City of Berkeley Errs on Drug Policy, Again

Kevin Sabet is a UC Berkeley alumnus studying drug policy at Oxford University. Respond at [email protected].





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Once again, the city of Berkeley has sent an unambiguous message affirming its nonchalance attitude toward the issue of drugs and the harms they incur. This time, they have told the DEA to butt-out on even investigating medical marijuana "clubs," which have been deemed illegal by not only Congress, the Clinton and Bush administrations, but recently the Supreme Court in a unanimous ruling against medical pot.

Apparently, everyone in the city seems to believe that our laws on marijuana smokers are not lax enough. Do they remember that Berkeley already directs its Police Department to treat marijuana smokers (never mind medical pot users) with the "lowest priority"-yes, lower than jay-walking-in their everyday pursuits? Did they forget that California is one of 12 states that have decriminalized pot? Yes, if you are caught with marijuana for personal use you are not fined more than $100-and you won't be thrown in jail for even five minutes. As the DEA reports, only 7,000 people are in federal and state jails combined where marijuana possession was their most serious offense. Sensible or not, these lax laws still allow the DEA and federal authorities to pursue unlawful activities involving large quantities of marijuana, including at notorious medical marijuana toking houses.

Unfortunately, City Manager Weldon Rucker-not accountable to the overwhelmingly pro-drug Berkeley electorate-and his sensible proposal have been trumped in favor of political pandering by the council. Luckily, the resolution carries little clout with Berkeley police officers-who themselves see the damage that a lax attitude on marijuana can have on a city. San Francisco tried to prevent a DEA raid through a similar piece of legislation last year, but that didn't seem to stop the agents who rightfully closed down a club accused of selling pot to minors and non-medical users.

Whatever your stance on medical marijuana is (remember, because medicine is never smoked due to the toxicity of breathing in fumes, smoked marijuana should "generally not be recommended for medical use" according to the National Academy of Sciences), pro-drug has-beens in the city of Berkeley should not dictate drug policy designed to protect kids from large scale marijuana distribution.

With the universal praise the council has given pot, one would think that marijuana is no more harmless than a glass of club soda. In fact, marijuana use has now been shown to adversely affect those regions involved in coordinating and regulating body movements; those involved in learning, memory and stress response; those that integrate the cognitive functions; and the reward center of the brain. Adolescents are particularly vulnerable to marijuana toxicity and its effect on hormones. It is no wonder that half of teens and adolescents in substance abuse treatment are there for marijuana only.

The current scientific consensus is that marijuana is not a benign drug. As the United Nations reiterated again last week, "calls for marijuana legalization should be met with resistance." Unfortunately, the city of Berkeley and its officials would rather let everyone and anyone toke it up than focus on how to actually lower drug demand in the first place. Indeed, drug prevention is not an issue the council has discussed in years. Instead, with this move, a city known for its tradition of human rights activism turns its back once more on children and the vulnerable by preaching the tired mantra of "lay off our pot smokers" from its chambers in City Hall. It's time the city put down their cigarettes and put on their thinking caps.

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