Pubdate: Thu, 10 Jan 2013
Source: Omaha World-Herald (NE)
Copyright: 2013 Omaha World-Herald Company
Author: E. J. Dionne, Jr.


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 (Jan. 8 More 
Commentary). "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.
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MAP posted-by: Jay Bergstrom