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An unnecessary choice

The controversy swirling around the medical marijuana dispensary issue in Pagosa Country, and elsewhere in the state, is more interesting when we consider the ground out of which it grows. The fact state law determines such businesses can exist, but does so in an ambiguous way, and in seeming opposition to federal law and policy, reflects a deeper and expensive problem.

As for medical marijuana in general, the key question is, Why not? If the substance has medical uses and is prescribed by a physician, why not? If you answer “It’s dangerous, the gateway to addiction,” ask yourself what your response would be if a loved one was suffering from a condition the drug could alleviate? Would you deny them?

The absurdity is that a patient cannot obtain medical marijuana from a pharmacy, just as they do other prescribed drugs. What is wrong with our way of thinking here?

We find the root of our collective approach in the intellectual and moral confusion that has long accompanied an attitude about drugs that approves of some substances (many of them much more dangerous than marijuana) and disapproves of others. The nation learned a lesson in its aborted prohibition against alcohol; it has never managed to transfer that lesson to a bigger classroom.

Is it possible we have been on the wrong path and that our journey leads us to quandaries such as the medical marijuana issue?

The “War on Drugs,” begun by Richard Nixon, has now cost the American people more than $1 trillion over four decades time. More than 37 million people have been arrested for committing non-violent drug offenses and the U.S prison population has more than quadrupled during that time, to where the U.S. now has the highest per capita incarceration rate in the world.

Has this worked?

An estimated 30 million Americans smoke marijuana. Federal sources state that marijuana is the number-one cash crop in California — ranking ahead of vegetables and grapes. In 2006, American marijuana growers grew an estimated 22.3 million pounds of pot, with an estimated value of $35.8 billion. The DEA Domestic Cannabis Eradication/Suppression Program eradicated an estimated 33,000 cultivation sites and 2,071 indoor sites per year 2001-2005. To what end?

Could it be the problem here is in the fact we work, and spend, counter to reality? We accept certain drugs, we prohibit others. In denying some, we make them enormously profitable. Where there is illegal money, there is violence. Where there is illegal money, there is no taxation of profits, no revenue that could be used to support a sane outlook on drug use, with money used for education and rehabilitation.

We need to ask ourselves: Should marijuana use be a law enforcement problem in any other way than, say, alcohol? Is drug use a right for adult Americans and drug abuse a public health problem? (It is certainly a right for the millions dependent on legally prescribed drugs.) Should the role of law enforcement be one that enforces prohibitions against select drug-use related offenses — such as driving under the influence or public intoxication — or is the role to monitor more and more of what individual Americans do in their private lives, without harm to others?

Tough questions, but ones we need to address. We have been pouring money and lives down the drain for too long, with too few positive results.

In the meantime, with the county passing the buck to the town on the question of dispensaries, town officials have a tough decision to make. The responsible decision must hinge on a legal opinion defining the town’s liability in a situation that comes at the crossroads of conflicting and ambiguous laws and policies, and the desire on the part of compassionate people to facilitate aid to those in need. We sympathize with the council and we wish we were not the backward, contradictory herd we are — one that makes the decision necessary in the first place.

Karl Isberg