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5 Burning Questions About Legalizing Pot

Three experts explain everything you need to know about the battle to legalize marijuana.

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Millions of Americans use marijuana. They should be able to do so without being made criminals and without supporting violent criminals.

Why is legalization a more effective step in curbing drug related violence or dependence than simply decriminalizing?

NF: Decriminalization is a step in the right direction because it prevents people from the shackling of criminal records for simply possessing marijuana and also allows the criminal justice system to focus more of its limited resources on stopping and solving violent crimes. However, it does nothing to reduce the violent underground drug trade. Only legalized regulation of the market can do that. Let’s remember that during alcohol prohibition, personal possession and use of booze was essentially decriminalized. It wasn’t until the prohibition on manufacture and sales was lifted that gangsters stopped killing each other and the police over black market alcohol profits. This is because legalizing and regulating a product means people will purchase it through the proper channels and therefore the lucrative illegal market all but disappears.

MT: Simply removing the criminal penalties for marijuana does nothing to eliminate the underground market, which produces the only real violence associated with marijuana. By keeping marijuana illegal, we are forcing those who seek it into an underground market where it is sold exclusively by individuals who are willing to break the law. Naturally, some of these individuals will have other illegal products available, including drugs that are far more harmful than marijuana. Amendment 64 would regulate marijuana and restrict its sale to licensed stores, as we currently do with alcohol. In doing so, it will dramatically reduce consumers’ exposure to harder drugs and the temptation to experiment with them. Regulating marijuana will also ensure that consumers know what they are getting when they purchase marijuana. Illegal marijuana dealers are not subject to quality standards, and are not testing or labeling their products.

Is this the beginning of a multi-state reformation process on the legality of marijuana much like the state by state roll back of Prohibition in the early 20th century?

PA: I believe that it is. The parallels are obvious. Like alcohol prohibition before it, the criminalization of cannabis is a failed federal policy that delegates the burden of enforcement to the state and local police. How did America’s ‘Nobel Experiment’ with alcohol prohibition come to an end? When a sufficient number of states, led by New York in 1923 and ultimately joined by nearly a dozen others, enacted legislation repealing the state’s alcohol laws, prohibition effectively discontinued. With state police and prosecutors no longer enforcing the Federal government’s unpopular law, politicians eventually had no choice but to abandon the policy altogether. History now repeats itself.

NF: Absolutely. It wasn’t considered possible to repeal federal alcohol prohibition until states ramped up the pressure by repealing their own prohibition laws from the books. Now that polls consistently show nationwide majority support for marijuana legalization and that voters in two states have actually passed legalization measures, expect to see more states jumping on board quickly. We can also expect to see more members of Congress and elected officials who heretofore have only supported us silently, behind closed doors start to speak out and take action publicly. The politicians have been behind the people on this one, but more savvy leaders are starting to realize that there’s political opportunity in getting in front of this issue.

What can we expect the Obama administration’s response will be to the passage of these amendments?

PA: In Colorado 55 percent of voters (four percent more than voted for President Barack Obama) decided in favor of Amendment 64. In Washington, roughly 56 percent of voters similarly decided in favor of Initiative 502. These provisions will take effect early next month and I expect these provisions to go into effect without incident. States are not mandated to criminalize marijuana or arrest adult cannabis consumers and the Federal government cannot compel prosecutors in Colorado or Washington to do otherwise. Theoretically, of course, the Justice Department and the DEA (which continues to define cannabis as an illegal commodity equally dangerous as heroin) could choose to prosecute those individuals in Colorado and Washington who possess personal amounts of cannabis in Washington and Colorado. Such a scenario is hardly plausible. Right now, the federal government lacks the manpower, political will, and public support to engage in such behavior. So, in the short-term, I see no reason why these states cannot repeal their longstanding state criminal prohibitions on the personal use of cannabis. They can do so without running afoul of federal.