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Editorial June 13, 2013  RSS feed


To legalize it or not to legalize it. That is the question states across the U.S. are asking about marijuana, as many clamor for an end to the outright prohibition of the drug.

Marijuana was outlawed by the federal government in 1972, and in the last 41 years, law enforcement has waged a war on cannabis. Millions of people have been arrested and billions in taxpayer dollars have been spent in this crusade to stop something which many believe impairs judgment and leads its users down the road to using more serious drugs.

Americans, however, are now second-guessing themselves regarding their stance on marijuana. It began with claims by many medical researchers that cannabis has worked wonders in easing the pain of those suffering from serious or terminal diseases. Ironically, the medicinal purposes of marijuana—commonly used by smoking—are embraced even as governments work to shun tobacco use, since smoking is hazardous to one’s health.

Nevertheless, the medicinal argument—though dismissed by many politicians such as Mayor Michael Bloomberg, who called it “one of the greatest hoaxes of all time”—convinced 19 states and the District of Columbia to authorize the use of marijuana for medical purposes, as prescribed by physicians in these areas.

Then the law of unintended consequences kicked in, as movements started in other states to decriminalize the possession of small amounts of marijuana. This is being considered here in New York State, where the Assembly approved a bill reducing the penalties for miniscule possession of marijuana from jail time to a small fine.

Other states are now considering following in the footsteps of Washington State and Colorado voters, who last year approved the outright decriminalization of marijuana. In ballot referendums, they approved that the drug be regulated by the government and customers face heavy taxes.

The Washington State and Colorado referendums, however, contradict the federal ban on marijuana. President Barack Obama stated in an interview last year that there is a need for “a conversation” about reconciling state and federal marijuana laws. This undoubtedly leaves the door open that the federal government may start to bend on its stance regarding pot.

What good is a conversation going to do if two states have ended their marijuana ban, 19 others have allowed pot for medicinal purposes and more states are now questioning their own laws regarding cannabis? The federal government has the final say on the marijuana ban it imposed 41 years ago. At this point, if the prohibition is going to be ignored by the states, there’s no sense in the federal government continuing its current cannabis policy.

Regulating the production, processing and sale of marijuana— much like tobacco or alcohol—would mean a new source of tax revenue for the eternally cash-strapped state and federal governments. Law enforcement agencies could shift greater resources to fighting other crimes. Lifting the ban would also have the secondhand effect of hurting drug traffickers in Mexico, where a large portion of marijuana used in the U.S. is grown.

Ninety-three years ago, the U.S. unsuccessfully tried to ban alcohol. Prohibition proved to be an unequivocal failure, but once it ended in 1933, the federal government put into place various mechanisms to ensure that alcohol production would be regulated and its sale taxed for the government’s benefit.

We could learn a lesson from Prohibition in our ongoing debate over marijuana. Let the federal government lift the ban and set a uniform policy by which the use and sale of marijuana can be regulated—and taxed.