Article Jul 7, 2015

The face of legalized pot

They were everywhere: Slouched on park benches. Lollygagging in doorways. Strumming guitars. Asking passersby for money. Pretending to stop passersby for other reasons and then asking for money.

This is the face of legalized pot.

At least it’s the face I encountered during a recent stay in the hip downtown area of a state where recreational use of marijuana was recently made legal.

Most of the locals I talked to don’t care much one way or the other about the legal status of pot. But they do care that what was supposed to be a privately exercised freedom has become public—very public. For despite the fact that it’s not legal to smoke in public, such regulations have little teeth when aimed at wanderers more likely to move on to the next town than show up for court or pay a fine.

Of course, every city has its share of vagabonds and homeless folks. But I’ve never seen them assembled in such numbers. And as sad as the sight of a mentally ill person muttering to himself on the street is, it’s that much more dismaying to witness so many otherwise able-bodied young people wasting away in a haze of smoke and sun, taking refuge from time to time in coffee shops and apartment complex foyers to crash or charge their iPods and smartphones.

I suspect this isn’t what the public signed up for in approving the legalization of recreational marijuana use. Legal is one thing. In your face is another.

Not that the old way of criminalization was working.

On the one hand, I know a sweet little old lady, one who taught Sunday School her whole life, who bought pot on the black market some years ago in order to bring relief to a loved one dying of cancer. On the other, when I was a teenager, pot was far easier to obtain than alcohol, and I smoked more weed than it is comfortable for me to admit. I know firsthand the quiet despair of the drug-addled soul. But more than the regrets I have today over the harm my actions caused to myself and others, I’m haunted by the goodness I missed out on.

The War on Drugs has had, at best, mixed results. According to one report,

Drug convictions went from 15 inmates per 100,000 adults in 1980 to 148 in 1996, an almost tenfold increase. More than half of America's federal inmates today are in prison on drug convictions. In 2009 alone, 1.66 million Americans were arrested on drug charges, more than were arrested on assault or larceny charges. And 4 of 5 of those arrests were simply for possession.

Most agree that this incarceration epidemic has created more problems than it has solved. This is largely why Colorado, Washington, Oregon, Alaska and the District of Columbia have legalized recreational use of marijuana. Other states will likely follow suit.

But legalization and over-crowded prisons aren’t the only solutions. It’s not either/or. It seldom is. Indeed, the necessity of prison reform throughout the history of the modern prison system (a relatively recent invention in human civilization) has been the mother of social invention.

Now is the time for the kind of creative solutions to a drug and prison problem that will advance human flourishing and social good. The failed War on Drugs—and the counter-response of more liberal drug laws that may also be poised to fail—offers a great opportunity for the church, once more, to cut a clear path between justice and mercy to the abundant life.