Wednesday, April 2, 2008

Amarillo Jury Takes Step Toward Sanity With Pot Acquittal

Greg Sagan

Greg Sagan is an Amarillo business consultant and freelance
writer. His column appears on Tuesdays.

"Never say, ’Of this water I will not drink’." ~ Spanish proverb

I was gratified to see last week that an Amarillo man was acquitted on a charge of possessing marijuana.

Amazed, too.

Tim Stevens, who was arrested last October, is HIV positive and suffers from cyclical vomiting syndrome. He uses the marijuana to relieve the nausea. This "necessity defense" - that the need to reduce the nausea was of greater importance than the law he broke - was something even a local jury could accept, and from my point of view they did the right thing.

I understand the visceral resistance many Americans have when anyone advocates an end to the harsh treatment our society inflicts on those who use illegal drugs. Those of us with children tend to look on illegal drugs as a corrupting influence, and we tend to want our children as far removed from such influences as we can get them.

But it seems to me we go way beyond this simple consideration with our laws. It isn’t enough to educate our children, to lead by example, and to accept that some people will indulge drugs to a small or large extent no matter what we do. We want to imprison anyone who violates these laws. We want to punish anyone who produces or delivers illegal drugs. We want to rip the plants from the ground and salt the earth to eliminate even the "occasion of sin." And we want to cloak our extremism in moral authority, science, historical myth and patriotic fables.

In doing so, we violate the very morality we seek to establish.

The simple truth of the matter is that all of us make our own decisions about drug use and abuse. Some people never display even the urge to experiment with illegal drugs. The vast majority who try any kind of drug - legal or illegal, recreational or therapeutic - eventually reach a personal accommodation that permits them to live otherwise productive and honorable lives. Some get hooked and stay that way, using chemicals to avoid a reality that is just too painful or difficult to address without altering their state of consciousness.

And some of us who don’t like drugs and wouldn’t use them under any normal circumstance will, nevertheless, take them when the pain is bad enough.

Our society has decided that there are "good drugs" - manufactured by pharmaceutical companies and distributed in everything from grocery stores to the Internet - and "bad drugs." These are value judgments which are, more often than not, the product of prejudice. Those who use marijuana know it isn’t the killer or even the "gateway" that we claim it is, but we all rally around the fiction as though it were gospel and we punish people who use it as though progress toward a more pure society can be measured by how many users are behind bars.

But even as we prosecute the offenders and celebrate each victory in court with a martini at Marty’s we are also denying compassion and justice to some who can only live a tolerable existence by using the substances we insist they cannot have.

Let’s forget for a moment the recreational aspect. Let’s even ignore for a moment the incredibly obtuse commentary from the medical community that marijuana lacks "efficacy." Let us, instead, concentrate on the fact that all forms of relief are subjective and that what we have on this planet is all we have. The chemicals we hate so deeply may yet prove to be useful enough to leave alone, and our challenge is to figure out how to use these resources and not to destroy them.

We seem to forget that recreation is a legitimate pastime in our culture. But before we even arrive at the argument favoring recreational use of illegal drugs we must first listen to the arguments from those who insist that a joint does them more direct benefit and less direct harm than anything else we’ve figured out how to make. These arguments may well be right. And no one alive today can say with certainty that come tomorrow we, ourselves, will not be the ones defending ourselves before a pitiless court unwilling or unable to put itself in our shoes.

Amarillo is the last place on Earth I would expect to see a jury render the kind of verdict we saw in Tim Stevens’ case. But I commend jurors for their courage and their open minds.

It was a small, but important, step toward social sanity.

The Original Article in Amarillo Globe-News

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