Stop creating criminals

Dale Gieringer is director, California National Organization for the Reform on Marijuana Laws

While California tries to legalize medical marijuana, the war on pot rages on. Helicopters comb the forests for illegal gardens, drug squads raid suburban pot houses, and residents grapple with street dealers. Meanwhile, the United States is paying Mexico to combat violent marijuana-dealing gangs.

This war isn’t over medical marijuana, which accounts for a small fraction of marijuana demand. Rather, it concerns the broader use of marijuana, which has been illegal since the last century. Like alcohol prohibition, these laws have proven counterproductive and should be repealed.

The laws against marijuana aren’t based on scientific evidence. Repeated expert studies have recommended that marijuana be decriminalized. This was the conclusion of President Nixon’s Commission on Marihuana and Drug Abuse (1972), as well as California’s own Research Advisory Panel (1990), which observed, “An objective consideration of marijuana shows that it is responsible for less damage to society and the individual than are alcohol and cigarettes.”

The laws against marijuana have done nothing to dampen its use. Marijuana was first outlawed in California in 1913, when its usage was virtually unknown. Since then, the number of users has skyrocketed into the millions, despite more than 1 million marijuana arrests. The passage of Proposition 215 hasn’t reduced arrests. The number of marijuana prisoners in California is now 10 times greater than 25 years ago.

Like alcohol prohibition, the laws against marijuana are a crime-creation program. On one hand, they criminalize millions of otherwise law-abiding citizens for their own personal choice of intoxicant. On the other, they create a lucrative black market for criminal dealers, growers and smugglers, who are in turn pursued, arrested and imprisoned at taxpayers’ expense.

The major beneficiaries of this system are the drug cops and criminal dealers, not the taxpayers who foot the bill.

The logical solution is to legalize, tax and regulate marijuana like alcohol and tobacco. The feasibility of this approach is evident in the Netherlands, where marijuana has been openly sold for years. Legalization would net the state between $1.5 and $2.5 billion in tax revenues and reduced enforcement costs.

A growing number of California cities and counties, including Oakland, San Francisco, Santa Cruz and Mendocino County, have endorsed legal taxation and regulation. In a country where Americans enjoy legal alcohol, tobacco and firearms, there is no reason they should not also have marijuana.