In a July 2011 editorial, we called the war on drugs a failure, and said it was time to talk about legalization, especially of marijuana. Back then, this seemed like a radical idea.
But just a year later, voters in two states, Colorado and Washington, have gone beyond talk, approving ballot measures to legalize pot in Tuesday’s election. Rather than crack down, as it has in states such as California and Montana that have legalized medical use of marijuana, the U.S. government should stay away, treating this as an experiment to see whether legalization works in the ways its proponents say it will.
One of those ways is to stop the arrests of thousands of small-scale users (the measures will remove criminal penalties for those over 21 who possess less than an ounce of the drug). In New York, Gov. Andrew Cuomo recently proposed the same thing, but the Senate refused to go along. Although they’ve now been eased somewhat, the draconian Rockefeller drug laws put many small-scale dealers and users, especially minorities, in prison for long periods.
All over the country, police departments, courts and prisons have been overburdened with the aggressive enforcement of drug laws. But the punitive approach hasn’t worked because the demand remains — and where there is demand, there is supply, from the violent drug cartels of Latin America to the gangs in American cities.
But saving money on law enforcement, and freeing police departments to focus on larger crimes, aren’t the only benefits that will come from legalizing marijuana. By regulating it, much as they now regulate alcohol and tobacco, the states can ensure safety and quality, while bringing in many millions of dollars for their coffers.
Yes, there is a danger that teenagers will use marijuana if it is legal, but it’s not as if they can’t get it, or don’t use it, now. And alcohol is probably a bigger danger.
The people of Colorado and Washington have expressed their will, and, clearly, public attitudes about marijuana are changing. It would be a mistake for the feds to now come in heavy-handedly and act as if nothing had happened.
The Justice Department has already lost the drug war. Don’t compound the problem by losing the public opinion war.