(Eric Sterling, president of the Criminal Justice Policy Foundation, joins us as a regular blogger in the Speakeasy.)
“It's a good thing I had a bag of marijuana instead of a bag of spinach or I'd be dead by now,” Willie Nelson said recently.
I almost fell out of my rocking chair, laughing. No sooner did the government report that the fastest growing population of drug users are aged 50 to 59 years, but 73-year old Willie Nelson was criminally charged with possessing marijuana, as well as four other men, aged 50 to 75 years old. Those are pretty mature ages. In January 2004 and again August 2005, Art Garfunkel, now 63 years old, was charged with marijuana possession in New York. Good grief.
Look, we all agree that we have to keep drugs away from kids. That’s why drugs are illegal, of course, to keep kids from getting their hands on drugs. Seriously. Kids are just too immature to let have drugs, we all agree on that.
But as I got my rocking rhythm back again, I wondered, “Can you ever be mature enough to use marijuana?” What kinds of things have minimum maturity requirements?
A teenager can enlist in the United States military at age 17, with a parent’s consent (10 U.S.C. sec. 510).
The Twenty-Sixth Amendment to the Constitution recognizes that you have sufficient maturity to vote for federal offices at age 18 (ratified in 1971).
We know that Congress has told the states to make it a law that a person has to be at least 21 years old to purchase alcohol.
And in family values loving America – where building strong families is one of our highest values, and being responsible for the care and nurture of little children – you can get married in most states if you are 16 years old if you have your parents consent. http://www.law.cornell.edu/topics/Table_Marriage.htm
In freedom loving Mississippi, a girl can be 15 years old and get married without her parents consent. A girl age 12 can get married in Kansas or Massachusetts with parental consent.
It seems that as a society, we recognize a high degree of maturity by the time you turn 21. But we recognize circumstances that require super-maturity – which highly risky circumstances apply.
Our “Founding Fathers,” the framers of the Constitution, gave some thought to the maturity they believed was necessary in those to whom we would entrust the governing of America.
What might require the highest degree of maturity? Deciding to declare war – that’s pretty darn dangerous. Or serving as Commander in Chief. A person cannot serve in the House of Representatives until he or she is 25 years old, and must be at least 30 years old to serve in the U.S. Senate (Article I of the Constitution, sections 2 and 3). So to vote to declare war (Article I, section 8, clause 11), you must be at least 25 years old. To be President of the United States (which includes being Commander in Chief of the Army, Navy and Militia), with all the power that risks everyone’s health and safety, you must be at least 35 years old, a natural born citizen, and have resided in the U.S. for 14 years (Article II, section 1, clause 5). Those are the only qualifications in the Constitution.
Think about it. The framers of the Constitution recognized that once you have turned 35, you can be entrusted with the most serious and responsible job in the nation. You are mature enough!
So now let’s think of folks fifteen years older than that. They aren’t impressionable youth. They know what mortality is. Many of them have raised families. They have seen and struggled with the immaturity of their children. Most of them have close friends and family who have died recently. They now attend funerals about as frequently as weddings. Heck, many of them now regularly read the obituary pages.
Certainly most people who are 50 years old can be considered mature enough to smoke marijuana and do it responsibly. We can still punish the handful of oddballs who drive while impaired or use marijuana it in the surgical suite or airplane cockpit.
Of course many prohibitionists will argue that if we legalize marijuana for 50 year olds youngsters – probably in their 40's – will get it illegally. Well that would be pretty serious, wouldn’t it? But surely, would any one over 50 in their right mind would share pot with immature “kids” under 35? No way.
For gosh sakes, isn’t 73-year old Willie Nelson mature enough to smoke pot and to not have to worry about the police?
When do you finally get to be recognized as a grown up in America?