The recent example of several prominent conservative politicians explaining why they became cocaine users sheds an important light on a concept which has been the subject of much debate in America: the gateway drug.

I’ve long believed that imprisoning people because they decide to smoke marijuana, or help other people do that, is one of our worst public policies. It interferes with individual liberties; it spends an enormous amount of money on police, prosecution and prisons, and it has been enforced in the most discriminatory way, with class, race and age determining who is prosecuted and who is not.

In the absence of any serious demonstration that marijuana is debilitating to those who use it, a major argument against allowing adults to make their own choices in this matter is that marijuana is the gateway that leads people to more damaging addictions.

Leaving aside the rationality of our effort to deal with these other drugs by our current prohibitionist policy, there is, in fact, no evidence that marijuana plays that role. But that does not mean that there is no substance that may lead people to take their first steps on the path towards multiple addictions.

Conservative Mayor Rob Ford of Toronto and right-wing talk show host and newly elected Republican congressman Trey Radel of Florida have both recently identified the gateway drug that let them to cocaine: alcohol.

Both of these men explained their use of cocaine by noting that they only did it when they were drunk. There does not appear to be any exculpatory reason as to why they so regularly drank to excess in the first place, but for these purposes that is not the central question. The point is that these two prominent cocaine users apparently went right from alcohol to cocaine, without first stopping either at go or marijuana.

The fact that alcohol appears in these cases and many others to be the real gateway drug is not, of course, an argument for prohibiting alcohol. We tried and it worked very badly; but it is even less an argument for prohibiting marijuana, another policy that works very badly.

I have long disagreed with many of my friends on the left who blame elected officials for their failure to adopt policies more to our liking by lamenting the fact that the politicians lag behind the public in enlightenment.

In truth, I have not often found this to be the case. In my experience, the public generally gets what it wants from the political system, over the longer term, while vehemently protesting that this is not so.

Even as I join in lamenting the behavior of the majority in the House of Representatives recently, I am reminded of Tip O’Neill’s noting that no one serving in the House got there without being the choice of more voters than any other candidate in the most recent election. But marijuana appears to be one case where the critics of the political class get it right.

Overwhelmingly, voters have disagreed with the notion that we should treat people who smoke marijuana as criminals.

To the dismay of the marijuana prohibitionists, the results of these steps toward legalization have been benign. In those jurisdictions where marijuana has been legalized in general, as it was in Washington and Colorado, or made available for very broadly interpreted medical purposes, or treated more as a minor offense than a crime, there have been no outbreaks of marijuana-induced violence – no significant increase in people getting into accidents while puffing, and no apparent upswing in cocaine and heroin use brought about by people entering through the marijuana gate.

There is an issue to which marijuana can be analogized: same-sex marriage. In both cases, prohibition embodies the objection that some people have to other people engaging in activity of which they personally disapprove.

Rather than admit that what they are seeking to do is to regulate the individual behavior of their fellow citizens, even when it has no impact on them, the antis in both cases have claimed that terrible social consequences will result from letting people enjoy their freedom. And in both cases the results have been entirely contrary to those predictions.

The final prohibition argument, of course, is that we must prevent adults from smoking marijuana because we do not want children to do it. That of course is also an argument for total prohibition of alcohol; for a much more rigid censorship of sexually oriented books and movies; and for banning a wide variety of other activity, which in a civilized society we allow people to do when they reach a certain age.

In closing, in the spirit of fairness, I want to make one concession to those who would link marijuana to harder drugs. There is a connection between marijuana on the one hand and cocaine, heroin and substances like PCP on the other: the law.

By treating all of these substances as illegal, we create a linkage that does not otherwise exist. The only example we have of a step-by-step progression for marijuana into more serious drug use is the one that we have created on our statue books.

Barney Frank is a retired congressman and the author of landmark legislation. He divides his time between Maine and Massachusetts.

Twitter: @BarneyFrank

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