Mayor: Questions remain about marijuana, but debate is good

Published 9:15 am Monday, September 2, 2013

By Tom Stiehm

Austin Mayor

Freedom Fest now has a rival for the best festival in Austin — the Austin ArtWorks Festival. It was held Aug. 24 to 25 and has grown in just one year to rival Freedom Fest. I would like to thank all the people who volunteered their time to put this festival together. There is no way I could name them all, but special thanks should go to Pat Ray, Bonnie Rietz, Mary Ann Wolesky and Belita Schindler; they have done a tremendous job putting the festival together and bringing all the talented artists to town.

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In early September, we will see another event at the bandshell — the proposed Hempfest. I have been approached several times by an advocate for legalizing marijuana and asked to support the effort to legalize pot. I did not feel that this is an issue the city needed to address and said so. I was soon after contacted by local media and asked for a comment. Part of my response was that there are worse things than marijuana but that there are also worse things than cyanide. This was in no way an attempt to compare marijuana to cyanide. I have seen several articles from Twin Cities media stating that the Mayor in Austin is comparing marijuana to cyanide. This was not my intention, and the people I spoke to locally understood that.

Having been assigned to the Southeast Minnesota Drug Taskforce for 16 of my 30 years on the Austin Police Department, I am familiar with the effects of not only marijuana, but most of the drugs available in our area. Marijuana has a lower addiction rate than almost, if not all, of these drugs including alcohol. Seven to 9 percent are the figures I have seen in regard to addiction. Cocaine, meth — and most professional people agree alcohol — are more addictive and potentially more damaging to individuals who use them than marijuana. But, if 7 to 9 percent of our population had a disease like smallpox or the flu it would be considered an epidemic.

As we see states like Colorado and Washington legalize marijuana it would seem only a matter of time until Minnesota deals with this issue, and I am in favor of an open, honest discussion on any topic that people decide to make an issue. If Minnesotans decide it is worth the price our society will have to pay to legalize marijuana, so be it, as I have stated alcohol has caused many problems for us yet most people, myself included, would never choose to ban it. We tried it once, and it was a fiasco. I also believe that our nation’s war on drugs is a failure; we need to start treating people who are addicted to drugs as sick instead of as criminals. We are spending hundreds of billions of dollars and not getting results. We have more than doubled our prison population and turned a whole class of people into criminals. There has to be a better way of dealing with this.

Although I’m not totally convinced yet, there is more and more compelling evidence coming out that marijuana may be beneficial in some cases to patients were other meds may not be as effective. If this is the case and we decided to make it available to patients in need, how do we make it available to them without making it available to anyone who pays 50 dollars to a doctor for a prescription? There will be open discussions and debates on this issue in the near future and that is of course a good thing.