Craig: Legalize it? |

Craig: Legalize it?

by Steven Craig

Should legislative policy always reflect the majority position on a given issue? Must the criminal penal code reflect the perspective of the general will, or do legislators have a duty to vote their conscience?

These questions have gained greater relevance with data from a recent Rasmussen Reports poll that shows that 43 percent of Americans favor legalization of marijuana, not just for medical purposes but for general recreational use. While this number does not constitute a strict majority, it does represent a plurality with only 42 percent currently opposing such a change to the nation’s drug policy. With 15 percent still undecided on the issue, this is the first time support for marijuana legalization has outnumbered its opposition.

So what exactly do we do with this information? Should the federal government finally “legalize it,” as Peter Tosh urged in his 1976 song? While there may indeed be a case to be made for legalization, legislators should cast their vote not based on public support but on what they believe best serves the public interest.

Certainly there is a case to be made for marijuana legalization. Basic civil liberties and the American notion of freedom alone should preclude prohibiting an activity that harms only the participant. Furthermore, there is substantial evidence that marijuana use is far less harmful and addictive than alcohol and tobacco products that are legal. Finally, what has propelled much of the momentum for marijuana legalization has been the prospects of taxing the substance in order to bolster state coffers at a time when they desperately need the help. The website estimates tax revenues generated by legalization could top $778 million. This would be in addition to the savings derived from lowering the $14 billion spent on enforcing drug policy (legalizing marijuana would take out only a dent from this budget) and the cost of dealing with the over 700,000 arrests annually for mere personal possession.

There is a downside, however. In addition to the basic health issue, there are social costs associated with recreational marijuana use, many of which are difficult to tabulate. There are the health care costs, the loss of worker productivity, and the increase of crime currently seen around dispensaries. This is what makes being an elected official so difficult. They must carefully perform a social cost/benefit analysis for any potential legislation based upon the arguments mentioned above.

What should concern all of us, regardless of our stance on this issue, is the basis upon which these decisions are actually being made. As public support has increased, some legislators have finally displayed a willingness to move forward on the issue, though the dynamics of the debate have not shifted that prominently.

Worse than blindly following public opinion, however, is blithely ignoring it due to the more tempting influence of corporate lobbying. Marijuana legalization would significantly impact the sales of alcohol or tobacco, so it is hardly surprising that these industries spend millions to prevent any potential legislation. In 2009 alone, these industries each spent roughly $20 million on lobbying, with $3 million coming just from Anheuser-Busch. Only with the legalization of medicinal marijuana in some states has the marijuana industry been capable of a comparable lobbying influence.

And so we are left in some sort of ambiguous legal limbo. Here in Summit County it takes a lesson in civics to comprehend the layering of federal, state and local legislation and how they impact each other, leaving the police in an increasingly untenable situation. Wherever your position, it is important we urge our elected officials to grapple with this issue and then move forward with a comprehensive legislative policy that is in the best interest of the people.

Steven is a Silverthorne resident, educator, husband and father of two, and vice president of the Summit County Library Board. He can be reached at

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