With Tuesday’s Democratic presidential debate and the Republican presidential debates over the last few weeks, mainstream political candidates have finally been able to give some answers about the War on Drugs and marijuana legalization. Mass incarceration and lack of access to medicinal marijuana are largely responsible for Americans placing this issue, among others, front and center on the political stage. Unfortunately, many in the political arena still feel that some degree of criminalization is necessary, often citing anecdotal evidence as reasoning for either haphazard reforms or the sustenance of our current draconian drug policies.
The two primary examples that come to mind are those of Republican presidential candidate Carly Fiorina and former congressman Patrick Kennedy (D-RI). In the last Republican presidential debate, Fiorina responded to a question on marijuana policy reform saying, “My husband and I buried a child to drug addiction.” She then added, “We must invest in the treatment of drugs,” rejecting the propositions of legalizing marijuana for either recreational or medicinal purposes.
While Fiorina’s harrowing experience of losing a child is tragic, her invoking of this travesty in her argument against legalization of the drug is fallacious for several reasons. For one, her daughter, Lori, died from a lethal combination of alcoholism and prescription drug abuse, making this anecdote irrelevant to the conversation. Furthermore, there has never been a recorded death or overdose from marijuana, so the health concerns are completely blown out of proportion. Perhaps most importantly, the fact that Fiorina has been close to someone who has struggled with drug abuse, as sad as it is, does not make her an expert on either drug addiction or drug policy.
Then there is Kennedy. Kennedy was a Democratic representative for Rhode Island’s 1st district from 1995 to 2011, serving a tenure in office fraught with struggles involving addiction. After getting into a car accident while under the influence of the prescription drug Ambien, Kennedy completed a stint in rehab for an addiction to OxyContin in 2006; he again checked into rehab three years later in 2009. Since his sobriety, Kennedy has consistently advocated against the legalization of marijuana, lobbying on behalf of his group, Smart Approaches to Marijuana. Often citing his own struggles with drug abuse – which, like those of Fiorina, had nothing to do with marijuana – we again have the problem of anecdotal experience being used as a metric for expertise on the issue.
While the aforementioned political players’ anecdotes are compelling, it is important that we use empirical evidence when drafting our drug policies. Marijuana has a nine percent addiction rate — less than that of alcohol — and no reported overdoses or deaths. Moreover, you will discover the egregious racial disparities in terms of who gets arrested for the drug — whites and blacks use the drug at roughly the same rate, but black people are arrested over three times as much for possession. Not to mention the fact that, with regard to medicinal marijuana, many people have had to move states in order to obtain the drug that can greatly assist many patients in their treatment.
While anecdotes may touch hearts, they do not always speak for the facts. Given the United States’ serious problem with mass incarceration – we currently make up 5 percent of the world’s population and almost 25 percent of the world’s prison population – and the need for medicinal use of marijuana, it is imperative that we reform our drug laws. Marijuana legalization is a good first step as it increasingly garners favor in public opinion polls, so when debating the issue of legalizing either recreational or medicinal use of the drug, we need to look towards the empirical data, not the moving stories.
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Email Jonathan Patrick Haynes at [email protected]