In an interview last month, Gingrich changed his mind since 1981, when he first introduced legislation to legalize marijuana. "What has changed was the number of parents I met with who said they did not want their children to get the signal from the government that it was acceptable behavior and that they were prepared to say as a matter of value that it was better to send a clear signal on no drug use at the risk of inconveniencing some people, than it was to be compassionate toward a small group at the risk of telling a much larger group that it was okay to use the drug," he said. "My general belief is that we ought to be much more aggressive about drug policy."
The facts don't bear that a "more aggressive" drug policy works, considering the "war on drugs" the U.S. has been waging since the 1980s. What has happened is this: millions of Americans have been jailed for smoking marijuana, and yet marijuana use has only grown over the past 30 years.
In 2005, 12.7 percent of state inmates and 12.4 percent of federal prisoners were being incarcerated for marijuana use, according to the Justice Department's Bureau of Justice Statistics. Extrapolating out the costs, taxpayers - in 2005 - were ponying up $1 billion a year to keep people in jail whose only crime is smoking a "drug" that has less dangerous social implications than alcohol, which is legal, of course.
But Gingrich wants even stiffer penalties for drug use - any drug. But to his credit, at least, he didn't think prison was the answer. He favors providing medical help and drug treatment, but again, taxpayers would be on the hook for these programs too. And why does a casual marijuana user need a drug treatment program, when casual alcohol users aren't required to attend AA meetings?
The tide could be turning against Gingrich. Sixteen states and Washington, D.C., have legalized medical marijuana, even though the federal government still lists it as a Schedule I substance - the most medically useless and dangerous of drugs.
Also, Gingrich says his opposition is rooted in concern for children regarding drug use, and the "signal" it would send in terms of government condoning it. For one, medical marijuana use does not increase usage among children, a recent report has found. And two, children watch adults drink alcohol but are well aware that legally, they can't have a drink until they are 21 years old. Wouldn't it be prudent to place a similar age restriction on smoking marijuana?
The pot issue is more one of finding the right combination of laws and public policy, to handle both the perception issue and the usage issue. The fight is not about whether marijuana is too dangerous, especially when compared to alcohol, because when that comparison is made, alcohol loses hands down.