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Political Animal

The Smoke Clears

By Brian Morton | Posted 11/13/2002

Well, it went up for a vote, and it went down in flames.

Voters in Nevada, a state that already has legalized gambling and prostitution, had the chance last week to go for the trifecta and legalize possession of marijuana for people over the age of 21. The ballot measure, sponsored by the liberal billionaire drug-policy troika of financier George Soros, University of Phoenix founder John Sperling, and Ohio insurance magnate Peter Lewis, failed by a 61 to 39 margin.

In Arizona, a ballot measure to liberalize drug laws, which would have made possession of pot a misdemeanor subject to a $250 fine, failed as well, by a 57 to 47 margin. And in Ohio, voters overwhelmingly rejected an initiative on the ballot that would have mandated treatment instead of prison for first-time drug offenders.

The Ohio measure is an idea that might make sense in the long run. If there's any hope of cleaning up America's drug problem, it's getting more people into treatment. Drug treatment works; some argue that effective treatment plans beat the success rate for cancer treatment.

Treatment, however, has been held up by conservatives as a touchy-feely, lovey-dovey, soft-on-crime social program that does nothing but coddle criminals. Therefore, most of the nation's anti-drug budget gets shoveled into law enforcement and prisons. And if it were up to a simple majority of our nation's lawmakers (and given the way last week's elections went, it soon will be), more of that money will go toward the somewhat ridiculous effort to stop the drug trade by intervening in the affairs of sovereign nations to our south.

But that's just one side of the coin. It is interesting, if not downright amusing, to note that the people of Nevada, a state where you can smoke a cigarette damn near everywhere except perhaps at a gas station while refilling an open tank (and even then, we have our doubts), refused to legalize pot. Whereas, if you walked for a few hours into the desert west of Las Vegas, crossed the California state line, and lit up a cigarette, chances are good that a state employee would stride up, ask you to put it out, and hand you a ticket. Light up a joint, however, and you likely would qualify for health insurance and a pro bono lawyer in San Francisco.

Drug-policy reformers have known for years that if legalizing pot were ever put on the ballot, thumbs up or thumbs down, it would lose. Surveys over the better part of the last decade have shown that Americans don't want to legalize drugs, usually by margins that come close to 80 percent. That pot failed to pass in a libertarian-minded state like Nevada has got to be a cold dash of water in the movement's face.

And all other drugs aside, and no matter what your personal sentiments are about the weed, there are a few things to contemplate about the wholesale legalization of pot.

Let's stipulate that drugs are a public-health problem; that they are readily accessible and addictive puts a tremendous strain on this nation's resources. Then consider that the most dangerous drug in America--alcohol--is already legal. Think of what adding one more psychoactive drug to the mix would do.

Legalizing marijuana would make it more accessible, and more access means more users. More users mean more problems, and more problems mean more stress on the system.

The rising costs of prescription drugs aren't slowing down, the stuttering economy isn't helping the escalating costs of Medicare and Medicaid, and still too many Americans have no health care at all. And many of us think we can afford to legalize another drug?

On top of that, if there's one thing we know, it's that letting Madison Avenue sell addictive and psychoactive substances is something we don't need. Already, the liquor industry has begun violating their decades-old pledge against TV advertising. Why? Because revenues are down--people aren't drinking hard liquor like they used to--and the promises the industry made had an expiration date that came due the minute the profit margins started heading south.

So, combine the marketers' need to find new outlets for an addictive substance, the lack of real answers from both our politicians and our body politic on the coming health-care crisis, and the fact that we're already drowning, driving, and crashing in booze--why legalize pot?

One thing we do know for certain: The heavyweights of the lobbying industry, the insurance companies, would never allow outright drug legalization. The costs for all the above, plus the increase in accidents due to increased poly-drug abuse, would send their costs skyward. And in the America devoted to the Almighty Dollar, this would not stand.

So Nevada has stopped the train, for now. This doesn't mean that Soros, Sperling, and Lewis will halt their campaign to change the whole of America's drug laws. But it's nice to know for once that not everything, including public opinions, can be bought, no matter how alluring it might seem.

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