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Supporters of marijuana legalization misread history

(Baltimore Sun Opinion) – Support for decriminalizing recreational marijuana use and increasing its medicinal availability spreads like an oil spill. Colorado and Washington’s decriminalization, coupled with President Barack Obama musing that marijuana is no more dangerous than alcohol — though he hopes his children will avoid the former as a bad habit — accelerate the change.

Supporters seek to end so-called victimless crimes and regulate a popular activity wrongly stigmatized. Revenue-hungry states like Maryland, with Senate Bill 658, consider joining them.

But the movement misreads American history. It took roughly 125 years for the United States to get its drinking problem under control. Temperance movements swept the country in the mid- and late-1800s after alcohol consumption peaked at 7 gallons per capita annually. And that was mostly whiskey and rum, not beer and wine.

The movement over-reached with prohibition via the 18th Amendment, 1919 to 1933, but temperance achieved lasting successes little recognized today: Per capita liquor consumption, the ratio of taverns to population, and instances of public intoxication all plunged.

Historian Norman H. Clark concluded his study of temperance, prohibition and repeal, “Deliver Us from Evil,” by noting that researchers believe people drink to excess to relieve tension. Tension aplenty, from the dislocations of industrialization, Civil War, urbanization and massive immigration meant that “intemperance in the United States, and the Prohibition Movement which followed it, were carried around by the virus of social disorder.”

Expect more social disorder if a country that took a century and a quarter to learn to handle its liquor legalizes marijuana. Being stoned is a condition that loosens civic bonds, so tolerating if not encouraging use should contribute to, not lessen, what Clark described as an “attenuated sense of community.”

Germany’s legalization of prostitution a decade ago, another project to decriminalize an age-old social ill, led to unexpected consequences including international sex tourism and increased human trafficking. There seems to be little apprehension that legalizing pot could go awry in its own way.

Two years ago a large New Zealand study reportedly found regular marijuana use — today’s hybrid weed is many times stronger than that of past decades — associated with broad neurological declines in children and adults. Stuart Gitlow, an addictive disease specialist at New York City’s Mt. Sinai School of Medicine, says flatly “there’s no benefit to marijuana. … We’re with marijuana right now where we were with tobacco back in the 1910s and 1920s.”

But the federal government, which has spent billions of dollars informing citizens of the dangers of tobacco and whose statutes still outlaw weed, lets states give a wink and nod to toking up.

Perhaps an attenuated sense of community does not trouble pot legalizers. In one area only do U.S. progressives proclaim liberty: psycho-sexual. Only here is “choice” the battle-cry. It is heard regarding abortion on demand, same-sex marriage and now recreational drug use.

Maybe a nation whose Judeo-Christian roots in self-reliance and self-restraint yield to a pseudo-Freudian “if it feels good, do it” mentality requires additional pain-killers. Especially a country with record public and private debt, record numbers on food stamps and low and declining rates of labor force participation. If booze isn’t sufficient to tranquilize us, then perhaps Aldous Huxley’s “Brave New World,” published in 1932, was on target and recreational marijuana becomes another ingredient in the “soma” gum of today’s brave new world.

But if choice in drugs is to be really meaningful, then why not a buffet with booze and pot just two intoxicants among many? Let us also bring Oxycontin, meth, cocaine, heroin and the rest out from the shadows and under the bureaucrat and tax man. Life, liberty and the pursuit of self-medication.

But the nation’s parents, including President Obama, should use caution when speaking to our children: Worse than substituting marijuana for alcohol or tobacco is the habit of mistaking license for liberty.