By the time my 5-year-old daughter leaves for college, it’s quite likely that marijuana use will be broadly decriminalized. Alaska has become the most recent state to move toward legalization, placing an initiative on the ballot for an August vote. If it passes, Alaska would join Washington and Colorado, which have already made recreational use legal for adults.
The trend will probably continue, since 52 percent of Americans support legalization, according to the Pew Research Center. That’s good news — and not because I want my daughter to indulge.
Quite the opposite. Having grown up in the years of cannabis prohibition, I know all about the dangers of the weed. Even though I don’t accept the exaggerations of such propaganda as Reefer Madness, a 1930s-era film that portrayed pot-smoking as the road to destruction, I know that marijuana overuse is dangerous. That’s especially true for adolescents, whose brains are stunted by frequent pot-smoking, research shows.
Overindulgence in alcohol is dangerous, too. Yet the nation learned through wretched experience that Prohibition was worse. It bred a gaggle of violent criminals who trailed death and devastation in their wake. Their crimes were generated by the law itself: Making alcohol illegal did not stop its use; it merely fostered a huge and profitable black market.
The futile War on Drugs has done the same thing, promoting violent crime throughout the Americas and fueling the growth in prison populations. According to the FBI, about half of the annual drug arrests in the United States are for marijuana.
The so-called war has done its greatest damage in black America, decimating whole neighborhoods as young black men are locked up for non-violent crimes, then released with records that will restrict their employment opportunities for the rest of their lives.
At a time when policymakers are struggling to close a yawning income gap — to find ways to support equal opportunity for all — it makes no sense to criminalize a group of people for getting stoned. Not only does a drug record stigmatize them for life, but a prison sentence also forces them into close quarters with hardened criminals, making it more likely that they will graduate to violent crimes themselves.