• Jeffrey Zalles

Marijuana is a gateway drug. It should be legal.

It was the beginning of summer vacation. My next-door neighbor and I, two innocent teenagers, broached the idea of trying marijuana for the first time. I had some friends whom I knew had already smoked it and so I contacted one who told me that, yes, she had a connection and could get some for us. The next day, she called to inform me that her contact was temporarily out of marijuana but that he had something called mescaline that he was sure we would enjoy. And thus, what began as a flirtation with marijuana turned into an all-night experience with a strong hallucinogenic drug and a decade-long membership in the illegal drug underground, a place populated by recreational users like myself, more serious abusers, full-blown addicts, and the dealers who provided us with all kinds of illegal substances.

Cannabis is something most people would consider mild and rarely addictive. In fact, studies have shown that there is a significantly higher risk of addiction associated with alcohol and tobacco. And like alcohol and tobacco, marijuana use does not make one crave harder drugs. Recently, a small number of states made cannabis products legal and several more are on the verge of following their lead. But the fact remains that marijuana is still outlawed by the federal government and illegal in most states, including North Carolina, so the only way to acquire it in these locales is through a dealer, someone who is willing to commit a felony for profit. A person who, like the twenty-something guy who provided me with mescaline that night, probably draws little distinction between selling cannabis and selling cocaine, opiates or hallucinogenic drugs, thus providing the user a path to harder drugs. Remove the dealer and marijuana ceases to be a gateway drug.

As prologue to today’s substance abuse landscape, consider what began here a century ago. From 1920 to 1933, the Eighteenth Amendment banned the domestic production and sale, but not the consumption, of alcohol. During Prohibition, the U.S. saw a significant increase in the use of narcotic drugs as gangsters, the notoriously violent dealers of that period, pedaled illegal drugs to their customers as a complement to, or an alternative for alcohol. Sound familiar? There is plenty of evidence that the prohibition of marijuana is contributing to our current opioid epidemic. Studies have shown a significant decrease in opioid use and overdose deaths in states that have legalized cannabis. And like it was a century ago, marijuana prohibition fosters a general disrespect for law enforcement by making criminals out of otherwise good and law-abiding citizens.

Let’s be realistic. Kids are going to try marijuana and there is little anyone can do to prevent it. As a parent, would you prefer that your child walk into a regulated and reputable dispensary to purchase cannabis or buy it from a disreputable drug dealer?

There are plenty of reasons to legalize marijuana. To insure its purity and prevent dealers from enhancing it with dangerous substances like fentanyl. To allow law enforcement to focus on real and violent crime. To stop the incarceration of non-violent offenders. To establish a tax revenue stream to better fund the war against opioids. And yes, even to make our borders more secure. But the best reason of all is to keep future generations safe and away from dealers and the lethal drugs they sell.

We need to legalize marijuana and close the gateway. Prohibition isn’t worth the risk.