Slowly but surely the proponents of liberalizing our alcohol and drug laws are pushing for change. The Amethyst Initiative, the combined effort of 100 college presidents to lower the drinking age to 18, along with new efforts to decriminalize the possession of small amounts of marijuana, for example in my state of Massachcusetts, are gaining national attention and not being rejected out of hand. Could it be that we have reached a point in our rights-centered society where long standing barriers may be on the verge of being removed? I hope not.
The letter from the college presidents on lowering the drinking age was more of sign that they had given up trying to control alcohol use and abuse on campus. All this high minded babble from the college presidents about facing the reality of youthful drinking and pointing to the obvious- that current laws are not working – is just another way of throwing up their hands in desperation. Few of these presidents talk about zero tolerance policies or three strikes and your out rules or better yet expanding counseling services or even forming twelve step AA programs on campus. Their answer is to start a debate about bringing the drinking age down to 18 in the naive view that facing reality will transform the alcohol culture on campus. It won’t.
Then there is Massachusetts which wants to join twelve other states and decriminalize the possession of one ounce of marijuana and replace the prospect of arrest with a $100 fine. Proponents point to the needless arrest of 7,500 people early in my state and a saving of $30 million in arrest costs. Although most first offenders never are jailed and have their arrest expunged from the records, the advocates of decriminalization feel the time is right for a change. It is not.
Most law enforcement officials say that decriminalization may sound fair-minded and practical, but in effect what it will do is increase drug dealing, especially in the inner city, which can ill afford a new round of drug related crime. Of course young people, who are the primary users of marijuana, think this is a great idea, since the fear factor would be removed. But this proposed change in the law is not so much about leaving kids alone to smoke a joint as it is about the real prospect of new levels of criminal behavior. Decriminalization of marijuana will only lead to a whole new group of marijuana entrepreneurs ( drug dealers ) who will work on the fringes of legality to make a fast buck.
The so-called pragmatists out there claim that this nation needs to face up to the reality of underage drinking and illegal marijuana use. But this same group has never really worked to put in place systems of mentoring, peer pressure, self-help and yes punishments to deal with a burgeoning health and welfare problem among young Americans. The problem isn’t about having a few beers before 21 or smoking a joint in a dorm room on a Saturday night. The problem is the explosion of excessive drinking and pot use and its devastating impact on young lives and young futures. Lowering the drinking age to 18 and decriminalizing marijuana is only creating new opportunities to foster a national culture where getting loaded and getting high is shunted aside as a non-problem, when in fact it is a national epidemic.