Justice Stevens: Smoking pot akin to drinking during prohibition

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In his dissent on a recent free-speech case, Justice John Paul Stevens wades into the war-on-drugs debate, comparing modern-day pot smokers with “otherwise law-abiding patrons of bootleggers and speakeasies,” during the prohibition era.

Stevens, who the Washington Post notes turned 87 on April 20, said the current climate surrounding the war on drugs “is reminiscent of the opinion that supported the nationwide ban on alcohol consumption when I was a student.”

The Supreme Court this week ruled against an Alaska student who displayed a “BONG HiTS 4 JESUS” sign at an event outside his high school, and Stevens wrote the dissent for the four justices who believed the student’s free-speech rights should be protected.

“Today the actions of literally millions of otherwise law-abiding users of marijuana, and of the majority of voters in each of the several States that tolerate medicinal uses of the product, lead me to wonder whether the fear of disapproval by those in the majority in silencing opponents of the war on drugs,” Stevens wrote.

Most debate over the efficacy of the war on drugs focuses on government crackdowns on users of medical marijuana, for whom the drug eases chronic pain. But in comparing pot smoking to social drinking, Stevens suggests that the drug could be legalized in all cases.

In his opinion, Stevens insists “no one seriously maintains that drug advocacy … can be prohibited because of its feared consequences.” Later, Stevens observes the shift in Americans’ views on alcohol since the 1920s and 30s.

“While alcoholic beverages are now regarded as ordinary articles of commerce, their use was then condemned with the same moral fervor that now supports the war on drugs,” Stevens writes.

In a 2005 case, Stevens wrote for the court’s 6-3 majority that upheld the federal government’s right to prosecute medical marijuana patients in states that have legalized medical use of the drug.

But his opinion was based strictly on Congress’s ability to regulate interstate commerce, and that opinion included mention that credible research showing marijuana could be medically effective would “cast serious doubt” on the government’s classification of the drug as a Schedule I narcotic. And he all but encouraged the advocates to take their argument directly to Congress.

Nick Juliano
Published: Wednesday June 27, 200

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