Tuesday, March 03, 2009

Two Related Stories

I don't mind having a debate on issues where the wisest course of action is unclear, and open, intelligent discourse can help illuminate the best path to a desired outcome. That's assuming the desired outcome is one shared by all parties in the debate. For example, if we are debating how best to handle dealing with a crazy dictator somewhere, no discourse -- no matter how intelligent -- is going to be effective if one party wants to achieve freedom through democracy and another wants to maintain a chaotic structure in order to further their own ends. But if, for example, we all share the goal of a democratic, self-governing state in Iraq, our debate about how to achieve that goal can be much more productive.

However, there are issues where the right thing to do seems so clear, that I am surprised there has to be any debate at all. Same-sex marriage is one of these. Our Constitution establishes equal treatment under the law. Gay couples do not currently have equal access to the benefits of civil marriage. The right thing to do is to extend equality. It doesn't hurt heterosexual couples. It doesn't impinge on religious freedom as it's entirely a civil matter. So why is there even an argument about this?

Another subject where the solution seems crystal clear (at least to me) is drug laws. I know there are people still alive who were around during Prohibition. Has no one learned that lesson that even though a substance might have deleterious effects, if it alters consciousness in a way people experience as pleasurable or desirable that it's almost impossible to stop them from seeking it out? And that leaving the production and distribution of that substance in the hands of a criminal element only leads to more crime?

The Drug War has failed. Miserably. One of its especially miserable side effects is that one in 31 Americans is currently under the control (or attempted control) of the criminal justice system. This is from a new Pew study, which you can read more about here. In Federal prisons, more than half the inmates are jailed for drug offenses. In state prisons, about 20% of inmates are incarcerated for drug crimes.

What's the solution? Well, for marijuana at least, it seems the height of foolishness not to legalize/decriminalize its use, and to regulate and tax its production, sale and distribution. By any measure, marijuana is less harmful than any other legal or illegal drug. It's impossible to overdose, it is not physiologically addictive, and it has several health benefits, including reducing the effects of glaucoma and possibly staving off Alzheimer's. It's also one of the best anti-nausea remedies available.

This is why California legislator Tom Ammiano has introduced legislation to decriminalize and regulate and tax marijuana. Marijuana cultivation and sales is California's biggest agricultural business -- yet the people of the state receive no benefit from it because it's not taxed. Ammiano estimates the state could rake in more than $1 billion in tax revenue from his proposal.

And that's not even figuring in the reduced costs for law enforcement if pot were legalized. Imagine if we didn't have to let violent criminals out of jail because there isn't enough room in our prisons. Imagine if cops had more time to focus on property crimes because they weren't pre-occupied by trying to find and arrest pot growers and users.

Of course, some of the criminal element involved in the marijuana trade might have a hard time finding honest work if their criminal activity ceased to be profitable. (Though many of those growing marijuana are doing so strictly for personal use.) But if they stepped into other areas of criminal behavior, there'd be more cops to deal with that bad behavior because they weren't dealing with drug "crime."

It seems so logical and common-sense -- why aren't we doing it?

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