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It Makes No Sense To Criminalize People For Getting Stoned

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.

And here’s the thing that’s especially galling: Whites don’t pay nearly the same price. (If they did, marijuana would have been legalized decades ago.) Although studies show that whites and blacks smoke pot at about the same rate, blacks are 3.7 times more likely to be arrested, according to a 2013 report by the American Civil Liberties Union. “The war on marijuana has disproportionately been a war on people of color,” Ezekiel Edwards, director of the ACLU Criminal Law Reform Project, said last year.

Even with all the evidence of the harm from the War on Drugs, though, many middle-aged and older Americans are still reluctant to support legalization of marijuana. That’s less true of the young. According to Pew, 65 percent of millennials — born since 1980 and now between 18 and 32 — favor legalization, up from just 36 percent in 2008.

Those less enthusiastic about legalizing pot point to risks, including a likely increase in rates of cannabis addiction. In addition, they note, legalization of marijuana would probably lead to increased calls for the decriminalization of much more harmful drugs, such as heroin.

There is no doubt that most narcotics are more dangerous than pot and may need to be treated differently. The recent death of actor Philip Seymour Hoffman is a stark reminder of that. But we can distinguish between cannabis and heroin just as we distinguish between Tylenol and Oxycontin.

Unfortunately, the federal government stubbornly clings to an outdated view, insisting that its law enforcement authorities will continue to view marijuana sales and possession as a crime. That’s dumb, and President Obama ought to know better. He has long admitted his youthful pot use, and he recently acknowledged in a New Yorker interview that it is no more dangerous than alcohol.

That doesn’t mean he wants his two daughters to smoke pot, any more than I want mine to. But I certainly don’t think any of them should go to jail if they do.

(Cynthia Tucker, winner of the 2007 Pulitzer Prize for commentary, is a visiting professor at the University of Georgia. She can be reached at cynthia@cynthiatucker.com.)

AFP Photo/Desiree Martin

Marijuana Injustices

WASHINGTON — I have no desire to smoke marijuana, partly because doing so might drive me back to the cigarette habit I broke two decades ago. I don’t want to be one of those “cool parents” who pretend to be as culturally advanced as their kids. In my case, that’s a ridiculous aspiration anyway.

And I agree with those who call attention to the dangers of excessive indulgence in marijuana and want to encourage people to resist it. Nobody wants us to become a nation of stoners.

Nonetheless, I have come to believe that we should legalize or at least decriminalize marijuana use. The way we enforce marijuana laws is unconscionable. The arrest rates for possession are astoundingly and shamefully different for whites and African-Americans. The incongruence between what our statutes require and what Americans actually do cannot be sustained.

The key document in this debate should be a study released last June by the American Civil Liberties Union. It found that marijuana use is comparable across racial lines — 14 percent for African-Americans and 12 percent for whites in 2010. But the arrest rates are not. It turns out that “a black person was 3.73 times more likely to be arrested for marijuana possession than a white person.”

“In states with the worst disparities,” the report noted, “blacks were on average over six times more likely to be arrested for marijuana possession than whites. In the worst offending counties across the country, blacks were over 10, 15, even 30 times more likely to be arrested than white residents of the same county.”

True, we could equalize things by massively diverting police energies to make sure that whites got arrested at the same rate as African-Americans, thus adding to the ranks of those with rap sheets. But to offer this “solution” is to show how absurd it is. If we’re not willing to guarantee that a law is enforced with rough equality, doesn’t this tell us something about what we think of it in the first place?

In a recent New York Times column, my friend David Brooks made the classic argument for keeping marijuana illegal. “Laws profoundly mold culture, so what sort of community do we want our laws to nurture?” he asked. “What sort of individuals and behaviors do our governments want to encourage?”

The “law as teacher” thesis is attractive until you start jailing people and creating arrest records that can harm them for many years. And we don’t need to make something illegal to discourage its use, as we have learned in the battle against cigarette smoking.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the proportion of cigarette smokers in our country dropped from 42.4 percent in 1965 to 18 percent in 2012. We have built legal fences around tobacco, using regulations to send the signals Brooks is talking about without making tobacco consumption a crime.

I know Brooks doesn’t approve of the racial disparities in marijuana enforcement, and I’m sure that’s also true of my Washington Post colleague Ruth Marcus, who wrote last week that “widespread legalization is a bad idea.” At the same time, she asserted: “Throwing people in jail for smoking pot is dumb and wasteful.” This second point is entirely right, which is why we need to change our marijuana statutes.

The debate we need is not between the status quo and legalization but between legalizing marijuana for non-medical uses and decriminalizing it. Decriminalization would be a form of public disapproval without all of the contradictions and injustices of our current approach.

Here, our federal system can help us. Colorado and Washington have embarked on their legalization experiments, while more than a dozen states have decriminalized pot by imposing, at most, limited, speeding-ticket style penalties for possession.

Decriminalization, Adam Serwer wrote a few years ago in The American Prospect, might avoid the problems created by a wide-open marijuana market. “I’m not sure what a world with a fully commercialized marijuana industry that profits from turning people into potheads looks like,” he said, “but it makes me nervous.” The alternative is to permit a normal market while sharply restricting advertising and other forms of marketing, as we do with cigarettes.

One way or another, public sentiment is moving toward change, and for good reason. A Pew poll last year found that 72 percent of Americans agreed that “government efforts to enforce marijuana laws cost more than they are worth.” That’s true, and those costs are far heavier for some of our fellow citizens than for others.

E.J. Dionne’s email address is ejdionne@washpost.com. Twitter: @EJDionne.

Photo: North Cascades National Park/Flickr