These days, it seems like everyone is talking in earnest about marijuana legalization, once dismissed as little more than a Cheech and Chong pipe dream. Indeed, a new poll reveals that 53 percent of Americans now support ending marijuana prohibition.
Bolstered by increasing public support for something once considered to be a political third rail, lawmakers from Rhode Island to Washington State have put the issue on the table for consideration. And citizen initiatives (particularly in California) are cropping up faster than ditch weed.
These are welcome developments to a retired police chief like me who oversaw the arrests of countless people for marijuana and other drugs, but saw no positive impact from all the blood, sweat and tears (and money) put into the effort. Soon, it seems, cops may no longer have to waste time and risk lives enforcing pot laws that don’t actually prevent anyone from using marijuana.
Yet, I'm alarmed that the above-mentioned poll showing majority support for marijuana legalization also found that fewer than one in 10 people agree that it's time to end the prohibition of other drugs.
This no doubt makes sense to some readers at first glance, since more people are familiar with marijuana than other drugs like cocaine, heroin or meth. However, even a cursory study of our drug war policies will reveal that legalizing pot but not other drugs will leave huge social harms unresolved.
Legalizing marijuana only will not:
• Stop drug dealers from brutally murdering rival traffickers for the purpose of controlling the remaining criminal market for other drugs;
• Stop drug dealers from firing on cops charged with fighting the senseless war on other illicit drugs;
• Stop drug dealers from killing kids caught in crossfire and drive-by shootings;
• Reduce the spread of infectious diseases like AIDS and hepatitis, since marijuana users don’t inject their drug like heroin users (who sometimes share dirty needles and syringes because prohibition makes it hard to secure clean ones);
• Stop the bloody cartel battles in Mexico that are rapidly expanding over the border into the U.S;
• Stop the Taliban from raking in massive profits from illegal opium cultivation in Afghanistan.
Of course, none of this means that our rapidly growing marijuana legalization movement should slow down.
On the contrary, as the polls show, a majority of Americans understand that legalizing marijuana will produce many benefits. No longer will 800,000 people a year be arrested on pot charges, their lives damaged if not ruined governments will be able to tax the popular commodity; regulation and revenues will help forge and finance effective programs of drug abuse prevention and treatment; and those vicious cartels will lose as much as half their illicit profits when they can no longer sell marijuana.
Further, once people get used to the idea of allowing legal sales of the previously banned drug we'll be able to point to successful regulation as a model for similar treatment of all other currently illicit substances.
Marijuana legalization is a great step in the direction of sane and sensible drug policy. But we reformers must remember that we’re working to legalize drugs not because we think they are safe, but because prohibition is far more dangerous to users and nonusers alike.