In a recent encounter, Edward Koch reminded his interlocuter that many years ago, Rep. Edward Koch had sought backing for a congressional investigation into the marijuana laws. I had been reminded by the former mayor of New York that along about 1967-68, the typical congressman had to reflect that any law requiring one or five or 10 years in jail as a penalty for being caught using marijuana endangered his own sons and daughters in college. Koch got the support he sought.
But no meaningful reforms, if that is the word we are permitted to use, were enacted. In 1967, all drug arrests came to 121,000. Of these, -- Hit marijuana arrests were one-half, 61,000. In 1991, all drug arrests were 1 million, marijuana 285,000.
Background data give us perspective. Sixty-six million Americans have smoked marijuana, and at least 10 million - perhaps many more - continue to do so regularly. Comparable figures? Twenty-two million have used cocaine, 1.5 million still do; 150 million have used tobacco, 50 million still do. In 1976, 12 percent of children age 12-17 had used marijuana during the preceding month. By 1990, this figure was down to 5 percent. Over age 26, the percentage had not changed: 3.5 percent in 1976, 3.6 percent in 1990.
The social vectors within the drug-law-reform movement have during the period since Koch asked for an investigation of federal marijuana laws moved as follows:
-The informed public is gradually willing to acknowledge a difference between marijuana and more lethal drugs.
-It is, however reluctantly, acknowledged that marijuana can have therapeutic uses, in particular to bring relief to those suffering from radiation or chemotherapy treatments for cancer.
-There is a gradual awakening of the moral sensibilities of the alert members of the public. My own belated arrival on the scene stings in the memory. It came with a letter from a father in his early 30s who neither smoked nor drank, who had three children, was gainfully employed, and engaged in civic-minded activity - but liked on Saturday nights, to retreat to his woodshed and smoke a joint. He was caught at it, arrested, his house seized, and is now in jail, and sentenced to 10 years. It is hard to understand the moral disposition of the prosecutor who asked for that sentence, and the judge who imposed it.
The National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws has a program, which is to bring on the legalization of marijuana by the year 1997. The president of NORML, as it is everywhere referred to, is a man of considerable literary and polemical skills. Richard Cowan is a graduate of Yale and a co-founder of Young Americans for Freedom. He is here and there given to hyperbole, as when he cites the support given to the Partnership for a Drug Free America (PDFA) by corporate America as "reminiscent of the support given the Nazis by German industrialists."
But Cowen is on to something, the root credentials of which are:
-However one feels about legalizing cocaine, the case for legalizing marijuana is an entire world removed from that question.
-The amount of money and of legal energy being given to prosecute hundreds of thousands of Americans who are caught with a few ounces of marijuana in their jeans simply makes no sense - the kindest way to put it. A sterner way to put it is that it is an outrage, an inposition on basic civil liberties and on the reasonable expenditure of social energy.
-The point must surely come when the American people acknowledge that the drive against marijuana is not proving anything at all, given the continuing availability of the drug and its (relatively modest) patronage.
Richard Cowan makes a telling point, namely that the media are notoriously insensitive to the abuses of the narcocracy. "Most people are unaware of the nature of the marijuana prohibition in America today, the extent of its cruelty and injustice, and the threat that it poses to everyone's freedom. Ironically, many of those who are aware of the extent of the problem view it as being so great that they despair of being able to end it. Consequently, as an act of triage, they abandon it as a lost cause, to work on something which they view as at least possible." Like what? The rehabilitation of President Clinton?