BY SARAH MCGONIGLE
The Harvard Law School Forum kicked off its academic year Tuesday by sponsoring a speech by the founder and current executive director of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws (NORML), Keith Stroup. Stroup’s speech, which at turns drew laughter and sober silence from the audience, argued forcefully for the legalization of marijuana. About 35 attended the presentation at HLS Tuesday night, including HLS and other students, and local supporters of NORML.
NORML supports the decriminalization of marijuana use, including “the removal of all penalties for the private possession of marijuana by adults, cultivation for personal use and the casual, nonprofit transfers of small amounts” of marijuana, according to its organizational literature.
Stroup noted that “tens of millions” of Americans have used marijuana recreationally, making it the most popular narcotic besides alcohol and nicotine. “Clinton, Gore … Newt, I don’t know about the current team, but if there’s a book out there saying that [Bush] snorted up half of Bolivia I would assume — I don’t have personal knowledge — but I would assume that he would have” used marijuana “a time or two,” he said.
The “point about this is that we need to be careful that we don’t assign ourselves a goal that is unobtainable. We should be developing a social policy that makes a distinction between those drugs that are … safe and those are far more dangerous, and try to direct people” to those safer drugs, Stroup reasoned.
Stroup also argued that it was only based on “ignorance, misinformation and prejudice that marijuana became illegal in the first place.” He recounted the 1937 criminalization in some detail, noting that the American Medical Association opposed the move and that the Marijuana Tax Act passed the House committee after “only two hearings lasting one hour — that’s entire time they devoted to finding out whether this was something we needed to illegalize in the first place.” Then, Stroup added, the bill literally “got 90 seconds of debate” in the House before passing on a voice vote.
This policy of “prohibition is a dismal and costly failure for a number of reasons,” according to Stroup. He detailed three specific reasons. “First of all, it is an enormous waste of resources that should be focused on … violent crime.
“What if we took the 7.5 to 10 billion we spend every year in a futile effort to identify and arrest marijuana users and used that” to fight more serious crime, he asked, noting that someone is arrested for marijuana possession or use every 43 seconds in this country.
Second, he argued, prohibition “invites [the] government into areas of our private lives that are simply inappropriate … There’s a lot of humor associated with legalizing marijuana … I like Cheech and Chong movies as much as anyone else. But [it’s] far more than about getting high — it really is about personal freedom.”
Finally, current U.S. policy “needlessly destroy[s] the lives and careers of” good citizens. Stroup brushed aside the notion that pot smokers are marginal, “weirdo losers,” and said that the time has come for the millions of upstanding citizen users to admit to smoking pot or at least demand that local politicians support legalization.
“We’ve got to break public officials of their addiction to war on drugs,” he said. NORML seeks to debunk the “myth of consenses” against recreational, responsible marijuana use.
One-L Chris Monsour asked Stroup if this policy extends to legalization of other drugs. Stroup replied that, “The vast majority of illicit drug users in this country are marijuana users — politically marijuana is in the mainstream … and in order to change laws in this country, you have to have mainstream support … so we elected [when we set up NORML] to focus on [legalizing] marijuana.
‘Let’s legalize marijuana and see what happens for a few years … I think inevitably we’d legalize other drugs.” But even if U.S. policy on heroin and cocaine never changes, Stroup said, “Let’s not waste our money and their lives by sticking [addicts] away in jail,” when we can offer treatment instead. Afterall, he exclaimed, compared to jailing an addict “it’s cheaper to send ’em to Harvard, for Christ’s sake!”