When the Price of Prohibition Became Questionable
It was February of 1967. I was in Vietnam serving in the Army, a 2nd Lieutenant assigned to the 9th Infantry Division as its Social Work Officer. Within a few weeks of my arrival, I had my first encounter with marijuana.
An order came through from division headquarters. I would serve with five other officers on a Special Court Martial board. On the day of the trial, I learned that the defendant, a 24-year-old enlisted man from Ohio who worked as a transportation mechanic, now faced a six month prison sentence if found guilty.
He was charged with having violated Article 134 of the Uniform Code of Military Justice. He’d been caught with 10 joints.
Forty years later, notes I kept helped me reconstruct what had happened. I wrote in the opening chapter of my memoir, Marijuana Nation, about what I imagined this guy’s experience might have been like prior to his trial:
He pictured his folks reading an official letter about his arrest. Would his 11-year-old brother find out? He felt the tears welling up and quickly suppressed any sounds of the sobs that racked his chest. In those initial hours he realized the likelihood that he’d spend months in a place just like this after being convicted. He urgently wanted to regain what had been, to put back the pieces of a life that so unexpectedly had been yanked away. He was eager to tell them he was deeply sorry, that it would never happen again. Would they please give him another chance? But at that hour no one was there to listen.
The board found him guilty. Then, in the trial’s sentencing phase I argued for a fine and no jail time but was outvoted. He went to prison.
That troubled me. I’d never tried pot, doubted that any of my friends had, and knew almost nothing about it. Yet, sitting on that court martial board and getting a glimpse of what it must have been like for that 24 year-old enlisted man, a guy whom we learned had a clean record, to be tried, convicted, and sentenced to prison made me begin to question prohibition.
In the combat zone the military made certain that alcohol was cheap and readily available. There was an unspoken assumption that soldiers could make reasonable decisions about drinking, when it was safe to cut loose, even to get dead drunk. And if their decisions were sometimes untimely, so be it. It was war and the troops, as well as their commanders, had needs.
It seemed ironic to me that a soldier getting high, for what seemed to me to be the same reasons, among them trying to cope with war’s dangers, was clearly perceived by military officialdom as an entirely different matter. It was criminal.
…many young soldiers just like this fellow were trying pot, cheap and easily obtained from Vietnamese entrepreneurs who sold it in repurposed American cigarette packs.-Roger A. Roffman
In the coming months, it became evident that many young soldiers just like this fellow were trying pot, cheap and easily obtained from Vietnamese entrepreneurs who sold it in repurposed American cigarette packs. Back home that year, an estimated 100,000 young people made their way to San Francisco’s Haight-Ashbury neighborhood. It would be called “the summer of love,” the beginning of the hippie counter-culture, opposition to the war, and the growth of a slew of social movements striving for social justice. Sharing a joint became a symbolic shoulder patch that signified one’s activism.
Both in the military and civilian justice systems the penalties for marijuana possession were substantial. Many, predominantly young people, were sentenced to prison when caught, and along with that penalty came a criminal record that ultimately closed doors – doors to jobs, housing, and scholarships.
Decades have passed. In my academic career I became a marijuana dependence researcher. In my person life, occasionally getting high led to a compulsion. It’s clear to me that the claim that marijuana is harmless has no basis. Indeed, the risks for young people who begin early and use regularly during their adolescence are frightening. Marijuana is addictive, it’s dangerous to drive high, and individuals with certain medical conditions, a history of schizophrenia or heart disease, for example, are at risk if they get high.
I’m concerned about the possibility that “big marijuana,” fueled by the profit motive, will exploit the heaviest of users and successfully resist the adoption of regulations to protect public health and safety.-Roger A. Roffman
And then there are the risks in legalizing marijuana. I wrote about some of them in my last article on Pro Talk. As an addictions professional, I’m concerned about the possibility that “big marijuana,” fueled by the profit motive, will exploit the heaviest of users and successfully resist the adoption of regulations to protect public health and safety.
Yet, as the momentum away from marijuana prohibition begins to gain strength in our country, my memory of what happened to a 24-year-old soldier from Ohio keeps a key question in my mind. Can’t we do better?
Related: Legal Marijuana: When the Issue is Personal by Roger A. Roffman
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