An Alternative to 'Draconian' Drug Laws

The Mail

(The writer, a graduate of the College and the Law School and formerly a Lecturer in Government at Harvard and M.I.T., is Chief Judge of the United States District Court for the District of Massachusetts and an Honorary Senior Fellow of the Society of Fellows.)

To the Editors of the CRIMSON:

Wholly in my capacity as a Harvard alumnus, I write to urge that the leaders of undergraduate opinion at Harvard organize effectively to deal with what is commonly known as the marihuana problem.

At the outset, let me declare that I am confident that in many respects the public exaggerates the evils associated with the use of marihuana. Occasional use, considered strictly from a health standpoint, apart from social consequences, has not been demonstrated to be deleterious. One may assume (although this has not been clearly proven) that the physical welfare of an individual is at least as gravely prejudiced by occasional use of alcohol and constant use of cigarette tobacco as by episodic use of marihuana. However, if consideration for the moment be confined only to the physical consequences of marihuana (apart from all social and legal implications) it must be recognized that constant and large dosage of marihuana is debilitating, reduces energy and motivation, and promotes dependence on others rather than vigorous participation in the social order.

Whether the use of marihuana has a physical connection with the use of other drugs such as heroin, cocaine, and LSD is beyond present proof. Undoubtedly, those who are willing to experiment with marihuana have a disposition which would lead them in many cases to experiment with more dangerous drugs. Also the purchase of marihuana often brings one in contact with sellers of more dangerous products who either through ordinary commercial exploitation or through subtle blackmailing pressure, induce customers to acquire new types of dangerous drugs which they have not previously had. Some of these more dangerous drugs are addictive and not a few of them have been demonstrated to have done grave injury to the persons using them, in some cases to their offspring, and in some cases to third persons who are in the area where the users drive automobiles or otherwise are in control of instrumentalities capable of inflicting harm.

Many of the arguments which are presented against marihuana are specious. It is, of course, absurd to argue that because most users of heroin first used marihuana, marihuana is proven to be a usual preliminary step to heroin addiction. One might as well say that because most users of heroin once imbibed milk, milk leads to heroin addiction. The true inquiry is what percentage of marihuana users become heroin addicts, and as to that we seem to have no reliable information.

Undoubtedly for those who use marijuana so frequently and so excessively as to become social derelicts, society pays a large cost. In the first place, these unfortunates use either private or public resources for their medical and social care. In the second place, and of greater consequence, our relatively limited medical, hospital, and welfare personnel and facilities used for those victims of marihuana are unavailable for others whose illness or poverty is more deserving of our compassion. The social balance sheets bears charges which ought not to be in the reckoning.

From the foregoing facts, it does appear that the marihuana problem is of social and not merely of private consequence. J.S. Mill to the contrary notwithstanding, there is no such thing as a vice which is purely private in its total aspect. He who over-indulges in any way with respect to drugs, with respect to food, to liquor, with respect to sensuality, alters the lives of others than himself and his private associates. He is unavailable for civic obligation which rests upon him. He bears a responsibility for the unavailability of social and medical services gravely needed by others.

Yet against the impressive consideraitions just stated, one must weigh--and in my opinion weigh more heavily--vice. Every attempt of the law to detect, prosecute, and punish wrong represents an expenditure not merely of time, effort, manpower, and money, but also a concession to the forces of coercion as distinguished from persuasion. Moreover, law enforcement in the area of what some regard as private morality and private consumption almost inevitably entails the use of despicable or, at any rate, unworthy enforcement measures. Informers, undercover operators, blackmailers, and often corrupt enforcement authorities have opportunities far more dangerous than in the suppression of conventional types of crime.

In the end, liberty tends to be sacrificed for the supposedly greater advantage of health, safety, and morals. To some, including myself, the sacrifice is inconsistent with our ultimate political beliefs.

For these reasons, it would seem to me highly desirable if the legislative authorities, national and local, were to revise the present laws with respect to marihuana, with their Draconian penalties. But I recognize that, as Charles Morgan phrased it, "Liberty is the room created by surrounding walls." And it is for the legislature to draw the lines of what is to be permitted as an open area of choice and what is to be prohibited as a social evil. So long as the legislature outlaws the possession of marihuana, the use of the drug, even in moderation, is fraught with the gravest personal risks. Only the foolhardly would find the pleasure of marihuana out-weighing the pain of prolonged imprisonment. The consequence now provided under Acts of Congress for possession and, more particularly, for what is denominated smuggling (but which in fact means possession coupled with a jury inference that the marihuana was imported) should deter any thoughtful person.

In this review I have as yet not addressed myself to what is the most difficult aspect of the marihuana problem. For reasons which need not detain me, the use of marihuana has become a symbol of revolt by the young against their established elders. It has in many places taken a symbolic importance, particularly because those of my generation so deplore its use and are themselves so unwilling to discriminate between that which is inherently evil in marihuana and that which is not proved to be evil but merely undesirable.

The only way in which, so far as I see, the marihuana problem can be effectively dealt with, is by an intelligent, candid, courageous program originating in and furthered by the young. It is the peers of the users of marihuana who will have to find a solution for the problem.

What seems to me required is that, acting on their own initiative, leaders of undergraduate opinion and leaders of the same age but not from academic cloisters should carefully consider in their own forums and through their own organizations and through specially created mediums of expression and forms of association a policy and a plan for its execution.

Conservative idealism is the badge of youth. Society renews itself from the oncoming generation. Liberty and order rest more upon the harnessing of adventurous insights than on a mere repetition of ancient patterns. Charles E. Wyzanski Jr. '27