02 June 2006


Roxtar over at Black Sky Theory has an interesting post up regarding every American’s right to legal representation under the law, no matter how petty or horrific the crime committed. He’s a criminal defense attorney, which has to be one of the hardest jobs on the face of the Earth.

And yet it’s vital. I don’t think anyone wants to see a murderer or rapist or child molester walk free, but that person still has right to a defense. The fact is, he might be innocent. If he’s not, the idea is that truth will prevail and he’ll be punished. While it’s not perfect, I think our criminal justice system is successful that way.

But not all crimes are horrific or deserve harsh punishment. Roxtar:

“... in the criminal justice system, there are certain things that grind on me like nails on a chalkboard. Chief among these irritants is a certain prosecutorial insistence that people be sent to prison for victimless crimes.”

He explains his irritation by pointing out that most, if not all, of us have committed crimes of some sort at one time or another, which means that we are, or have been, criminals. A good example he offers is that we might have purchased illegal drugs when we were still youthful and immortal. Maybe we still engage in this illegal activity.

His point is that we are considered criminals under the law, but we have harmed no one except, perhaps, ourselves. And yet if we’re caught, there’s a good chance that we’ll be sent to prison, perhaps for a long time.

“... the people who sentence our fellow criminals to spend months or years in a ‘correctional facility’ often see these people as being so fundamentally different and dangerous that society can only be protected from them by locking them up. The prosecutor, for example, has typically never had a conversation with someone accused of a crime, much less actually represented a criminal defendant. And yet, he stands straight-faced and recommends that a fellow citizen be sent to the penitentiary for 2 or 4 or 6 years for vending some vegetation to a willing neighbor.”

[ ... ]

“I work as hard and argue as passionately on behalf of the murderer and the molester as I do on behalf of the nickel-bag dealer; my obligation to my client demands nothing less. (You may be surprised, by the way, to know that the defense attorney is the only guy in the system who has no obligation, and little opportunity, to see that justice is done. Our job is to give our clients a zealous defense. ‘Justice’ is left to the judges and prosecutors, who all too often equate ‘justice’ with ‘retribution.’)”

His post got me thinking about something that’s bothered me for a long time. Here I am, being a bleeding-heart liberal again (and proud of it, dammit!), but I just don’t understand why American society treats marijuana users as criminals – and does, indeed, often send them to prison for extended periods as punishment for their “crime” -- but turns a relatively blind eye to the chronic user of alcohol.

If the alcohol abuser gets into his car and drives drunk, he’s just become a criminal under the law. If he beats his wife or children while under the influence, or attacks someone in a drunken rage, he’s considered a criminal – but only if charges are brought. But the use of the alcohol is not, in and of itself, considered a criminal act. Alcohol is cheap and legal.

As a journalist, I hear about or see the sad results of alcohol abuse often. The local sheriff’s log is filled, weekly, with reports of domestic violence, and more often than not, alcohol played a major part in the violence. Just as often, though, the victim of the violence doesn’t press charges – and so the perp isn’t subjected to justice in the form of penalties for his bad behavior and is free to continue drinking and abusing his family. Domestic violence is by far the most frequent offense reported, seconded only by vandalism (generally alcohol-inspired), drunken driving and theft of property.

In the comments, I asked Roxtar this:

“In your experience as a criminal defense lawyer, do you see any decrease in the ‘bloodlust’ among prosecutors, judges and juries to send decent people ... to prison for the spliff in his cigarette pack? And do they, I wonder, take the same harsh attitude toward someone who got shitfaced drunk and destroyed property or hurt others?I've always thought that the penalty for smoking a gentle joint and mellowing out vs. the non-penalty for drinking a pint of whiskey and getting mean was surreal in our society. When I was a young thing, I figured by now we'd have ironed this one out. (sigh)”

His response:

“I see a lot of police reports, and I can assure you I've never seen anything along these lines: ‘The victim stated that her boyfriend came home, sparked up a joint the size of a panatela, and proceeded to smack the shit out of said victim.’”

My point, exactly. I, too, have never seen that particular report in a police log. And I peruse them every week.

There are arguments against the legalization of marijuana. Most of them refer to it as a “gateway” drug, one that hooks and then propels the user into the dark underworld of much more harmful drugs, such as methamphetamine or cocaine or heroin. Addiction to those drugs is terrible and expensive, which often means the user is compelled to rob and steal from others to get enough money to buy them and feed their vicious habit. And for some people, it may indeed be a “gateway” drug. I’m not sure how well that argument stands up.

Another argument is that marijuana is “bad” for the user’s health. Well, duh. We all know what the word “pothead” means when we hear it. And yet, honestly, I run across very few “potheads” as I move through daily life. This is in spite of knowing for a certainly that a percentage of the people I see in the grocery store probably do smoke a joint now and then for some recreational relaxation, just as a far greater number of them go home after work and drink a beer or a cocktail. Alcohol is also bad for the user’s health. Both substances “kill brain cells.”

The only difference, to my mind, between marijuana and alcohol is that alcohol use is far more prevalent – and instead of making the user very relaxed, contemplative and extremely unlikely to work up the energy and effort required for lashing out against whoever’s handy, alcohol makes some people as mean and potentially violent as rabid dogs. And alcohol can have an equally devastating effect on people’s lives as hard drugs, if it becomes an addiction. Marijuana, in contrast, is a “gentle” drug. It causes introspection and quietude. And munchies, of course.

I’ve known many, many alcoholics. Not all of them were violent, of course – the drug (and it IS a drug) takes people in different ways. But most of those I’ve known have slowly destroyed their lives and the lives of the people they’re closest to, anyway. Having been married to an alcoholic for several years – a man who never became physically abusive, but who was frequently verbally abusive and out of control when he drank, and a serious danger to others if he managed to get behind the wheel of a car – I know first-hand the extent of harm alcohol can do. Alcohol can also compel people to commit other crimes, including theft, rape and murder.

I’ve just never seen this happen with those who use marijuana. They tend to be gentle souls – and the drug intensifies that.

All this is a roundabout way to get back to my original thought, which was to wonder why we demonize marijuana but accept and even condone the use of alcohol. As far as I’m concerned, alcohol is the ruination of far more lives, both the lives of the users and the people they’re close to. And yet we’ll toss the marijuana user into jail for even possessing it – they don’t need to be under the influence.

Am I wrong? It’s a puzzle I guess I’ll never be able to solve.


roxtar said...

As Deep Throat famously advised:

"Follow the money."

Sales of beer and booze generate lots of tax revenue upon which our legislators rely in setting budgets. The feds lubricate state and county governments with gushers of dough for DARE programs, "Drug Task Force" grants, etc. If marijuana was legalized tomorrow, that money would stop flowing, and state and local governments would be laying off cops and teachers left and right.

Marijuana is still seen as the demon weed, while the booze industry sponsors baseball, concerts in the park, and most of our major holidays. I can stroll to the drugstore and buy a gallon jug of whiskey....enough to kill me if consumed within a short time. But if someone passes me a joint at a concert, I've committed a crime. As recently as 2001, possession of any amount of marijuana was a felony in Nevada. It pisses me off beyond words, and I don't even remember the last time I smoked any pot.

And let's not even talk about the liquor lobby......

Blue Wren said...

You're right, of course. And I did know this, though it makes me ashamed for all of us.

Being a die-hard idealist, I can imagine a society in which people don't get drunk and drive, or browbeat or physically beat their families, or slowly but surely lose themselves and everything they once had -- or might have had -- because of a drug. I imagine a society in which people are simply better to each other than this, and making the almighty buck doesn't come first and foremost.

I remember long ago reading a book for young people called "The Forgotten Door," in which the protagonist was a boy from another world who fell through a magical forgotten door into this one. He was bewildered by the meanness with which people treated each other, and bewildered by the concept of money, which his people did without because they bartered with each other for neccessities. They helped each other.

I was most impressed with the story. When I told my Dad about it, and explained why I liked it, he said, "But sweetie, what you're talking about is Utopia, and in this world, that's Communism."

Communism! I knew that had to be very, very bad. And yet the idea stayed with me. It was, I think, a very subversive book for its time. ;o)

I'll continue to hope, if you don't mind.

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