Celebration of 4-20 has many questioning drug policy’s aims

The Fourth of July is not the only national holiday referred to by its date; while 4-20 may have slipped under the radar of many students this past Sunday, a few starry-eyed young idealists on the Williams campus made sure to raise their glass pieces in honor of the drug culture’s faux-holiday. Easter threatened to overshadow the day, but marijuana activists held steadfast, noting that the Christian holy day gains legitimacy only from the establishment.

While not backed by a popular religion, “4-20” is the seed of a debate over marijuana’s place in mainstream society. To activists, disobedience highlights the failure of the “Drug War.” Some segments of society’s tacit acceptance of a day of recognition for an illegal drug highlights the inappropriateness of current marijuana regulations.

But for John Walters and the Office of National Drug Control Policy (ONDCP), isolated protests relegated mostly to college campuses do not indicate a need for an upheaval of traditional drug laws. The office has requested an $11.7 billion drug control budget for fiscal year 2004, up 3.9 percent from last year and over 40 percent from 1998. Cannabis control is no meager blip in the appropriation of resources; of 1,586,902 arrests for drug violations in 2001, 40.4 percent (641,000) were for possession of marijuana. Federal seizures amounted to over 2.6 million pounds, with worldwide production estimates around 32 million pounds.

The resources expended are proportionate to the size of the problem. Government calculations place the amount spent by Americans on marijuana in 2000 at $10.4 billion. The 2001 National Household Survey on Drug Abuse reported 37 percent of Americans ages 12 and up have used cannabis in their lifetime, and 12 million of that group identify themselves as current users. This could be a legitimate source for worry, granted marijuana’s high potential for psychological dependence, among other risks.

The split in ideologies is over which side of the problem the thrust of resources should be geared towards. The ONDCP currently focuses on the drug supply, advocating a policy of interdiction, eradication and enforcement, allying with other nations to stem the influx of drugs, destroy drug farms and carry out domestic arrests and seizures. The other side generally advocates funneling those funds into treatment and prevention, which attack the demand side.

The recent mobilization of the drug policy reform movement is evidenced by numerous state referenda on measures of cannabis decriminalization. However, few have passed, and the federal government maintains the precedence of its policy regardless. Cannabis reformers cite the loose-fitting analogue of alcohol prohibition, a comparison contingent on the pervasiveness of the drug in society; with only 5.4 percent of the population over 12 predicted to be current users, marijuana does not appear to be a staple commensurate to alcohol. Nevertheless, the argument is that marijuana “prohibition” provides the architecture for a vicious black market, and the requisite enforcement estranges reasonable citizens from the law.

The effectiveness of that market, across the country but especially on college campuses, is underscored by the appeal of something like 4-20. Few students who desire to celebrate with their peers are unable to do so. The government’s resentment of this fact has seemingly increased in recent years, as the Higher Education Act, signed into law by President Lyndon Johnson, was revised in 1998 to withhold financial aid from applicants with drug convictions. Under the Clinton administration, over 9,000 were denied aid, but applications without an answer to the critical question were still processed. Under President Bush, enforcement was tightened, and 48,629 students were denied aid because of past drug convictions.

Advocacy groups such as Students for Sensible Drug Policy (SSDP) spearhead campaigns to repeal the provision, calling it a “double-sentence” and arguing it disproportionately hurts lower income families. Jane Stimpson ’05, Vice President of the Williams chapter of SSDP, sees it thus: “It is disturbing to think how many highly-qualified students will not look at Williams, unable to receive federal aid for doing something everybody knows our president did. When did limiting education become a valid punishment for anything?” Proponents of the revision reason that no college student should be able to subsidize drug purchases with federal money; thus, there is a stipulation that restores aid after an approved rehabilitation program has been completed.

Taxpayers have a right to be unnerved by society’s easy acceptance of 4-20, represented by the media’s images of cotton-mouthed college students defiling Easter Sunday. It comes down to a matter of who deserves the resources, the ivy-league hopeful with the rough-and-rowdy past or the Drug Enforcement Agency. Though you may have missed the 20th, there are reminders everywhere of the prominence of marijuana in society: comical movies, tie-dye shirts, the exorbitant quantities of Zig-Zags and Phillie Blunts sold. The drug policy engine packs a lot of horsepower, but 4-20 proves, at the very least, that it may not always be firing on all cylinders.