Columns » Boomer with Attitude

High time to decriminalize pot

Some sanity from Barney Frank and Ron Paul


A couple of months ago, a friend told a story that made me shake my head in sadness and disbelief. He was talking about a business acquaintance's son, a 24-year-old we'll call Tom, an honors graduate from a fine college who is now in prison. When he was 19, Tom was pulled over in South Carolina for a defective brake light, and police found a 16th of an ounce of pot in his glove compartment. He received a suspended sentence and paid a fine. About a year ago, in Virginia where he now lives, he was delivering an ounce of pot, which he had bought from a neighbor for a friend, after which the pair was to attend a concert. You guessed it. Pulled over, a search, a previous conviction, and boom -- two years and a $2,500 fine for being a "drug dealer."

My friend's story actually gave me chills, because Tom could have been any number of people I've known over the years -- people who lead productive, creative, otherwise law-abiding lives, and have loving, stable families. Or, for that matter, it could be any of the huge number of Americans today -- nearly half the U.S. population -- who engage in that particular leisure activity.

Pot use has become so common in the United States that for millions of Americans, the little rituals of buying small quantities of marijuana, and possibly re-selling a smaller portion of it to a friend, are as ordinary and familiar as the checkout routine at a liquor store. The differences, of course, are that liquor is a much more dangerous substance, and you won't be arrested for buying it.

It was a welcome gesture last week -- and a rare breath of sanity from Washington -- when Reps. Barney Frank, Ron Paul and five other House members introduced a bill that would "remove federal penalties for the personal use of marijuana by responsible adults." Under the proposal, possession of up to 100 grams (about 3 1/2 ounces) of pot, and the not-for-profit transfer between adults of up to 1 ounce, would no longer be federal crimes. The bill would not affect laws on growing, importing or exporting pot. Abusing pot, such as driving under the influence, would remain illegal. An immediate effect of the law would be to stop the federal government from overriding states that have legalized the medical use of marijuana, a course the Bush administration has vigorously pursued. State laws would remain in effect, so the bill wouldn't help people in situations like Tom's, but it would probably open the door to states following the federal government's lead in the future.

There are more reasons to de-criminalize pot possession than I have room to discuss in this space, but here are a couple: Pot prohibition overburdens law enforcement all over the country, and it doesn't work anyway. (Never mind that it's also ruining the lives of people whose actions were no more harmful to society than Tom's, but again, there's only so much room in this one column.)

Over 830,000 marijuana-related arrests are made in this country every year, according to the Marijuana Policy Project, a nonprofit think tank; more than 70,000 Americans are in prison for possession or sale of pot. I think that's just plain crazy. It's also an absurd, albeit tragic, fact that arrests for pot now outnumber arrests for all violent crimes combined. With prisons overcrowded and police departments and prosecutors barely able to keep up with property crimes and violence, isn't it maybe a little bit nuts to spend so much time putting pot smokers in jail?

A recent World Health Organization study established as a fact something that anyone with open eyes realized some time ago: Tough "war on drugs" policies do not work, plain and simple. The figures on marijuana use were particularly startling. Countries with get-tough policies, notably the United States and New Zealand, led the rest of the nations surveyed with 42.4 percent and 41.9 percent of the population, respectively, saying they've used pot. By contrast, in Holland, where adults can possess small amounts of pot and buy it from regulated businesses, only 19.8 percent have used marijuana. In the U.S., 20.2 percent of young people said they started smoking pot by age 15; in Holland, it's a mere 7 percent.

The White House Office of National Drug Control Policy responded to the WHO study by saying there's no connection between drug enforcement and our national levels of drug use. Stop and think about that for a minute: The White House Office of National Drug Control Policy says there's no connection between drug enforcement and the nation's level of drug use. I could be wrong, but it seems to me that they're giving away the game here: admitting that their so-called get-tough policies don't work. If even the White House says it, why are we devoting so much money and time, and wasting so many lives?

The United States tried alcohol prohibition for 13 years. It brought about a huge rise in organized crime, the rate of drinking actually increased, and people became alcoholics at a younger age. The country saw that Prohibition didn't work, wised up, and re-legalized alcohol. I'm not saying let's legalize crack or heroin, but when it comes to pot, it's high time we learned a lesson and let it be.

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