Marijuana has been in the news recently - all the way from South America to California and Washington State.
In Cartagena, Colombia, at a summit of South American leaders, some heads of state criticized President Obama for refusing to abandon a drug war that has claimed tens of thousands of lives and undermined their governments. Some argued that legalizing marijuana in the Untied States would help to defund the drug cartels in their countries.
"I don't mind a debate around issues like decriminalization," Obama said, "but I personally don't agree that that's a solution to the problem."
Of course, he doesn't. Any politician advocating decriminalization of pot in this country would put his or her career in jeopardy. Although in South America, Obama added reflectively, "it's completely understandable that they [the governments in question] would look for new approaches."
It's been 41 years since President Nixon declared a "war on drugs." And almost all acknowledge that "war" has failed. According to Leonard Pitts in a recent column, it has cost us over a trillion dollars. It has burdened our prisons, overcrowding them with small-time pot dealers. Moreover, the percentage of those addicted to drugs in 1971 is the same today. Since our population has increased greatly, the number of addicts since 1971 has also dramatically increased. However we evaluate it, the "war on drugs " has failed miserably.
If you think Leonard Pitts is too liberal a columnist, here is George Will, the go-to conservative guy on the same topic. "In 'Drugs and Drug Policy: What Everyone Needs to Know,' policy analysts Mark Kleiman, Jonathan Caulkins and Angela Hawken argue that imprisoning low-ranking, street-corner dealers is pointless: A $200 transaction can cost society $100,000 for a three-year sentence. And imprisoning large numbers of dealers produces an army of people who, emerging from prison with blighted employment prospects, can only deal drugs."
Will goes on to say, drug "cartels have oceans of money for corrupting enforcement because drugs are so cheap to produce and easy to renew. So it is not unreasonable to consider modifying a policy that gives hundreds of billions of dollars a year to violent crime." Will admits that only 10 billion or so comes from the cartel's marijuana trade, and if the cartel loses that source of income it would still rake in vast amounts from cocaine, heroin and methamphetamines. But 10 billion is nothing to sneeze at.
Far from South America in Washington State, Initiative 502 is on the ballot. It would allow adults 21 and older to possess up to an ounce of marijuana without penalty. There are detailed provisions in the Initiative to protect the public from those driving under the influence of marijuana. Marijuana users who operate a motor vehicle with more than five nanograms of THC (the psychoactive compound in marijuana) in their blood would be guilty of driving under the influence automatically.
Under the Initiative, Washington State would issue licenses to marijuana farmers, distributors and stores, which could then sell pot over the counter - like beer or wine - and the state would collect sales taxes. Officials estimate the measure could generate up to $606 million in revenue the first year for the Washington State budget.
In 1998, 59 percent of Washington State citizens voted to legalize medical marijuana. In the 14 years since a robust industry has emerged to supply marijuana to those with medical needs. Doctors write authorizations and dispensaries sell the marijuana. Ironically, the medical marijuana lobby is opposing Initiative 502 because making small amounts of pot legal for all would financially cripple the medical marijuana market, which is driven by profit - and not by compassion for the critically sick.
In California in November 2010, a ballot initiative to legalize marijuana was narrowly defeated by the medical marijuana lobby. Now a study shows that 62 percent of the California voters polled favor legalization and regulation of marijuana. Activists are collecting signatures to place the Regulate Marijuana Like Wine Act of 2012 on the ballot.
Pot is less harmful than tobacco, which dramatically shortens life, and alcohol, which also causes thousands of deaths on our highways. Why is it that the one drug that never killed anyone is illegal? Society accepts the legalization and regulation of tobacco and alcohol, why not marijuana? Legalization would alleviate our overcrowded prisons, saving taxpayers millions. Moreover, sales taxes collected would produce more millions every year for struggling state budgets. The time has come.
Retired from the administration at State University of New York at Fredonia, Daniel O'Rourke lives in Cassadaga, New York. His column appears on the second and fourth Thursday each month. A grandfather, Dan is a married Catholic priest. His new book, "The Living Spirit" is a collection of previous columns. To read about that book or send comments on this column visit his website www.danielcorourke.com.