War on Drugs has been an absolute failure. The United States spends more than $50 billion per year on the Drug War while drugs are more available and drug cartels are more wealthy than ever,” Suzy Yaster, Hopkins College Democrats Co-President, wrote in an email to The News-Letter. “At the same time, we have a mass incarceration problem, where African Americans make up 67 percent of those sent to prison for drug offenses despite comprising only 13 percent of illegal drug users. I think the recent legislation is a step in the right direction, and reﬂects frustration with the War on Drugs and its damaging effects.”