Drug, alcohol use unfairly criminalized

While I hate to keep alive the current debate between Avi Raina and the partying community at Williams, there is an aspect of the debate which has not yet been addressed. In his Feb. 17 response, Raina noted that it is illegal for anyone to drink when under the age of 21, or to smoke marijuana, and used this as reason enough why members of the Williams community should not engage in these activities. I would argue that these laws are unjust, and cannot be used as part of a legitimate debate on the issues at hand — whether there is an excessive amount of partying at Williams during Winter Study or not.

In order to prove his point, Raina likens engaging in these activities to other potentially dangerous activities, such as yelling “fire” in a crowded theater or joining a street gang.

The former is clearly an act which will cause harm to other people. But the latter illustrates perfectly one of the key problems with marijuana illegalization in this country. People join clubs and form friendships all the time. These groups only become “street gangs” when they engage in illegal activities, such as robbery or writing graffiti.

It is not the membership in the gang that is illegal, but rather the illegal act itself. This does not hold true for marijuana use, an act which is harmless alone, but which is claimed to induce harmful behavior in those who use it.

Marijuana does not, in fact, cause such behavior, but even if it did, the act of using marijuana should not be punished — the harmful act itself should be.

This ties in perfectly to Williams College. As you all know, Williams College once had one of the most liberal and safe drinking policies in the nation.

All this changed in the fall, when the new party policy was unveiled with laws designed to “get tough on underage drinking.” Now, underage drinking continues, as everyone knew it would, but in private, without any other activity to moderate the drinking (such as dancing or social interaction) and without Security to ensure the safety of the drinkers. Needless to say, the environment is far less safe for everyone involved.

The issues involved in the new party policy are the same as those involved in marijuana illegalization. The war on drugs has been wholly ineffective and detrimental to our society, yet it is perpetuated by an agenda which places morality ahead of reality. In order to be elected, government officials need to tell the public that they will become “tough on drugs,” thus continuing ineffective policies that emphasize incarceration and prohibition instead of prevention.

Similarly, Williams’s new drinking policy does not help anyone at all, but is justified only by the illegality of underage drinking.

I do not claim that any act which we as a society determine to be illegal and which we cannot stop, should therefore be made legal.

However, there are compelling arguments for lowering the drinking age and for legalizing marijuana. When the drinking age was raised to 21 years of age, alcohol consumption fell in the 18-20 year-old category, but was matched by a rise in marijuana use. This shows that raising the drinking age did not stop people who wished to use drugs from doing so, but only discouraged the use of a particular drug, alcohol. Furthermore, 18 years of age is the age of adulthood by virtually every standard in America, with voting rights, driving rights (often granted before the age of 18), the right to be drafted into the army, and the loss of minor status. However, the government somehow believes that, with all these signs of adulthood, an 18-year-old is incapable of determining for himself whether he should or should not consume an alcoholic beverage. This is clearly an inconsistent and unproductive policy.

At the very least, Williams College should return to its former, progressive party policy, which was a wonderful example of “harm reduction” — policy which seeks to reduce harm to members of a society, without regard to perceived morality or convention.

Another fine example of this sort of policy is needle exchange, which curbs the transmission of HIV, yet is illegal in many places because it is falsely perceived as condoning heroin use.

As for marijuana law, there is no legitimate reason why this drug should be illegal, given its minimal harmful qualities. Efforts to curb its usage in America have been entirely unsuccessful, and have caused extreme harm in the inner cities, where violent “turf” wars break out between different distributors of the drug, causing more harm than any marijuana cigarette ever could. Think of alcohol prohibition, with its “Gangland” image, as a more romantic version of what takes place today.

Furthermore, the Drug Enforcement Agency and other government institutions have been given the authority to suspend personal freedoms to a horrifying degree in their efforts to eradicate this perceived menace. These issues are never brought to the fore, however, because of the immense investment that elected officials have in sustaining the “War on Drugs.”

Given the scope of these issues, it seems almost irrelevant whether there is an excessive amount of partying at Williams during Winter Study. I’m certain that Mr. Raina did not intend to delve into these issues when he wrote his editorial, but I’m glad that someone provided an opportunity for them to come out into the open.

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