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An advocate of marijuana legalization spoke last night to a crowd of 300 students. Chances are you've been told your whole life to "Just say no." But Richard Cowan wants you to believe that you have been the victim of an insidious lie. Last night, Cowan, the former director of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws, argued that the information about marijuana presented by the government, the educational system and the mainstream media in this country is dangerously misleading. The Penn chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union brought Cowan to campus to deliver the talk, titled "Turning Over a New Leaf." Nearly 300 students packed Room 17 of Logan Hall to hear Cowan's opinions on the legalization of marijuana. In the United States, laws prohibiting the use or sale of marijuana -- or "cannabis," as it is more technically known -- have led to more than 12 million arrests since 1968, including medical patients who use the natural hallucinogen to alleviate the pain of treatment. "The state ideology of the United States is the repression of cannabis," Cowan said, adding that prohibitionists tend to dismiss the medical arguments for legalizing marijuana as a ploy to give drugs to young children. Recently, Cowan said, two quadriplegics in Arizona were imprisoned for using marijuana for medicinal purposes. He explained that their imprisonment costs taxpayers $600 a day. Cowan, who once told talk-show host Phil Donahue on live television that he has smoked pot every day for the last 27 years, used a combination of humor, statistics and argumentation to reveal what he called the "truth" about marijuana. Cheers of approval resonated when Cowan cited a study showing that "heavy [marijuana] smokers have a slower decline of mental cognition than non-smokers." Still, he stressed that the difficulty in his advocacy work is convincing people to take the issue seriously. Noting its racist origins and classist implications, Cowan suggested that marijuana laws represent "the corruption of the legal system in the United States" and should be of concern to "anyone who cares about individual freedoms." College sophomore and ACLU President Yoni Rosenzweig agreed that this "issue? strikes to the core of American liberties." Cowan cited the Netherlands as a model of a country that he said has a more honest and logical marijuana policy. "The Dutch system has a fundamental objective: the separation of markets," he explained. By legalizing a so-called "soft drug" such as marijuana, Cowan said, the Netherlands has successfully isolated it from more dangerous, "hard" drugs, such as heroine and cocaine. In defense of the Dutch laws, Cowan pointed to the fact that there are 160 heroin addicts per 100,000 in Holland compared with 430 in the United States. Incarceration rates in Holland are also a full 10 times lower than those in the United States. College sophomore Kim Litchfield, who said her uncle has multiple sclerosis and has used marijuana to relieve his pain, said she believes that the separation of markets "makes a lot of sense." And College junior Hank Wilson, who attended the lecture to gain information for an Urban Studies project, said he found Cowan "very intelligent and articulate." Michael Edwards, a College sophomore and member of the ACLU, said he will continue to raise awareness of drug laws as co-founder of a group called Penn Students for Sensible Drug Policies.

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