Gunning for Government Ganja

Another trend that is just as encouraging as the momentum toward accepting gay marriage is another classic hot button issue: the legalization of marijuana. We came close a couple of years ago in California, but discovered that outright legalization isn’t quite as accepted as limiting the drug for medical use. 16 states allow medical marijuana, including ours, and this idea is spreading. In New York 57 percent support legalizing medical marijuana, and State Supreme Court Justice Gustin Reichbach recently voiced support for allowing medical marijuana in his state, even admitting to smoking it himself to ease his suffering as he is treated for cancer. Such an admission has caused many judges to lose their jobs, but for now at least he seems to be all right. The tide may finally be turning.

This is not the first article written about why it’s dumb to ban pot. Yes, it can be used for good as in the case of medical marijuana. Yes, it’s your life and you have every right to smoke and drink, so why not get high too? You’ve also heard the reasons against allowing legal marijuana: the experts showing how long-term pot smoking can be even worse than long-term cigarette smoking, the driving fatality statistics, the comparisons between the aftermath of smoking a joint and drinking too much. You’ve heard it all. One day this will probably be a thing of the past, but for now we’re still fighting our way through it. There are those who simply cannot separate the outright legalization from allowing marijuana only in medical situations, which is why they will claim that medicinal marijuana is an excuse for potheads to gain easy access to the drug and for vendors to cash in with bogus clinics, giving out pot for fake illnesses.

Many people simply cannot stand the idea of permitting any form of marijuana, period. Some may even believe that allowing it in this case will make people more comfortable with it and, God forbid, lead to full legalization years down the road. For fear of the slippery slope, they don’t budge an inch. Inevitably the debate turns into whether or not we can accept marijuana as a legitimate commercial substance in our society, and this is unfortunate. The reason such laws exist is for people like Justice Reichbach, who live with a painful disease for which there is little hope of recovery (he has one of the worst forms of cancer, the pancreatic variety). And if concern about fraud were sufficient to deny certain people benefits, we would deny insurance claims to households, social security and Medicare to the elderly, and credit cards to working adults. We accept that some people break the law and that these things are nevertheless legitimate in society. The use of medical marijuana can make people’s lives better and it causes us no harm in the process.

After coming across the story of this judge from New York, I had two thoughts. First of all, the wrong people are fighting about this issue. Too often the legalization battle interferes with allowing this limited form of marijuana use. The people that should be arguing about it, and the people who deserve to speak, are the people who actually need it. More people like Justice Reichbach who have to suffer on a daily basis while they slowly die, whether from the disease itself or, in his case, the chemotherapy required to treat it. We owe it to them to stop forgetting about the people at the center of this debate, and the reason it’s being discussed in the first place.

The second thought I had applies not only to the issue of medical marijuana or even complete legalization, but to gay marriage and other hot button issues. When people we respect, who have a responsibility as leaders of our government or community speak up, things can change. President Obama has proven that with his statement in support of gay marriage. A public figure with a personal story can have a greater impact on a debate than a garden variety advocate like me. When our leaders speak up, they also demonstrate courage and conviction. Too many remain silent or say only what they must to stay under the radar or to take advantage of political reality in their respective corners of the world. But when they take a risk, as this judge did, they add crucial weight to a discussion that is watered down by constant repetition.

Kerry Wakely is a fourth-year Political Science major. He can be reached at kwakely@uci.edu.