Two Democratic state representatives have introduced competing bills involving the recreational use of marijuana. Both bills have little chance, if any, of becoming law this legislative session. These bills’ inevitable fate in the Wisconsin Legislature illustrates the continuing illogic of the American drug war in general and the absurdity of marijuana prohibition in particular.

Take a hit of this: marijuana legalization bill introducedWith past legislation and attempts to legalize marijuana having faded, a new bill introduced Monday would legalize weed in Wisconsin. Rep. Melissa Sargent, Read…

Marijuana has been in existence for millennia. Its use throughout human history has been ubiquitous — and its use continues to be pervasive today, even in the face of blanket federal prohibition. Although marijuana is illegal under federal law, marijuana has been legal for most of human history. In fact, its first use for medicinal purposes goes back at least 6,000 years and federal prohibition of marijuana didn’t begin until the early 1900s.

While federal law currently criminalizes possession and use of marijuana, many states have legalized marijuana for either medical or recreational use. Twenty-three states have legalized medical marijuana and four states have legalized recreational marijuana. In addition, 19 states have decriminalized possession of small amounts of marijuana. 

In that spirit, two state representatives have introduced legislation involving recreational marijuana. Rep. Melissa Sargent, D-Madison, has proposed legislation that would legalize recreational marijuana throughout the state. In contrast, Rep. Mandela Barnes, D-Milwaukee, has introduced legislation that would decriminalize small amounts of marijuana in Wisconsin. While Sargent’s bill would be the better policy choice between the two bills, either one would be a step in the right direction.

Bill would decriminalize small possessions of marijuanaA state lawmaker introduced a bill on 4/20 that would help decriminalize marijuana in Wisconsin. Wisconsin law currently states any Read…

Unfortunately, neither of these bills has a chance of being enacted during the current legislative session. As the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel reported, the spokesperson for Assembly Speaker Robin Vos, R-Rochester, said the marijuana legalization bill “does not have significant legislative support” and will likely not make it to the floor for a vote. Even if any of these bills had majority support in the Legislature, it would be vetoed by Gov. Scott Walker because he views marijuana as a “gateway drug.” 

The reasons for marijuana prohibition, including the state Legislature’s apparent unwillingness to enact any meaningful marijuana reform legislation, stem from an antiquated and unscientific view of marijuana. In the context of human history, marijuana prohibition is a very recent phenomenon — a historical anachronism. Marijuana is currently illegal under federal law because it is a Schedule I substance under the Controlled Substances Act, meaning Congress concluded that it has “no currently accepted medical use and a high potential for abuse.” 

This congressional conclusion is not based on scientific evidence. More than 70 years ago, the LaGuardia Committee report — a study of marijuana use in New York — concluded that “[t]he practice of smoking marijuana does not lead to addiction in the medical sense of the word.” In addition, numerous studies have demonstrated marijuana’s use, and potential use, for medicinal purposes. Furthermore, the Shafer Commission recommended that possession and use of marijuana be legalized in the 1970s. Thus, Congress’s decision to keep marijuana classified as a Schedule I substance defies logic, if it ever made sense to classify marijuana as a Schedule I substance in the first place.

The reasons for prohibition of marijuana, like most aspects of the American drug war, are not rooted in scientific reality, but instead based on unsubstantiated fears. That explains why substances like marijuana, LSD and MDMA — all of which have, or potentially have, medicinal purposes — are Schedule I substances, while cocaine remains a Schedule II substance. And don’t forget, I could smoke as many cigarettes and have as many alcoholic drinks as I wish without violating federal law, even though this would be highly detrimental to my health.

The propriety of the drug war — including marijuana prohibition — boils down to how one answers a fundamental question: Should our society blindly incarcerate people who use mind-altering substances or should our society provide treatment to those who develop substance abuse issues? The latter treats people with dignity and recognizes the fundamental reality that people will use mind-altering substances, regardless of their blanket prohibition; the former ignores reality and, instead of helping those who develop substance abuse issues, incarcerates them.

The two bills proposed by Sargent and Barnes addressing marijuana reform will, unfortunately, face legislative defeat. This is because the majority of state legislators base their views, not on scientific evidence, but on unsubstantiated fears. Hopefully, drug policy is based upon empirical evidence in the near future, but I won’t hold my breath.     

Aaron Loudenslager ([email protected]) is a third year law student.