December 4, 2013

Greg Kesich: Controls needed if marijuana is legalized

History shows there are strategies that work and others that fail miserably in limiting harm from abusing intoxicants.

I have a drug I want to market.

It’s an anti-anxiety medication that, when used as directed, eases social awkwardness, enhances pleasure and sometimes leads to a mild euphoria. It has a secondary benefit of improving circulation, according to some studies.

But it has a few downsides you should know about. It’s addictive and it’s toxic.

Common side effects include nausea, dizziness, disorientation, loss of balance, impaired judgment, depression and violent behavior. Less common side effects include hallucinations, liver damage and tremors. Pregnant women should avoid it at all times because it’s known to cause birth defects. All users should refrain from driving or operating heavy machinery while under its influence.

Do you think I can get it past the Food and Drug Administration?

Probably not, but since alcohol is not a new drug (you guessed, right?), it’s available on every corner in America for people over the age of 21, and in plenty of places for people who are younger.

Now public support is growing for legalizing marijuana, another mildly euphoric agent that also comes with some side effects (for one, it gets you stoned).

Unlike alcohol during Prohibition, marijuana is banned only by federal statute, not a constitutional amendment, and could be made legal tomorrow. But you won’t have to wait for Congress to act. States are likely to follow the lead of Colorado and Washington and legalize it in defiance of federal law. Maine has already passed referendums that made medicinal pot legal, and then legalized a dispensary system and caregiver network to distribute it.

A local referendum in Portland this year “legalized” possession by adults of less than 2.5 ounces within the city limits, which has no practical consequences, but does put Maine’s biggest city on record as having a solid bloc of pro-legalization votes. The Legislature isn’t touching the issue this session, but that won’t stop pro-pot organizers from moving forward with a citizen-initiated referendum campaign, which, if previous votes are any indication, would pass easily.

That doesn’t give us much time to figure out how to manage the new drug, and our experience with alcohol should be a good guide.

We have been trying to control its misuse for more than a century, first by amending the Constitution to ban it, and then amending it back when that nearly caused a second Civil War. Since that experiment, we have taxed and regulated booze, over time growing stricter about the legal age for use and the penalties for driving when under its influence.

It’s the most overused drug in our society, fills our jails, sucks billions from our economy and causes untold misery. It’s not just policy on illegal drugs that should be updated, but our approach to alcoholism also needs attention.

If prohibition doesn’t work, what does?

Education works. Regardless of the drug, accurate information about the real consequences of its use, put in terms that people of all ages can understand, makes a difference.

Treatment works. Addiction doesn’t have to be a life sentence. If people are given the support they need, many choose sobriety, and that shouldn’t be a choice just for people who can afford it.

Law enforcement works. Tough laws about giving drugs, whether it’s a shot of heroin or a keg of beer, to young people with still-developing brains send a powerful message. So does the tough enforcement of impaired-driving laws.

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