By Mason Tvert

Marijuana prohibition is not just about weed. It is a weed.

It’s a weed that sprouted more than 75 years ago and spread state to state, enveloping the entire nation as poison ivy would a garden.

In the past 30 years, some branches of the weed have been trimmed down or lopped off in the form of positive legislation or policy changes. For example, a handful of state legislatures decriminalized marijuana in the 1970s, and in the past decade or so we have seen a number of states adopt laws permitting the use of medical marijuana. This is not to mention the growing number of cities that have passed a wide variety of local measures.

But despite such constant pruning efforts of legislators and activists, the prohibition weed remains alive.

Consider for example that annual U.S. marijuana arrests reached an all-time high once again in 2006, and federal legislation that would protect medical marijuana patients from DEA raids and prosecution has continually failed, gaining just a little ground each year despite widespread public support. In fact, anti-prohibition forces are actually losing ground in some parts of the country. In Ohio – a decriminalization state -- the Cincinnati City Council recently “recriminalized” possession of small amounts of marijuana, and a similarly needless “recrim” effort is now underway in Nebraska.

If we wish to stem such growth of the prohibition weed, we must treat it like any other weed. We must kill it. And, like killing any weed, this means we must attack it at its root.

First, we must identify that root. Sure, racism against Hispanics and blacks played a large role in the establishment and growth of prohibition. So did political and economic opportunism by people in power trying to appear tough on crime and corner certain industries.

But in the end, all of the stories about marijuana making black men rape white women and the “gateway drug” rhetoric boil down to one underlying principle: the perception of harm. Marijuana became illegal and has remained that way because the general public simply believes it is just too dangerous to allow its use.

Many reformers and activists recognize this root and have argued for years that marijuana is relatively safe compared to other widely used – and legal – drugs like alcohol and tobacco. But far too often marijuana reform supporters stray toward arguments that do not take this perception of harm head-on.

For example, we point out that enforcing marijuana laws is a poor use of law enforcement resources or that using marijuana is a civil liberty. These are obviously valid arguments, but how do they change the minds of those who think marijuana is so dangerous it must remain prohibited? After all, if an individual currently thinks marijuana should be completely illegal, then by nature they do not agree it is a waste of resources to enforce these laws, and they certainly will not agree that marijuana use is an essential freedom.

Thus, if we want these people to change their positions – or at least become less hostile to reform – we must first educate them that marijuana is actually not so harmful. Once they acknowledge this fact, they will be far more likely to agree with us that enforcement is a waste of resources, that people’s rights are being needlessly trampled, and so on.

Just like with a weed, if we fail to attack marijuana prohibition at its root, it will never die. We can trim it up and make it appear less unsightly by changing laws and policies here and there. But in the end, it will remain alive and pervasive until we yank it out of the ground, roots and all, and prevent it from ever rearing its ugly head again.

Mason Tvert is the executive director of Safer Alternative For Enjoyable Recreation (SAFER). Find out more and contact SAFER at: