A Smarter Way to Deal with Pot Than Arresting 20 Million People

If lawmakers really wanted to address marijuana use, they would regulate and tax pot like they do tobacco.

According to a new report released by the Centers for Disease Control, fewer Americans are smoking cigarettes than at any time in modern history. "The number of U.S. adults who smoke has dropped below 20 percent for the first time on record," Reuters reported. This is less than half the percentage (42 percent) of Americans who smoked cigarettes during the 1960s.

Imagine that. In the past 40 years, tens of millions of Americans have voluntarily quit smoking a legal, yet highly addictive intoxicant. Many others have refused to initiate the habit. And they've all made this decision without ever once being threatened with criminal prosecution and arrest, imprisonment, probation, and drug testing.

By contrast, during this same period of time, state and local police have arrested some 20 million Americans for pot law violations -- primarily for violations no greater than simple possession. And yet marijuana use among the public has skyrocketed.


There's a lesson to be learned here, of course. Tobacco, though harmful to health, is a legally regulated commodity. Sellers are licensed and held accountable by federal and state laws. Users are restricted by age. Advertising and access is limited by state and federal governments. And health warnings regarding the drug's use are based upon credible science.


By contrast, marijuana remains an unregulated black market commodity. Sellers are typically criminal entrepreneurs who, for the most part, operate undetected from law enforcement and are free to sell their product to any person of any person. Unlike tobacco, marijuana's packaging carries no warning label, and government 'education' campaign's regarding pot's use are based almost explicitly upon hyperbole, propaganda, and laughablestereotypes.

Is it any wonder why use of one drug is going down at the same time that use of the other is rising?

If federal lawmakers truly wished to address marijuana use, they would take a page from their successful campaign to reduce the use of cigarettes. This would include taxing and regulating cannabis -- with the drug's sale and use restricted to specific markets and consumers.

While such an alternative may not entirely eliminate the black market demand for pot, it would certainly be preferable to today's blanket, though thoroughly ineffective, expensive and impotent criminal prohibition.

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Paul Armentano is the deputy director of NORML and the NORML Foundation in Washington, DC.