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Shawn Vestal: Legalizing marijuana a no-brainer

UPDATED: Thu., April 20, 2017, 7:26 a.m.

Brock Baker shows off his tee shirt and 2 grams of pot he legally purchased at Spokane Green Leaf, July 8, 2014, in Spokane, Washington.  DAN PELLE danp@spokesman.com (Dan Pelle / The Spokesman-Review)
Brock Baker shows off his tee shirt and 2 grams of pot he legally purchased at Spokane Green Leaf, July 8, 2014, in Spokane, Washington. DAN PELLE danp@spokesman.com (Dan Pelle / The Spokesman-Review)

There are a lot of reasons to celebrate the fact that Washington ended the costly, counterproductive and racist war on marijuana.

It makes sense in criminal justice terms: The system is too taxed to spend resources busting pot smokers, pot growers and pot sellers. It makes sense in revenue terms: State and local governments are seeing tens of millions in new taxes coming in.

But mostly, it makes sense in terms of personal freedom.

Personal freedom. You know, the fundamental characteristic of the country? The thing that makes Toby Keith blush with pride? The right to swing a fist, ending at someone else’s nose?

In this case, it has always been impossible to understand how someone smoking pot did anyone else’s nose any harm – however skunky the aroma – especially in a nation that tolerates the epidemic of problems associated with liquor. I’m not saying there aren’t potential troubles, from stoned drivers to concerns over teenage drug use. But we manage to separate those kinds of issues when considering alcohol, recognizing that adult freedoms are balanced with adult responsibilities.

And so, as we take note of the fifth 4/20 since marijuana was legalized here, it’s worth wondering: How did it take so long?

When states legalized pot, it struck a blow for personal freedom. Since it became legal, we’ve seen something else: Obvious signs that many people had already decided they were sovereign over their own bodies, without the approval of the state. They had already decided to exercise their personal freedom to use marijuana, despite its illegal status. Taking pot into the daylight exposed this truth: There was a huge and thriving black market – and one that included many people who are part of the mainstream – that was immune to all the hysterical exertions of the drug war.

It has long been obvious that this country’s war on pot was a failure, and it’s not over by a long shot; the federal government still classifies marijuana at the same level of danger and severity as heroin or cocaine – as a Schedule 1 drug. This is silly in the extreme.

And there is good reason to wonder if, under the new administration, the war on drugs might make a brief return – complete with eggs sizzling symbolically in frying pans and a booming prison industrial complex that thrives on incarcerating young black men at vastly higher rates than others.

Marijuana is different from harder drugs in some key ways, of course, but it fits into an overall approach to criminalizing drug use that hasn’t worked in the least. Even as an increasing number of states legalize marijuana, drug possession for personal use remains the single biggest reason for arrests in the country, according to a report produced last year by Human Rights Watch and the ACLU.

The report notes that an arrest for simple possession of drugs – not just marijuana – occurs every 25 seconds. At least 137,000 people were imprisoned for simple possession at the time of the report, which was released in October 2016. More than 1.25 million arrests are made each year for possession, and there are four times more arrests for possession than for selling drugs, the report said.

“Each day, tens of thousands more are convicted, cycle through jails and prisons, and spend extended periods on probation and parole, often burdened with crippling debt from court-imposed fines and fees,” the report’s authors wrote. “Their criminal records lock them out of jobs, housing, education, welfare assistance, voting, and much more, and subject them to discrimination and stigma. The cost to them and to their families and communities, as well as to the taxpayer, is devastating. Those impacted are disproportionately communities of color and the poor.”

This final note is a crucial part of the problem with the drug war. In America, white pot-smokers and black pot-smokers have had much different experiences. A lot of white pot-smokers might have gotten the impression over the years that it was almost legal – something to wink about. Black Americans are less likely to have that impression.

The report notes that black and white Americans are roughly equally likely to use marijuana. However, “in the 39 states for which we have sufficient police data, black adults were more than four times as likely to be arrested for marijuana possession than white adults.”

There’s been a lot of smart talk about reforming the country’s approach to drugs, addiction and criminal justice, and a lot of reason to be optimistic in the long run. In the immediate future, though, the federal government may revert to the worst impulses of the war on pot – Attorney General Jeff Sessions has clearly signaled the possibility.

At the grassroots, though, it’s hard to imagine the country ever returning to that mindset in a permanent way. Too many people recognize it for the failure it is. Too many states are seeing that the sky isn’t falling here and elsewhere.

And, as Washington’s multimillion-dollar marijuana market shows, too many people want to exercise their freedom to use it.



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