By Elizabeth McNamara
A recent forum in East Greenwich — Marijuana: What’s the Problem? — may have raised more questions than it answered. For organizer Bob Houghtaling, that isn’t a bad outcome.
“This is as much about the questions as it is the answers,” Houghtaling, a drug counselor in East Greenwich, said afterward. “We need to be asking questions about this issue because it’s so multi-faceted. It has ramifications in the political world, the legal system, the medical field. It also has something to do with social justice.”
The main question at the forum was what happens if marijuana is legalized?
“Legalization first and foremost undermines the illegal marijuana market and regulates it,” said panelist Rebecca McGoldrick, of Protect Families First, an organization advocating legalizing marijuana. With legalization, she said, “we have control over when, where, how and who it's sold to. We can control the price and the potency.”
Peter Asen, on the other side of the debate, suggested letting Washington and Colorado, the two states that have legalized marijuana, be test cases. “We may need to take a step back and see what are the results.
“I don’t believe it makes sense for every state in the country to have its own policy about what drugs are legal and what are not,” the director of Providence Mayor Angel Taveres' Substance Abuse Prevention Council said. “The idea that we can create our own drug policy in our tiny state in terms of what’s legal and what’s not, is very troubling to me.”
He added, “If we use alcohol as an example or even tobacco as an example, the ability of our state to effectively regulate these substances, to really keep them out of the hands of people, those are not examples we want to follow.”
Panelist Michelle McKenzie spoke of the possibility of the pharmaceutical industry taking over legalized pot production and what that might bring. McKenzie, who has a masters degree in public health, is a senior project director at Miriam Hospital.
“There’s going to be the power of money saying, ‘Let’s not worry about all this stuff, let’s just make it available.’ We absolutely can’t let that happen,” said McKenzie. “As a state, we need to limit how and when marijuana is sold, regulate it so it can’t become a big industry. I think it should be legalized and I think it should be heavily regulated. I think it’s an opportunity for us as a society to really talk about substances in general.”
Another aspect of the discussion was whether or not marijuana is a “gateway” drug.
“Most people who try marijuana never escalate onto other drugs,” said McKenzie. “There is a correlation [between marijuana and other drugs] but it’s not causation. I also want to point out that the same people selling marijuana are often selling other drugs. So if you are going to them to buy marijuana, that’s your exposure to other drugs.”
Michael Cerullo, a licensed mental health counselor, disagreed.
“The other thing we’re hearing more and more about today is they start on the pain meds because they happen to find one in the house, but then they can’t get anymore so they just change where they spend their $20 and they go get marijuana and they get more deeply involved,” Cerullo said. So it’s a very strong connection.”
"Yes, it's true, if you look at cocaine users, most of them did use marijuana before they used cocaine," countered a member of URI's Students for Sensible Drug Policy. "But that's not the important statistic. The important statistic is of the people who try marijuana go on to use other drugs, and that's a very small fraction."
Panelist Rev. Don Anderson of the Rhode Island Council of Churches spoke to the need for community members to get involved in crafting drug policy. He and Asen both argued for more money for drug treatment and education.
“We have a policy that says if you get caught with marijuana you have to meet with a counselor,” said Asen about the Providence public schools. “Well, guess what, a lot of schools don’t have counselors, so there is no treatment.”
Asen added, “The investment of our state and country into substance abuse prevention, education, treatment, recovery – we should not be proud of where that is now.”
What do you think? Should Marijuana be legalized?