One holiday season over 20 years ago, I found myself in a bar two days after Christmas with most of the people I had graduated high school with ten years earlier. It was the first time I had seen many of them since we had walked across the stage in alphabetical order on the day we graduated. I was still a street-level field medic back then, and seeing people at their absolute worst had pretty much turned me into the cynic that stands before you today.

Some of my classmates had also pursued public safety and law enforcement careers — Les was a county deputy sheriff in the county he had grown up in, Dave was a DEA agent and Mike was at the FBI academy after a stint in the Marines and earning a degree with his GI Bill benefits — and we gravitated to one another.

This was the height of the crack epidemic, and it was taking a brutal toll on the city where we were stationed and I was working, and Les shared that even in the cream-cheese-and-white-bread idyllic middle class community we had come of age in, it was making inroads. He had arrested the younger brother of one of our classmates with several grams of the stuff over the Thanksgiving weekend.

I don’t know how the topic turned to marijuana, but it did. We were all in agreement — it wasn’t like other drugs, and was far preferable to alcohol. It didn’t cause the social problems and sew destruction in the lives of the users like other drugs and alcohol did. Dave allowed that he had never been in a firefight with weed smugglers, they were a different breed than the coke runners who were more than willing to fire their weapons at the drop of a hat. I chimed in that I had never picked up the pieces of a family because a stoner was driving 90 miles an hour down the wrong side of the interstate. Les, always the class comedian, piped up then and said “Ain’t that the truth! The stoners are driving 20 miles an hour and looking for a drive-through window!”

I flashed back to that conversation and laughed out loud all over again when I saw the following article about legalization yesterday:

States that have passed initiatives to legalize medical marijuana have also seen a decline in traffic fatalities, according to a new study out this week by the Institute for the Study of Labor.

Opponents of medical marijuana often focus on the social detriment to making America’s most valuable cash crop available to those approved by doctors, arguing that medical marijuana legalization makes it easier for teens to buy pot and that they’ll soon move to more dangerous drugs. They also suggest that legalization would increase the number of vehicle accidents — and that very argument was one of the main reasons why California voters did not approve full legalization in 2010.

But far from marijuana acting as a “gateway” to more dangerous drugs, as authorities often claim, researchers found that it’s more commonly used as a substitute for alcohol, which is often more harmful and inebriating than marijuana.

Studying data from the National Survey on Drug Use and Health, researchers also found that legalizing medical marijuana did, in fact, drive up usage among adults. But contrary to medical marijuana critics’ claims, they were unable to find evidence of it growing the number of minors on the drug.

A further analysis of data from the Fatality Analysis Reporting System, spanning from 1990 to 2009, revealed that states which legalized medical marijuana saw a decline in alcohol consumption. A decline in traffic fatalities was a direct side effect of that.

Traffic fatalities are the leading cause of death for Americans age 35 and under.

“Specifically, we find that traffic fatalities fall by nearly 9 percent after the legalization of medical marijuana,” researchers wrote.

They also found that legalization has an even more pronounced impact on the overall instances of alcohol playing a role in traffic deaths, suggesting that its reductive effect on the number of drunk drivers is even stronger than its overall effect on fatalities.

“Every objective study on marijuana has concluded that it is far safer than alcohol for the user and society,” explained Mason Tvert, director of SAFER, a group which advocates for legalization in Colorado. “It should come as little surprise that when we allow adults to make the safer choice to use marijuana it results in less drinking and fewer alcohol-related problems.”

What we had believed when we were in high school (every last one of us who was sitting at that table that night had smoked weed in high school, and actually prefered it to alcohol, but had careers that demanded we stay within the law or lose our careers and livlihoods) had been born out anecdotally in our professional careers, and the people we worked with knew it, too. We knew a decade in that the so-called war on drugs was actually a war on civil liberties and privacy rights, and a financial boondoggle that defied reason and logic.

We also knew that nothing was all that likely to change in our lifetimes, and certainly not in our working lifetimes — and that, we agreed, was too bad.

Now I’m out of my previous career, and back in school studying for another one — primarily because I wrecked my knees during my first career. Doctors are more than happy to look at the x-rays and MRIs of my knees and once they are through cringing in sympathetic pain, take out their prescription pads and write me prescriptions for highly addictive and extremely impairing opiates. Over the years since Vioxx was taken off the market, I have filled scads of prescriptions for Darvocet, which has also been pulled from the market for causing heart damage, as well as Vicodin and Percocet. I took 30 mg. of Oxycontin every day for a year and I’ve even taken straight-up Morphine Sulfate.

All of those drugs are addictive and potentially devastating, and scare the hell out of me. I know from personal experience and experimentation that if I had legal access to marijuana, I could function fine and take the occasional lower-strength Vicodin and/or Ultram instead of the Percocet and Ultram I currently take every single day. Some days I just suck it up and don’t take my meds — for instance, when I’m intent on studying or when I have an exam. Since I’m not working in that heavy-duty career field any longer, I could easily score weed (I am in college after all) and self-medicate. Except for that pesky “pain contract” that I have to sign every year, which means I can be required to submit a urine sample when I go to pick up refills to make sure that only prescribed meds are in my system, at the proper levels.

But I have hope that will change, and relatively soon. Missouri is currently collecting signatures to get both a law and a constitutional amendment on the ballot in the 2012 election that would decriminalize marijuana in the state.

Care to take a guess at who is going to be toting a clipboard and advocating loudly for both of those ballot initiatives for the next year?