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Pat Robertson should stick to television evangelism. His recent pitch to legalize marijuana and make it as available as alcoholic beverages in order to bring down incarceration rates in the United States is other worldly. Contrary to Robertson’s belief that legalizing marijuana will reduce our nation’s incarceration rates, the fact is that only 2 percent of all inmates are incarcerated for marijuana possession as their controlling or only offense.
Indeed, legalizing marijuana will likely increase criminal activity. Some two-thirds of incarcerated felons (1.5 million) meet the medical criteria for addiction and marijuana is commonly one of the first steps on the road to other drug addiction.
Most violent felonies, such as murder, rape and aggravated assault, occur when the perpetrator is high or drunk, and the lion’s share of property crime involves people seeking money to buy drugs. And the legal drug alcohol that Robertson wants marijuana to be treated like is implicated in more violent crime than any other substance.
The notion that taxing sales of marijuana will provide a windfall for our public coffers is another (bong) pipe dream. For every $1 of taxes on tobacco and alcohol, our nation incurs $9 in state and federal health-care, criminal justice and social-service costs. These costs will skyrocket if legalization becomes the norm, increasing the drain on our public coffers.
As with cigarettes, we know a lot more about marijuana today than we did a generation ago. Today’s marijuana is no harmless herb: it is 10 times more potent than the marijuana of the 1960s, ’70s and ’80s. Nora Volkow, director of the National Institute on Drug Abuse at the National Institutes of Health, says, “There is no question marijuana can be addictive; that argument is over. The most important thing right now is to understand the vulnerability of young, developing brains to these increased concentrations of cannabis.”
I can’t understand why an evangelical leader like the Rev. Robertson, who claims to be so devoted to protecting the young in our materialistic, instant-gratification, sexually-charged modern society, would want to legalize a third drug like marijuana, when we have shown such little ability to keep our two legal drugs, tobacco and alcohol, out of the hands of our children and teens.
Nine out of 10 Americans who meet the medical criteria for addiction started smoking, drinking, or using other drugs before age 18. Forty-six percent of all high school students currently use addictive substances and a third of them meet the medical criteria for addiction. I can’t believe that Rev. Robertson wants to increase that proportion, but that’s exactly what his suggestion would do.
In World War II we used to say, “ Loose lips sink ships.” In debates about the war on drugs, loose lips can sink children and teens.
Parents and teachers, clergy, and everyone involved in a child’s life should understand that marijuana is a risky and addictive drug with serious health and social consequences. Rev.Robertson, before you speak again on this subject please remember this: Drugs are not dangerous because they are illegal; they are illegal because they are dangerous.
Joseph A. Califano, Jr., is the founder and chairman emeritus of The National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse at Columbia University.
He was secretary of Health, Education, and Welfare during the Carter administration and chief domestic policy aide to President Lyndon Johnson.