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Pot debate heats up at Aspen Ideas

Scott Schlafer
Special to The Aspen Times

Although Colorado voters approved the legalization of marijuana as a recreational drug during the November election, the debate continues.

On Monday morning at the Aspen Institute, as part of the Aspen Ideas Festival, Ethan Nadelmann, founder and executive director of the Drug Policy Alliance, squared off against former Drug Enforcement Administration head and U.S. Congressman Asa Hutchinson over marijuana legalization.

Hutchinson argued that scientific research illustrates various negative side effects of marijuana use, including memory loss and addiction, and that smoking weed acts as a gateway to abusing other drugs. However, Hutchinson was not opposed to medical marijuana use and was actually in favor of prescribing patients with pot when their symptoms may be alleviated.

“Smoking cigars, smoking cigarettes and smoking marijuana give you carcinogens,” Hutchinson said, adding that it “is clearly an adverse consequence of smoking marijuana. … As a parent who’s raised three sons and a daughter, you worry about these things. Every parent knows the adverse health consequences.”

Nadelmann contended that those side effects are almost nonexistent for the average, occasional pot smoker as opposed to those who are addicted to weed.

“There’s very little evidence showing that the occasional use of marijuana is problematic,” he said. “So much of the war on drugs has inflated the harm of marijuana by focusing on the heavy waking-and-baking consumers and ignoring the fact that most people who use marijuana don’t have a problem with it, aren’t hurting anyone else and are going on to live perfectly fine and otherwise law-abiding, respectable lives.

“In fact, we can look at three people who have used marijuana when they were younger, and now they’re in the White House. So if we want to talk about pot being a gateway, maybe it’s a gateway to the White House.”

Although Nadelmann is an avid supporter of marijuana usage, he said the most important message he aims to convey through the Drug Policy Alliance is not to take drugs. Instead, Nadelmann advocates legalizing marijuana to protect youth from getting criminal records for simply smoking a joint, not because he thinks smoking pot is a good thing.

“Two months ago, a Pew poll found for the first time in four decades of polling on the issue that a majority of Americans (52 percent) support the legalization of marijuana. In addition, roughly equal numbers of Republicans (57 percent) and Democrats (59 percent) said that the federal government should not enforce federal marijuana laws in states that permit its use,” according to the Drug Policy Alliance website.

Hutchinson also noted that many people in favor of legalizing marijuana actually are opposed to a large federal government. However, he argued that legalizing pot would consequently create an even larger federal bureaucracy to regulate the laws. Nadelmann replied by pointing out the successful marijuana regulation in the Netherlands over the past 30 years.

“We should treat marijuana more or less like we are treating alcohol and cigarettes — strong, smart, public-health measures, proper taxation, restrictions on time and place and good education,” Nadelmann said.

Although the states of Colorado and Washington have voted to legalize marijuana, any legislation regarding legal pot consumption runs afoul of federal law. Therefore, the federal government still must decide how it will handle marijuana in these two states as well as others that may follow suit in the next election. With dozens of arguments to be made on both sides of the issue, it remains unclear how exactly marijuana legislation will be dealt with on a statewide and national scale.

Scott Schlafer is working as an editorial intern for The Aspen Times through July.


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