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A Drug that Kills

The Kirkland shooting trial exposes the dangers in the disconnect between the health and legal consequences of marijuana

By The Crimson Staff

In May 2009, Justin Cosby, a 21-year-old Cambridge resident, was shot to death in the basement of Kirkland House. But Cosby wasn’t fatally wounded by accident or in cold blood—he was shot after he refused to hand over a large sum of marijuana to Jabrai Jordan Copney, a New York City songwriter who has just been sentenced to life in prison without parole.

In that sense, Cosby’s death is perhaps the best illustration of what is truly dangerous about marijuana: The transaction surrounding its purchase, not the effects of its use. Although it just isn’t the case that students risk their lives every time they purchase marijuana, Cosby’s murder is nevertheless a reminder of the potential for violence in these illegal transactions. Therefore, the Kirkland shooting—in which that sort of violence went so far as to claim a life on Harvard’s own campus—is a clear reminder that the College—and, in a broader sense, the U.S. government—must do everything in their power to ensure the safety of the individuals they exist to protect.

Ultimately, ensuring that kind of safety means legalizing marijuana.

To be sure, there are other reasons the drug should be legalized besides the safety issue. Not only, for instance, are the alleged health risks of consuming marijuana less dangerous than those involved in consuming two legal drugs, alcohol and tobacco, the federal government wastes billions of taxpayer dollars every year in a futile prohibition of a drug that 89 percent of high school seniors still claimed was “fairly or very easy” to get. Also, for some, marijuana has a medicinal value, and there is no sufficient evidence that it is in any way a so-called “gateway drug.” A 2001 study by National Institute of Justice—a federal agency—even concluded that during the 1990s, a period of increased marijuana consumption among 18-20 year-olds, these young adults were not using the drug as a trial run for harder, more harmful drugs.

In light of Cosby’s murder, however, most important is the fact that approximately 80 million Americans have tried marijuana at some point in their lives. In other words, were the drug legalized and regulated as it is in the Netherlands, it would never have to change hands at gunpoint in the basement of a Harvard dormitory, and Justin Cosby—and countless others like him—might very well still be alive.

Of course, in the present political environment legalization is unlikely to occur soon. After all, just last year, California voters rejected Proposition 19—a ballot measure that would have made California the first state to legalize marijuana for recreational use. In the meantime, local communities across the country must do everything within the current framework of the law to ensure the safety of all of their members.

In that sense, Cosby’s murder—and, now, Copney’s conviction—should serve as a reminder to the Harvard administration of what more it can do to protect its students from the dangers that will continue to exist so long as marijuana is illegal in the United States.

It is clear, for instance, that House Masters and tutors are well aware that marijuana use occurs in their Houses; they should show more oversight in monitoring their students who use marijuana. Additionally, since there is nothing to suggest that the circumstances around the Kirkland shooting could not be repeated, the College—in the immediate future—should more clearly and vocally state the penalties for distributing marijuana on campus so that if transactions do occur, they are at least made off campus. Also, Copney—the boyfriend of Brittany J. Smith, who was a Harvard senior at the time of the shooting—had been living unofficially with Smith in Lowell House for nearly a year. We urge the College to have stricter guest policies that would require guests to be registered, as many of our peer institutions do.

The Kirkland shooting trial saga looks set to continue, as in Massachusetts, all first-degree murder convictions incur an automatic appeal. As it progresses, we continue to realize that marijuana is a drug that kills, and that more than just health is at stake in its legalization.

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