Rod Sullivan, Supervisor, Johnson County, Iowa

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March 21, 2015

Sullivan’s Salvos     3/24/15

In this edition:

*RIP Terry Cunningham
*Time To Legalize Marijuana!
*Did You Know?

*RIP Terry Cunningham
         I was saddened to learn of the passing of Terry Cunningham. Terry was a longtime disability rights advocate, and chaired the Johnson County MH/DS Planning Council.

         While I respected Terry’s work on those important issues, my fondest memories will not be work related. Terry and I discovered we had similar tastes in music, food, drink, and politics… I’m saddened to know we will not be exploring that further.

         RIP, Terry.

*Time To Legalize Marijuana!
         This originally appeared in Salvos about one year ago, on 3-18-14. I have had a few requests to reprint it, so it appears below in its’ entirety.

It is time to legalize marijuana. This topic has gained traction over the past year, as Colorado and Washington legalized recreational use. We have even been talking about it here in Johnson County, which is quite a change!

         First, a disclaimer: I have never smoked pot. That may come as a surprise to folks who have known me a long time, as in my younger days I never shied away from a party. But the fact is, I have never used marijuana. I’ve been around it plenty; I just never indulged. So I speak as a person who has seen the effects of pot from up close, but never actually used the stuff personally.

         I also do not advocate anybody using mind-altering substances. If you choose not to use them, you are undoubtedly better off. More power to you. At the same time, I do not condemn folks who use responsibly. I feel that should be a choice individuals have.

         Even my disclaimer demonstrates the change in societal attitudes. In 1992, Bill Clinton felt the need to claim he “had never inhaled.” Since that time, people in public life have felt more comfortable admitting to marijuana use. This makes sense; studies show that between 35-45% of American adults have tried marijuana.

         I should also be clear as to what I am discussing. I am fine with the legalization of marijuana for medical use; I simply feel that is setting the bar too low. Same goes for “decriminalization”; I see that as a good step, but it does not go far enough. I believe strongly that hemp should be legalized, as it has huge industrial, economic and environmental benefits. But what I am really discussing here is making pot legal – period.

         Yes, there would be some restrictions. Children with developing brains don’t need the stuff. You should not be able to drive if you are so high as to be impaired. Current rules regarding smoking in public places should apply to marijuana just as they do to tobacco. Producers, retailers, and products should be regulated, licensed, inspected and taxed. So we are talking about a system akin to the existing laws governing the production, sale, and use of alcohol.

         People in the world of business are supposed to run ideas through a cost/benefit analysis. Many governments (including Johnson County) attempt to do the same. The legalization of marijuana comes out very favorably when viewed in terms of cost/benefit ratio.

         It can be argued that marijuana use negatively impacts many lives. There are undoubtedly people who have underachieved because of an overuse of marijuana. Is this a problem? Certainly.

         But weigh that versus the negative impacts on the lives of those who have been busted. Whereas simply using the stuff might make you a bit less productive, being caught tends to RUIN a person’s life!

         Getting busted can cost a person thousands of dollars upfront. But the REAL costs are over the long haul. Having a criminal record dramatically impacts one’s ability to find a good job and/or to get into a program of higher education. It breaks families apart. It stays with them forever. Why? Why do we choose to be so punitive in this case? Why do we choose to cost these people tens (or hundreds) of thousands of dollars over the course of their lives?

         In addition, these laws unfairly target the poor, the young, and people of color. There are many studies out there that show the percentage of teens and adults who use marijuana is virtually identical regardless of race. Yet people of color get busted at a rate EIGHT TIMES that of whites. Marijuana prohibition has done a lot to destroy black families. These draconian laws have set African Americans back generations.

         The ultimate cost, of course, is in human lives. While there is scant evidence that marijuana use has directly cost many lives, we know that marijuana prohibition has cost tens of thousands of lives. Again, I must ask – why?

         That is the personal cost, but there is also a huge societal cost. A group of over 500 top economists, including Milton Friedman, have estimated the cost of marijuana prohibition at $20 billion annually. $20 BILLION! That means it costs every man, woman, and child in the US $70 every year to maintain this silliness. That total is over three times the total annual budget for the State of Iowa. We’re talking real money here – money that could and should be put to better use.

         It should be noted that these costs, at least in Johnson County, do NOT include jailing. Contrary to popular belief, most inmates in the local jail are not there on pot charges. I’ve worked with folks who review the jail log, and I’ve never seen more than two people on any given day. (That does not mean there have NEVER been more than two, but in reviewing a dozen days, I’ve never seen it.) So just to be clear, legalizing marijuana would NOT obviate our jail overcrowding. OK – back to my main point.

         One of the arguments against legalization goes like this: “Then why not legalize every substance?” First, that is a red herring. Few folks are out there arguing to legalize everything. The push to legalize pot is based on the cost/benefit analysis. It is very favorable. Meth undoubtedly comes out much worse in a similar review.

A better argument, in my opinion, is that of the slippery slope. That reasoning claims that marijuana is a “gateway drug”, and its’ use will lead people to harder drugs. There is a great deal of literature on this, and there seem to be persuasive arguments on both sides. This is where I come back once again to the idea of cost/benefit. We know that alcohol would fit the definition of a “gateway drug”. But it is legal. Why? I think the US experience with Prohibition proved that banning alcohol was a bad deal from a cost/benefit analysis.

I’m tired of the timidity we see on this issue from our leaders. We know the laws are stupid. We know they unnecessarily cost us lives and money. There is no compelling reason to maintain the status quo. This is bad public policy, plain and simple.

I called for Johnson County to add legalization of marijuana to our State and Federal Legislative priorities this year. There were two votes for it; I needed three. I’ll try again next year. Meanwhile, I urge you to make this an issue with your elected officials at every level. The emperor has no clothes… it is time we said so!


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