Marijuana decriminalization compromise may be necessary in Pennsylvania

"Politics is not an exact science," explained the exalted 19th-century German Chancellor Otto von Bismarck. "Politics is the art of the possible."

Of course, Bismarck also said, "We Germans fear God, but nothing else in the world; and it is the fear of God, which lets us love and foster peace." So he wasn't right about everything.

In Pennsylvania, however, politics is indeed the art of the possible, and, more often than not, the possible depends on all sorts of things other than truth, logic, principle and the best interests of the governed. In reality, it depends on compromise, on demagogic fads, on symbiotic back-scratching, and on the money and other influences of greedy special interests.

For today, let's think about compromise.

I argued on Sunday that the only rational justification for either Prohibition I (alcohol) or Prohibition II (other drugs) was for the enrichment of criminals and the government authorities they bribe. That was prompted by a marijuana legalization measure proposed last week by state Sen. Daylin Leach, D-Montgomery. It would provide for pot to be sold, and taxed, in state stores to anyone over the age of 21.

The column focused on his proposal and on the background of the ungodly mess we call the war on drugs. I was astounded by the calls and letters that followed, because they almost unanimously supported legalization, although some zeroed in on my promise to discuss, "at another time," my own preferences on how to deal with drugs.

"You said you'll get into more detail about legalization in a forthcoming piece another time," said an email letter from Barry Lyons of New York City. "So I'll be looking forward to the new one."

When I thought about how drug laws might be changed, I had Bismarck in mind.

While I support Leach's legalization approach on principle, along with the controlled legalization of other drugs, I am pessimistic about the possibility of such laws being enacted soon, especially in the venal political atmosphere of Harrisburg.

Leach's new bill would provide for legalization of marijuana, period. Previously, he has introduced measures to allow the medical use of marijuana. Even if such legislation got through the Legislature, Gov. Tom Corbett has vowed to veto it.

Now, if you are a cancer patient whose suffering could be eased by medical marijuana, that veto will be your own fault. Where were you with a $1 million "campaign contribution" for Corbett, the way the gas-drilling industry came through for him?

Some changes, someday, seem inevitable, because absolutely nobody — except for the corrupt symbiotic establishment that profits from it — believes that the war on drugs is going well or serves any good purpose.

Simple legalization is too big a pill for Harrisburg to swallow. It may be given a chance in places like Colorado, where there is a climate of enlightenment and libertarianism, in contrast to Pennsylvania's political climate of steadfast stagnation (except when money changes hands).

In Pennsylvania, compromise may be the only way to get anywhere.

One example of compromise would be to decriminalize the possession of marijuana while keeping harsh penalties for its sale. That clearly would target the criminals who profit from selling contraband drugs, instead of targeting their victims, who now represent nearly all the people incarcerated in America for drug law violations.

An even more dramatic idea would be to make drugs available, in strictly controlled settings (a user could not leave until he or she came down from a high), the way heroin addicts were made less dangerous by methadone maintenance — before the basic thrust of that program was diluted.

To be effective, such clinics would let junkies come in and get their drug without the usual harangues from "therapists" or "counselors" who always talk in bumper-sticker patois. Then, once the highs subside, the junkies could leave, no questions asked.

I doubt such clinics would be popular with junkies, because there would be none of the hip socializing they like. That would not be the goal; the goal would be to undercut the street market. If free dope were available at a clinic around the corner, you can see what would happen to street prices.

The way to deal with the drug problem is not to make it an irresistible forbidden fruit. The way to deal with it is to reduce demand, which would lower prices and profits, which would destroy much of the market.

Previously, I've offered a parable that every parent will understand.

In a roomful of children, you place a plate of beans on a table. Saying nothing, you leave. Later, you bring in another plate of beans and tell the children, "Do not put any beans in your nose." Then you leave again.

Which scenario is more likely to result in noses full of beans? That same forbidden-fruit psychology works with junkies and potential junkies, all of whom, I believe, have the minds of small children.

Are any of the people in government thinking about what they're doing?

I am not saying that easy access to and possession of drugs would not be a problem. I think many drugs, including marijuana, are dangerous and can do great harm.

I am saying that nothing could be worse than the approach we have taken in recent decades. The Nancy Reagan "Just Say No" slogan was idiotic when she suggested it and it is even more idiotic now that we know what it has wrought.

The need for change is so obvious, it has to come. But the mighty establishment that wants to keep the current system as is may have to be overcome one step at a time.

paul.carpenter@mcall.com 610-820-6176

Paul Carpenter's commentary appears Sundays, Wednesdays and Fridays.

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