Adults-only marijuana law reform is needed

05/30/2014 3:51 PM

06/03/2014 2:23 PM

The war on drugs may be a federal mandate, but cities and states are largely responsible for enforcing its disastrous polices. Across the country, movements are finally afoot to change how local and state governments deal with the issue of marijuana use.

Medical marijuana is now legal in 21 states. Colorado and Washington have legalized recreational marijuana use. Yet more change is badly needed. Our society is still expending enormous resources to prosecute the pointless war on weed.

In 2012, according to drugpolicy.org, about 1.55 million Americans were arrested in the U.S. on nonviolent drug charges. Roughly half of them were arrested for marijuana violations.

Of those, 88 percent were arrested for simple possession. In Missouri alone there were more than 20,000 marijuana-related arrests last year. Shuffling all those non-violent pot smokers through the criminal justice system is not only a vast waste of resources but socially destructive, ruining lives and tearing families apart.

Marijuana law reform would save tax dollars and unclog the courts. Look at Denver. Four months after recreational marijuana sales were legalized in Colorado, crime rates have dropped in the Mile High City.

That includes violent crime, which has fallen 5.6 percent from the same period a year ago. Property crimes have dropped by 11.4 percent.

Colorado’s new marijuana industry has generated massive tax revenues for the state. Over the next year, according to Gov. John Hickenlooper’s budget office, recreational and medical marijuana could pump nearly $134 million in direct tax and fee revenue into state coffers. That doesn’t even count the huge ancillary benefits, such as the tourism boom and a reported spike in enrollments at Colorado colleges and universities.

Closer to home, we have made progress. Missouri Senate Bill 491, which Gov. Jay Nixon allowed to become law on May 5, will reduce the possession of less than 10 grams of marijuana from a Class A misdemeanor to a Class D misdemeanor.

That’s a good step, and there’s no doubt that fully legalizing marijuana for medical and recreational use in our state would be a social good. However, we must also acknowledge that marijuana, like any drug, has social costs.

Granted, using weed may not be as socially destructive as drinking alcohol. But that doesn’t mean marijuana, as we are so often told, is “harmless.”

Driving after smoking a joint may not be as dangerous as drunken driving, but being high behind the wheel is nevertheless driving while intoxicated. Similarly, pot law reform will make it easier for minors to get stoned.

In Colorado, Hickenlooper is pushing to use some of his state’s marijuana-generated revenue to address these concerns, such as youth marijuana-use prevention, substance-abuse treatment programs, and an anti-stoned-driving campaign. That’s smart policy.

While pushing for overdue marijuana law reform, advocates mustn’t merely recite the mantras that “weed is harmless” and “booze is legal, so marijuana should be.” Proponents will help their cause by also acknowledging that every drug has social costs, and policies should be in place to address them.

A mature citizenry understands that new rights always come with new responsibilities. If marijuana is to be made legal for adult use, legalization advocates must prove that they know what adulthood means.

Hampton Stevens, of Kansas City, is a national and regional freelance writer. Reach him at oped@kcstar.com.

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