Decriminalization and Legalization

Following in the footsteps of decriminalization supporters Chris Dodd and Barack Obama, Barney Frank is set to introduce a bill federally decriminalizing the possession of small amounts of marijuana. He’s selling it as a way to focus on real crimes (you know, the ones that actually hurt people and stuff), and is saying he’ll call it the “Make Room for Serious Criminals” bill.
That’s the right case to make, and it’s really encouraging that the presumptive nominee of and two major legislative leaders in the Democratic Party are so progressive on such a touchy subject, particularly considering Obama’s personal history with the issue. But this really doesn’t go far enough. As Ned says, there is a “lack of a single coherent argument against decriminalization”. Pot, especially in comparison to legal substances like cigarettes and alcohol, just isn’t that dangerous; it’s humanly impossible to overdose on, it doesn’t cause lung cancer, and it isn’t addictive in a substantive way (it is “psychologically addictive”, but then again so are Werther’s Originals). Does it seriously alter one’s mental state? Of course; there wouldn’t be a market for it if it didn’t. Is it anywhere near as dangerous as alcohol or tobacco? Not even close.
So while decriminalization is a good first step, outright legalization has to be the goal. Think the opening scene of Layer Cake; I want boxes of spliffs next to Newports and Marlboros behind store counters, vaporizers stocked in pharmacy aisles, and dimebags available in state liquor stores. Taxation and regulation would be in order, of course; even I don’t want people under, say, sixteen toking up, or for it to be legal to smoke and drive. The revenue potential is significant; I think Vermont’s budget could probably be supported by a pot tax alone within a couple years. Decriminalization is good, of course, but it still leaves growers, dealers, and large users on the hook when they aren’t really causing any social harm. It would make a dent in the prison population, but many would still remain incarcerated because of marijuana prohibition. And most importantly, it keeps the pot trade underground, not in the hands of the good people at Altria and RJ Reynolds, where it belongs.
Kudos to Barney Frank; he’s right on the merits and doing what’s politically feasible at this point. But decriminalization does not have nearly as great the social benefits of outright legalization, and its moderation, as a pure policy matter, isn’t really justifiable. Even if the “Make Room for Serious Criminals” bill passes, there’ll be work left to be done.

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