Local view: Legalize marijuana to end synthetic problemAt the St. Louis County Health and Human Services conference this fall, I was fortunate enough to attend a panel discussion on the synthetic-drug problem facing the Twin Ports. Speakers included Duluth Mayor Don Ness; state Rep. Erik Simonson of Duluth; Dr. Scott Wolff of St. Luke’s emergency medicine; Duluth police Lt. Steve Stracek, a member of the Lake Superior Drug and Violent Crime Task Force; and Deb Holman and Shawn Carr of CHUM.
By: Theo Johnson, Duluth News Tribune
At the St. Louis County Health and Human Services conference this fall, I was fortunate enough to attend a panel discussion on the synthetic-drug problem facing the Twin Ports. Speakers included Duluth Mayor Don Ness; state Rep. Erik Simonson of Duluth; Dr. Scott Wolff of St. Luke’s emergency medicine; Duluth police Lt. Steve Stracek, a member of the Lake Superior Drug and Violent Crime Task Force; and Deb Holman and Shawn Carr of CHUM.
The talk was informative — although more for what was left unsaid than what was discussed.
While panelists represented diverse backgrounds, I could not help but feel they were addressing only symptoms of a deeper problem. In fact, the whole debate and discussion of the synthetic-drug issue — a lot of which has centered on the Last Place on Earth and its proprietor, Jim Carlson — seems to have skirted the underlying causes driving the demand for synthetic drugs in our community, state and beyond.
It is time to seek a radical solution to a problem that has been wreaking havoc and destruction in our communities and families. That’s radical, as in the original sense of the word, which is “to go to the root.” As long as we as a society continue to treat the symptoms of the problem without addressing the root cause, the problem simply will persist, emerging in different forms without ever really going away.
Carlson and his store was never the root of the problem. This is demonstrated by the fact that although the Last Place on Earth is closed, sales of synthetics continue. They simply have moved underground, out of people’s homes, etc. A major source for synthetics has been removed from our community, true, but it is only a matter of time before supply rises again to meet demand.
So what is at the root of this problem of synthetic drugs and what do we need to do to ensure the best public health, safety and economic outcomes for our communities? The main factor is staring us all in the face but has yet to be intelligently addressed. To answer the question of synthetic drugs we must ask ourselves why individuals are seeking out synthetics in the first place. The answer was touched on several times by panel members, although it was never taken to its logical conclusion and was thus left un-discussed. It can be summed up as “legal alternative.”
The prohibition of marijuana and, to different extents, other currently illicit drugs is a harmful policy driving people to consume more-harmful substances whose short-term effects have proven devastating and whose long-term effects remain unknown. The attempt to suppress demand and deter people from consuming illicit drugs through criminalization — the so-called “war on drugs” — has proven spectacularly ineffective.
The demand for illicit drugs remains undiminished over the past 40-plus years while incarceration rates are the highest in the world, well ahead of Russia or China. The number of inmates in the U.S. quadrupled since 1980; and 60 percent of them are in prison on drug charges. On the flip side, international criminal cartels have sprung up to meet the demand for illicit drugs. This has led to a spiral of violence and death across wide regions of the Americas that certainly does not respect national borders.
Colorado, Washington and Portland, Maine, have approved through voter referendum the personal use of marijuana. Uruguay has legalized the use and sale of marijuana under state regulation. And every country in the hemisphere outside the U.S. and Canada has come out in favor of decriminalization and ending the war on drugs. That includes staunch U.S. allies Mexico and Colombia.
This is not to say marijuana legalization and regulation doesn’t come with some harmful effects, but these negatives have been shown to be less harmful than some legal, regulated substances such as tobacco and alcohol and are certainly less harmful than the synthetics plaguing our communities.
When we draw up an honest balance sheet it is clear the benefits of ending prohibition far outweigh the drawbacks. Prohibition is a failed policy that packs prisons, encourages criminal activity to meet demand, and deprives us of needed revenues through regulation and taxation. Prohibition, tragically, is driving people to seek out more-harmful, community-damaging “legal alternatives.” Enough is enough!
Theo Johnson of Duluth is a program supervisor for an adult foster home who taught English in Buenos Aires and who has studied and traveled in Europe and Latin America, experiencing different policy approaches to drug issues.