Nancy Reagan’s famous “Just say no” slogan is starting to go out of style, at least as it relates to marijuana.

These days, the drug, which many studies seem to demonstrate is no more dangerous than alcohol, now sits smack in the middle of a debate about legalization. On Thursday, the founder of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws — or NORML — Keith Stroup (LAW ‘68), visited campus as part of his nationwide campaign to foster a dialogue about establishing more reasonable laws regulating cannabis use. While it would be foolish to rush head-on into any form of full legalization, it is high time that the possession of marijuana be decriminalized and reclassified as a civil offense.

As it stands now, marijuana possession carries criminal consequences in all but 13 states. In the District, for example, being caught with any amount of marijuana is a misdemeanor and can win you six months in jail and a fine of $1,000. In New Jersey, holding any amount under 50 grams can mean a similar penalty. In North Carolina, possession laws are even stricter; possessing one and a half ounces (or 42.5 grams) is a felony punishable by a discretionary fine and a year in prison.

All of these policies are startling when considering what we now know about marijuana’s physical and psychological effects. While marijuana, a drug that 42 percent of the country has self-reportedly tried, is certainly habit-forming, it has not been proven to be physically addictive. Moreover, there are no studies that definitively establish pot as a gateway drug. While smoking marijuana is probably not a healthy life choice, there is currently no evidence that links it to cancer or heart disease. A connection between marijuana use and stroke has been suspected, but never confirmed. Some studies have linked repeated marijuana use with anxiety, depression and schizophrenia, although it is uncertain whether the drug can actually trigger those issues, or if it just exacerbates existing problems.

What smoking or consuming pot does result in is short-term physiological and psychological changes that create a sense of euphoria. Some have claimed that this high correlates to violent behavior, but that belief is not widely accepted and is increasingly being disproven by new studies. In effect, using marijuana inhibits an individual in much the same way alcohol does: It slows reaction time, contributes to short-term memory loss and can bring on the munchies.

And yet, while alcohol is legal, marijuana is classified by federal law as a Schedule I controlled substance. The classification makes little sense, as the Schedule I category is meant to encompass all substances that have a high potential for abuse and that have no accepted medical use in the United States. As detailed above, no research has proven marijuana’s potential for abuse to be any greater than that of alcohol, and marijuana is frequently used as part of a variety of medical treatments across the nation. But despite these contradictions, the federal government has adamantly refused to reclassify the drug, and marijuana users, as a result, continue to face harsh and largely undeserved sentences.

Critics of the current laws prohibiting marijuana use lament the damage done to imprisoned marijuana users as a punishment that far exceeds the crime. Prison time, quite frankly, carries the risk of driving relatively innocuous citizens to involvement in more serious criminal activities.

More importantly, imprisoning individuals for marijuana possession unnecessarily increases an already bloated prison population. According to a June 2010 article in The Economistabout one percent of all American adults are currently behind bars, and federal prisons hold 60 percent more individuals than they were meant to.

Decriminalizing marijuana possession would ease the burden of that huge prison population and help save federal and state government funds. Endorsing NORML’s full legalization agenda would be premature. Much of the research on marijuana’s long-term effects is still being confirmed and NORML fails to account for issues such as the involvement of street gangs and druglords in the commerce of marijuana, the detrimental effects on brain health, and the effect broader marijuana use will have on the daily lives of Americans. But there is no reason to continue to lock people up for a crime that just shy of half the country has committed.

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