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Cannabis Conversation

Students and profs weigh in on Calif. proposition to legalize marijuana

On Nov. 2, California might just become the envy of Bob Marley fans across the country. Proposition 19, a measure that proposes legalization of marijuana possession for adults 21 and over, has blazed up more emotional reactions than iPod lighter apps at a Palo Alto High School dance.

Many Stanford students view Proposition 19 — which is slated for the Nov. 2 California statewide ballot — as a natural step in light of California’s budget issues, growing cultural acceptance of marijuana and the dangerous aspects of many currently legal drugs, such as alcohol and OxyContin.

“I think it’s really exciting that California might take this step to be more responsible with substance abuse issues,” said Brian Anderson, a Stanford medical student who donated money to Yes on Proposition 19.

Fifteen states currently support legal medical marijuana — with Washington D.C. recently joining the list — but California stands poised to be the first state to legalize personal, recreational use. Proposition 19 would allow for regulation and taxation of marijuana much like alcohol today.

Driving under the influence, selling to minors, using in public or smoking in the presence of minors would remain prohibited.

“As someone involved in medicine I think this is not just a political thing but a medical thing, and having drugs more regulated and hopefully from safer sources is a great thing for public health,” Anderson said.

While many state politicians still refuse to take strong stands, groups ranging from the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People to the American Civil Liberties Union to the United Food and Commercial Workers Union, as well as a number of police chiefs and district attorneys, have endorsed Proposition 19. Increasing publicity surrounding addiction to legal substances, such as painkillers, in concurrence with marijuana becoming more mainstream in popular culture, has opened a wider variety of groups to the idea of legalization than ever before.

Many students seem to agree that in comparison to the dangers of legal alcohol, keeping marijuana banned makes little sense.

“People are more impaired [and] more likely to do things that would hurt others around them when they’re drunk than when they’re high,” said Brittany Huggins ‘13.

Statistics back up the dangers of alcohol, with some citing more than 85,000 alcohol-related deaths in America per year, as well as medically related issues such as fetal alcohol syndrome, exacerbation of domestic violence and traffic accidents. However, for the simple reason that marijuana is currently illegal, few reliable studies on its effects exist. Should Proposition 19 pass, therefore, California will serve as something of a great American experiment.

“I think if California is the first to do it, a lot of states will follow,” said Nicole Brooks ‘11.

Proposition 19, however, may have more than just political effects. If marijuana becomes legal, estimates from the Research and Development Corporation show the drug’s price may drop by 80 percent, establishing the Golden State as a nationwide dispensary of marijuana at Costco-like prices.

Proponents of legalizing marijuana believe it will decrease gang violence and Mexican cartels, but Keith Humphreys, professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences, believes it may actually create stronger gang activity in smuggling cannabis across state lines.

“If our price drops 80 percent, all the drug rings are going to do the smart thing and set up operations in California,” Humphreys said. “They’d be foolish not to.”

Humphreys, who served last year in the Obama administration as senior policy advisor at the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy, has worked to reduce criminal penalties for crack cocaine and other drugs. He believes that states have a lot of work to do in creating humane drug policy, but that Proposition 19 would likely hurt public health by giving rise to new marijuana mega-corporations, in the model of Big Tobacco.

“This law hands another product to market to tobacco companies or creates a doppelganger that will lobby with them,” Humphreys said. “I don’t want to see some 16-year-old kid who smokes a joint have his life ruined, but . . . this law is not just legalized use, it’s legalized corporate ownership [and] legalized marketing.”

Humphreys predicts that tobacco companies, which have been poised and ready to accept cannabis into their product line since the 1970s, will align their aggressive marketing tactics and billions of dollars in lobbying power to gain control of cannabis in California.

“It’s taken us 40 years to bring tobacco companies even modestly to heel, and tobacco still kills 40,000 people per year,” he said. “How about let’s show we can regulate one industry that sells an addictive plant before we take on another.”

Is legalization of marijuana a step toward common sense and greater personal freedom or a submission under the heels of powerful corporate interests? Either way, the impetus of California’s budget crisis, coupled with the lure of tax revenue from legalized marijuana, takes the issue out of morality and emotion and into the realm of cold, hard cash.

To a state drowning in debt, the $14 billion in underground cash flow that marijuana currently generates in California runs frustratingly untouchable. If legalized, state tax collectors estimate new revenue up to $1.3 billion per year.

“Proposition 19 is a great thing for California,” Brooks said. “It might not be the best way to solve the deficit, but I don’t think Proposition 19 would hurt it.”

The illegal activity policy at Stanford tends to focus on safety and trust rather than on policing every infraction. However, would state-sanctioned marijuana use lead to students lighting up on every rooftop, tendrils of smoke smothering Hoover Tower and Introduction to the Humanities books left unread by dilated pupils?

“I’m kind of surprised that as an institution, Stanford hasn’t started gauging student interest on the issue,” Brooks said. “I would hope that Stanford would at least have a discussion — for example, we have AlcoholEdu but no DrugEdu.”

While overall, Stanford students trend toward either favoring Proposition 19 or apathy — in typical Stanford political form — knowing they’ll be able to rely on a comprehensive set of University guidelines in the event of legalization is reassuring to many.

But even without Stanford intervention, the unwavering belief in Stanford students’ ability to moderate themselves, to keep that duck paddle going through temptation, remains strong.

“The amount of people doing stupid things on marijuana will increase for a short time, but once people get over the shock it will go back down,” Huggins predicted.

“I think more people would be willing to try it if it weren’t illegal,” she added. “But a lot of people would stop because it would no longer be such a rebellious thing.”

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