Saturday, October 10, 2009

The Limits of the Medical Marijuana Approach to Legalization

For more than a decade, the marijuana legalization movement has focussed much of its energy on getting marijuana legalized for medicinal purposes, rather than pushing for full-scale legalization. The movement has also focussed on changing state laws rather than federal laws, since the chances for success have seemed much higher at the state level.

This approach carries its own risks, as New Mexico's recent experience illustrates:

New Mexico’s new medical marijuana law was intended to provide safe, aboveboard access to the drug for hundreds of residents with chronic pain and other debilitating conditions. By licensing nonprofit distributors, New Mexico hoped to improve upon the free-for-all distribution systems in some states like California and Colorado, where hundreds of for-profit dispensaries have sprung up with virtually no state oversight.

But even in New Mexico, the process — from procuring the starter seed (in Amsterdam, via a middleman) to home delivery (by a former Marine) — is not for the faint of heart. Those engaged in the experiment here never know if they will be arrested, because growing, selling and using marijuana remain illegal under federal law. And robbery is always a fear.

The other problem with the medical marijuana approach to legalization is that it leaves the movement open to the charge of dishonesty. Many people suspect that medical marijuana advocates really want full scale legalization, and this suspicion is well founded. Many also suspect that a substantial fraction of medical marijuana "patients" are buying for recreational use, and this is also correct.

In my judgement, therefore, the legalization strategy with the best chance of broad, long-lasting success is one that states explicitly that government has no business interfering with any individual's drug use, whatever the reason for that use, so long as the individual causes no harm to others.

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