Going Up in Smoke?
Opinions differ on laws on use of marijuana, medically and otherwise.
In Oklahoma, the law is almost simple — marijuana is illegal.
But the issues behind America's most fought-against drug are much more complicated.
“The drug war is very profitable,” said Ron Shewey, president of the Drug Policy Forum of Oklahoma and advocate of Oklahoma's Compassionate Care Campaign.
“The police and prisons are the two largest growing industries in America today,” Shewey said.
“We've now got 2.2 million people behind bars in America. We're No. 1 in incarceration per capita in the world, and a substantial amount of that is drug war. Here in Oklahoma, 32 percent of our prison population is there for drugs.”
In 2002, there were 11,167 arrests for marijuana in Oklahoma, just more than 50 percent of all drug arrests for the year and 6.7 percent of total state arrests, according to the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws (NORML) Almanac of State Marijuana Statistics.
“The thing about cannabis, or marijuana, is it's actually one of the least harmful substances that people use, if you compare it to tobacco or even prescription drugs,” Shewey said. “I guess the distinct difference is that tobacco kills about 270,000 people a year.”
Shewey added that diet kills about 330,000 people a year, while alcohol kills 430,000 a year.
“The government's statistics show us about 17,000 people a year die from all illicit substances combined,” he said. “But marijuana has never killed anybody, as far as anyone knows.”
Shewey said 12 states have passed laws allowing medicinal marijuana. Oklahoma is not one of them.
And while Shewey said the Oklahoma Compassionate Care Campaign has received grants to analyze the legislature's interest to pass medical marijuana legislation, state representatives don't see that happening any time soon.
“There would have to be a big educational effort with the public because the public still views marijuana in the same class as other dangerous drugs,” said District 44 State Rep. Bill Nations, D-Norman. “What happened to marijuana is that, it may be much more innocent than methamphetamine and heroin, but in the '60s, it got put into that dangerous category of drugs.”
Nations said individuals who are arrested, fined and even incarcerated for marijuana possession are not necessarily being helped by the criminal justice system.
“The state budget would be better served if we treat a substance abuser,” he said. “The incarceration system only better educates abusers about how to abuse. They come out worse.
“We also incarcerate the mentally ill who need treatment and not incarceration. So our system is not as enlightened as we'd probably like to have it be.”
That's one reason State Rep. Thad Balkman, R-Norman, has supported drug courts and treatment plans in Oklahoma, helping to allocate $8 million last year and $8 million more this year.
Still, Balkman said he doesn't favor changes in marijuana laws.
“I'm not real high on marijuana, no pun intended,” he said. “I've seen far too many times when individuals and families have had their lives destroyed by substances abuse ... by alcohol and marijuana. And lots of times, they've told me it all started with experimentation with alcohol and marijuana.”
Asked if there is a way to use marijuana responsibly, Balkman said, “Not that I'm aware of. I don't think there is.”
“I'd equate it to the binge drinker,” he said. “There's the guys that go out on Friday nights who have a couple of beers, drink responsibly and then go home. But then there's the guy who starts with a beer, has a couple of shots, a few more beers, some more shots and then he's three times the legal limit, and then he's on the verge of death because he's abused alcohol — that's what I equate it to.”
Nations also said an argument exists for marijuana to be treated like alcohol.
Ralph Hamerla, Honors College professor, said it is socially counter-productive for marijuana smokers to be deemed criminals.
"Decriminalization is not a bad idea in my point of view,” Hamerla said. “I've been to a lot of countries around the world, and the way we treat things here is a little asinine and pointless ... and expensive. But a lot of people have a lot invested in the war on drugs.”
Hamerla teaches a perspectives course in the Honors College called, “What is Science?" Students recently read the book, “Marijuana Myth, Marijuana Fact" for the class and discussed how statistics and analysis have been manipulated to vilify the substance since the Harrison Narcotics Tax Act in 1914.
“People's lives are destroyed by this,” Hamerla said. “Not by the actual item itself, but by the policies we choose to subscribe to in this country regarding its legal status. You can look at the history of marijuana and see where all these laws come from. They're clearly geared to demonizing the substance for the purpose of someone's career goals.”
As for the state of marijuana in Oklahoma politics, Hamerla said there are several reasons for resistance to decriminalization or medicinal legalization.
“It's going to take generations. I would argue, in this situation, the culture has to change first,” Hamerla said. “Resistance to the medical use of marijuana is as much a resistance to the doors that would open as to the danger of the drug itself.
“In other words, there's an accepted status of marijuana in the legal system today, and if that’s recognized as malleable in any way, that threatens to undermine its criminalization as it currently stands.”
Shewey's Compassionate Care Campaign is ultimately looking toward a ballot initiative.
Cannabis is said to have medicinal benefits, according to multiple private, state and federally funded studies. Several reports and studies are available on www.norml.org, the Web site of NORML.
Among other things, cannabis is prescribed for AIDS patients to reduce nausea, vomiting and appetite loss caused by the disease and by other medications. Cannabis is also prescribed to combat the same problems when they stem from chemotherapy.
The drug also has yielded positive results when used to reduce intraocular pressure in the eyes of glaucoma patients.
Balkman said he is unaware of marijuana having medical benefits.
But Nations said Oklahoma may eventually move toward medicinal legality, a thought which jives with Balkman's analysis that proponents of marijuana are becoming a more powerful special interest group in the state.
Still, Nations said Oklahoma's conservative tendencies will delay such a movement, even if it begins with medicinal legalization.
“Someone would have to say there's a legitimate need and use — here it is, and here's why we need to do that,” Nations said. “It would have to come from somewhere in the health care industry. It's not going to be very effective if there's a college student or a guy on the street claiming there's great medical benefits for marijuana. You're going to have to have doctors and medical professionals stand up and say that.”
The Daily left messages for several doctors working in internal medicine, contacted two, but was unable to find a medical professional willing to discuss the issue on the record.
Shewey said finding people in health care fields willing to tackle the issue is hard, but his group has the support of one doctor.
“The rest of the medical community is so afraid of the Feds and the [Drug Enforcement Agency], it just seems like they're just afraid,” he said. “They'll tell you privately that they know the benefits, but as far as here in Oklahoma, they're just afraid. But we need them to have courage to come out and endorse this campaign.”
By William W. Savage III