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Oregon should pursue legal, responsible use of marijuana.

Byline: GUEST VIEWPOINT By John Daniel

It looks as though Oregonians will be voting this fall on medical marijuana reform (Register-Guard, May 21). We should be voting, as Californians will, on legalizing pot altogether.

There was a big bust a while back along our rural Lane County road. Sheriff's deputies seized more than 600 cannabis plants and more than 50 pounds of harvested weed. They took into custody six ambitious gardeners.

My wife and I had never laid eyes on them. Good neighbors, in our book. Quiet. Industrious. They made no trouble for us and we made none for them.

Many argue that marijuana is trouble, for individuals, families and communities. Many believe, spouting platitudes of the War on Drugs, that pot farmers are doing something heinously evil.

Those many are wrong. My personal tastes run more toward whiskey and martinis, but pot would be far easier on my liver. And pot is vastly safer than tobacco, which takes - quite legally - close to half a million American lives every year.

Yes, regular users can develop respiratory troubles - our lungs were not designed for smoke of any kind - and they can become psychologically dependent. They can become couch potatoes, but that condition, clearly enough, requires no drugs at all.

Of the many addictions Americans are prone to - alcohol, tobacco, television, cheeseburgers, cell phones, prescription drugs - cannabis ranks not far above coffee in risk to its users and those around them.

It is a mild intoxicant. It tends to gentle those who take it rather than coarsen them. It encourages friendly association. For many, it opens the heart to delight.

But children are smoking it, some protest. They are indeed, and anyone concerned about that should examine soberly our present policy of prohibition. All the eighth-graders in Lane County can acquire pot more easily than beer. The beer they must steal, or persuade someone of age to buy for them. The weed they can buy any day at school.

We could better control marijuana among kids if we treated it like beer or whiskey: legalize it, sell it in Oregon Liquor Control Commission stores to customers 21 and older (most users won't grow their own), and tax the hell out of it, allocating the revenues to education and treatment for problem drug users of all kinds.

Given the scale of their operation, it's a sure bet that my ex-neighbors will be doing serious prison time. They'll have plenty of company. One federal prisoner in six is locked up for a non-violent, pot-related crime, a few of them doing longer stretches than some murderers. States deal out even harsher penalties: in some, marijuana offenders can get life in prison.

This disproportionately tough treatment is not driven by any real danger to society. It is driven by an ongoing cultural backlash, beginning in the Reagan years, against the real and imagined excesses of the 1960s and '70s counterculture.

The War on a Certain Few Drugs is payback. And its out-of-control legal enforcement, armed with forfeiture laws, routinely tramples constitutional rights in ways that would send Americans into the streets in protest if the victims were other than accused drug users and providers.

How much sense does it make for a fat man to declare a War on Doughnuts in order to control his weight? The drug economy runs on demand. Where demand exists, despite the penalties, there will be growers and providers.

I'd sooner have neighbors and my local liquor store in those roles, not Mexican cartels with their violence even now spilling over our borders.

I offer three propositions toward an improved public dialogue:

1. Self-intoxication, by one means or another, is something humans have done for millennia and causes no behavioral or health troubles for most. It is not a sign of bad character, moral failure or social illness.

2. We can't make policy on "drugs." Marijuana, psychedelics, heroin, methamphetamine, cocaine and prescription medicines are a motley array, and each needs to be addressed individually.

3. Prohibition of marijuana has failed, at enormous cost in law enforcement, incarceration expenses and trashed civil rights. Legal, responsible use is a more realistic goal, and much more in keeping with the personal freedoms that define us as American.

John Daniel of Elmira (www has won two Oregon Book Awards and a Pacific Northwest Booksellers Award. His most recent books is "The Far Corner," a collection of Northwest-related essays.
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Title Annotation:Local Opinion
Publication:The Register-Guard (Eugene, OR)
Date:May 25, 2010
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