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Marijuana Is Going to Be Sold One Way or Another -- Question Is, Would You Rather it Be Cartels or Regulated Businesses?

Ask a law enforcement official how having marijuana sold by criminals rather than by regulated businesses is making our communities safer.

For decades, the United States has been embroiled in a debate over whether marijuana should be legalized. The battle has been waged on the state level, where 16 states and the District of Columbia have authorized the use of medical marijuana by qualifying patients. And it has been fought on the national level, with the federal government investing more than a billion dollars over the past decade on a media campaign designed to demonize marijuana.

These political conflicts have one thing in common. They are centered on whether it should be legal for citizens to use marijuana. Supporters of reform argue that patients – or, in some cases, all adults – should not be sent to jail or punished in any other manner for using the substance. On the other side, individuals who believe we should maintain marijuana prohibition claim that marijuana is dangerous and allowing any individual to use it legally will send the wrong message to teens, resulting in increased use.

Over the course of this year, we have seen the beginnings of a long overdue shift in the debate over marijuana policy. With discussion about the pros and cons of using the plant fading to the background, citizens and members of the media are being forced to consider a new question and one that is really quite simple to answer: Who should sell marijuana?

This evolution in conversation, which has at its foundation an acceptance that it is essentially impossible to stop or even reduce significantly marijuana use, stems in large part from the rhetoric put forth by current and former world leaders. Vicente Fox, the former president of Mexico, directly addressed the issue of sales in a Time magazine interview in January. “We have to take all the production chain out of the hands of criminals,” he said, “and into the hands of producers so there are farmers that produce marijuana and manufacturers that process it and distributors that distribute it, and shops that sell it.”

Fox’s successor, Felipe Calderon, was less direct in a March Washington Post interview, but alluded to the possibility of a similar end result. After decrying the widespread use of marijuana in the U.S., Calderon said that if our leaders were not going to crack down on use, they needed to have the “courage to legalize.”

While Calderon did not endorse one option over the other, his point was that absent one of these two paths, illegal marijuana sales in the U.S. would continue generating huge profits for drug cartels in Mexico, leading to more deadly weapons on the streets and increasing levels of violence. In this context, the “courage to legalize” phrase was his way of conveying that it would be preferable to have marijuana cultivated and sold by regulated business in the U.S. rather than by criminal enterprises in Mexico and the U.S.

Three months later, 19 world leaders, including former presidents of Mexico, Columbia and Brazil, former Secretary General of the United Nations Kofi Annan, and former U.S. Secretary of State George Shultz, released a report under the banner of the “Global Commission on Drug Policy.” The members of the commission more directly addressed the potential benefits of shifting the sales of marijuana from the criminal market to a regulated market:

“It is unhelpful to ignore those who argue for a taxed and regulated market for currently illicit drugs. This is a policy option that should be explored with the same rigor as any other. If national governments or local administrations feel that … the creation of a regulated market may reduce the power of organized crime and improve the security of their citizens, then the international community should support and facilitate such policy experiments and learn from their application.”

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