Thirty or so years ago, cancer claimed the life of one of my favorite aunts.
Aunt Dorothy was a delightful Oklahoma born and bred woman who migrated in the 1950s to suburban San Francisco, where she and my grocer uncle lived in the coolest little house overlooking the Pacific.
Her death was agonizing. The treatments not only failed to arrest the cancer, but also made her incredibly nauseous. In a desperate quest to improve her quality of life, her family embraced the only thing that provided relief: marijuana.
Aunt Dorothy was a devoted Baptist and a regular church-goer, a full-fledged member of the Greatest Generation -- hardly the pot-using, Summer of Love stereotype.
I never asked how her family acquired the contraband. I only know that she didn't smoke it. Her family would mix the pot in butter and spread it on crackers, about the only thing that calmed her retching.
What Aunt Dorothy and her family did was against the law. It still is today -- at least in Oklahoma. And that begs a serious question: Why?
Why is it legal to buy other potentially addictive agents like alcohol and tobacco at the corner market, but not marijuana? Why are doctors prescribing more narcotics than ever, but prevented from deploying marijuana as a treatment?
There is a knee-jerk opposition in Oklahoma to the notion of legalizing marijuana -- even if restricted to medical purposes. But it's a public debate worth having. And it's a debate whose time finally may be coming in Oklahoma.
State Sen. Constance Johnson, D-Oklahoma City, has introduced a medical marijuana bill every year since she was elected five years ago. She's hoping the Health and Human Services Committee chairman, Sen. Brian Crain, R-Tulsa, will schedule an interim study hearing this fall to discuss the matter.
Crain has indicated publicly he would seriously consider the hearing, but remains adamantly opposed to legalizing marijuana for what amounts to recreational use.
My question is this: What's the harm in sitting down and discussing -- in public -- the merits and demerits of legalizing medical marijuana?
Isn't that what our elected officials are supposed to do?
There's something else rather obvious about all this: Medical marijuana is more than a simple public health debate in which law enforcement -- anxious to keep drug war dollars rolling in -- forever warns against its legalization and teetotalers squawk over expanding society's access to demonic vices.
Oklahoma is bankrupting itself with punitive drug laws that ensure state prisons are filled to over capacity, much of it because of a three-strikes-and-you're-out mentality that snags thousands of recreational drug users -- not just the hard-core peddlers.
The state is in the top five nationally in incarceration rates -- No. 1 in throwing women behind bars.
At the end of August, the Oklahoma Department of Corrections was supervising 26,060 offenders. With a FY2012 budget of $459.8 million, it costs more than $17,000 on average to lock up each inmate.
It's even more disconcerting when you consider that pandering legislators have cut state income taxes nearly $1 billion in recent years, severely curtailing growth in state revenues that cover essential state services.
That's why Oklahoma has been forced to lay off thousands of teachers and class sizes are exploding. That's why thousands can't be helped with mental health services. And that's why Oklahoma's inmate-to-staff ratio has reached alarming levels.
"If there is a recipe for disaster," Corrections Director Justin Jones said in 2010, "we have all the ingredients cooking right now."
Johnson says it's not clear how many current inmates would have avoided prison time if Oklahoma had joined 17 other states and the District of Columbia in legalizing medical marijuana.
But it's safe to say that the cost to taxpayers of warehousing pot users would be significantly lower -- not only in direct prison costs, but also in lost productivity.
Once you're a convicted felon, it's much more difficult to land a good-paying job when you've completed your sentence. It's not only tougher to make ends meet, but it also means you're not contributing (think: taxes) as much to society, either.
There was much discussion in the last legislative session about Speaker Kris Steele's smart-on-crime initiative. One way to get there: stop punitively branding thousands of Oklahomans with the Scarlet F (for felon) when they and the taxpayers would be better -- and more cost-effectively -- served by bolstering community drug treatment programs and making marijuana available for medicinal purposes.
Moreover, legalizing marijuana -- even if restricted to medical purposes -- would be a way to take criminal profit out of the enterprise and generate additional tax revenues to bolster the state's sorely underfunded core services.
Case in point: Colorado. As Tulsa journalist Richard L. Fricker pointed out in a recent Oklahoma Observer blog essay, there are about 1,500 medical marijuana outlets in the state, generating about $53.5 million in fees and another $150 million in taxes.
Even former Republican presidential contender Ron Paul understands the folly of the public policy against marijuana. Like Johnson in Oklahoma, he's worked tirelessly in Congress to bring sanity to the nation's drug laws.
If Crain and Republican legislative leaders refuse yet again to give Johnson's proposal a hearing, it doesn't mean the issue is going away. Pro-pot forces are considering an initiative petition that would allow the voters to take matters into their own hands.
It shouldn't have to be that way. We elect our lawmakers to thoughtfully consider a wide variety of issues -- some that even the vast majority might be against. Real leadership means studying even the most contentious issues, keeping an open enough mind to reconsider one's long-held views and being willing to educate your constituents when the facts warrant a significant change in public policy.
Former Vice President Al Gore put the issue in context when asked during his 1988 presidential bid whether he'd ever smoked marijuana: "Marijuana was the moonshine of my generation."
I know some will argue that marijuana is a gateway to other drug use. Maybe so. But if that's true, so is alcohol -- and so is tobacco.
Doesn't it make more sense to legalize marijuana, control it and tax it -- just like alcohol and tobacco? You not only take the criminal profit out of it, but also no longer turn decent, hard-working, honorable folks like my dear Aunt Dorothy into lawbreakers -- all because they desperately want to ease their pain.
Where's the compassion in our current public policy? Where's the common sense? Where's the legislative debate?
It's time to talk -- seriously -- about medical marijuana.
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