This is not a column for or against the legalization of marijuana. Full disclosure: I don't smoke - anything.
This column is about the inconsistencies of our national norms and laws when it comes to the regulation of things and substances considered dangerous by our society.
I find it interesting, for example, that many of the same people who want to outlaw marijuana don't want to regulate guns or, for that matter, chemical tanks in West Virginia. Guns were used to kill 11,419 Americans in 2013. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, an average of 31 people die each year in incidents related to the smoking of marijuana. Clearly, it seems, guns are more dangerous to people than marijuana.
According to the CDC, Viagra kills about 250 men each year, three times the number of marijuana related deaths. Also, Ritalin and Adderall, frequently prescribed to our children with behavior problems, kill as many people each year as marijuana.
Alcohol kills about 75,000 Americans each year, yet it is legal to produce, distribute and sell. About 40,000 babies are born disabled each year because of pre-natal exposure to alcohol. Clearly, alcohol appears to be more dangerous than smoking marijuana.
The collateral consequences of the prohibition of marijuana have been devastating to millions of American families. More than 8 million marijuana-related arrests were made between 2001 and 2010, according to freelance writer Adam Serwer. Interesting, while blacks and whites use marijuana at about the same rate, blacks are arrested for possession at four times the rate of whites, according to the ACLU.
Fifty years ago, the surgeon general announced that cigarettes were killing tens of thousands of Americans each year. Today, according to the 2014 Surgeon General's Report, we know that cigarette-related illnesses kill about 480,000 Americans each year and cost taxpayers between $289 billion and $333 billion a year for medical care and lost productivity.
The tobacco industry settled a class action lawsuit for $246 billion for knowingly selling a product that killed people while lying about its health effects. Yet, cigarette executives live rich and luxurious lives, while millions of Americans suffer the health consequences of their very dangerous, but legal, product.
Meanwhile, tens of thousands of Americans sit in prison cells - 25 serving life sentences - for growing or smoking a plant that at least three presidents, Bill Clinton, George W. Bush, and Barack Obama smoked.
"It doesn't make sense." said David Zlotnick, former assistant U.S. attorney and an expert on drug sentencing laws at Roger Williams University School of Law in Rhode Island. "If we're not sure whether this drug should even be an illegal narcotic, why are we sending people to jail for life for it?"
Is marijuana a gateway drug to heroin and cocaine? It might be for a small minority of people. But the same can be said for cigarettes and alcohol. A study by the National Institute of Health found that 71 percent of drug users smoked cigarettes.
The U.S. National Academy of Sciences reports that marijuana, unlike cigarettes, has medical benefits. The drug has recently been observed to help young children with rare seizure disorders. It is helpful for veterans suffering from post-traumatic syndrome. Cancer victims struggling through radiation and chemotherapy treatments find that marijuana reduces their nausea and appetite loss. It is also used to reduce pain and anxiety. Who knows what other medical and mental health benefits will be discovered now that scientists can study its effects with larger samples of people.
I don't know what the long-term consequences regarding the legalization of marijuana could be. Studies in Colorado and other places where it is now legal will provide us with important information. Then, we may make intelligent decisions on this issue. Meanwhile, it is difficult to make the argument that we can continue to smoke cigarettes, drink alcohol and own guns, but smoking marijuana is too dangerous for our health.