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Pot fears expose fears about societal health

Have you heard why the war on drugs will never end? It's because of the enormous number of people involved in it: police officers, federal agents, defense attorneys, judges, prosecutors, wardens, prison guards, parole and probation officers. The nation has made such a huge investment in the war on drugs that politicians will keep it going forever, the theory goes. Disrupt it, and we would lose four decades of sunk costs and a significant part of the public-sector economy.

I used to hear this all the time and dismiss it as libertarian hyperbole, or what Joe Cassilly, the Harford County state's attorney, might call the irrational ravings of "a bunch of potheads."

But when you see chiefs of police, sheriffs and prosecutors show up in force to keep marijuana laws in place, as they did Tuesday at the General Assembly, you've got to wonder. Their pushback against efforts to either decriminalize small amounts of weed or legalize its recreational use looked like a circling of the wagons.

The chiefs and sheriffs really want to continue to devote their resources to detecting and arresting people for weed?

I'm sure they mean well. Many of them believe marijuana is the threshold to cocaine and heroin. But they also came across as a little too eager to maintain a status quo that doesn't seem to be worth the public investment anymore.

One hundred years from now — assuming there's life on Earth and people still have a sense of humor — Americans will look back on the era of pot prohibition and wonder what all the fuss was about.

Since the Nixon era of the early 1970s, when suburban mothers started complaining to politicians about their teenage kids having marijuana, we've had a war on weed. By now it has involved hundreds of thousands of police and probation officers, sheriffs, attorneys and narcotics agents, and billions in taxpayer dollars, all to arrest people who wanted to smoke the dried leaves of a plant.

And this in a country loaded with booze and tobacco.

Step back and look at that picture for a few minutes, and few things seem as wasteful and as hypocritical.

There are other fronts in the war on drugs — cocaine, heroin, meth — but I'll leave those aside for now and stick with one option being considered in Annapolis: the proposed legalization of the sale, possession and use of marijuana, to be regulated and taxed by the state.

Colorado and Washington have already taken this step. Voter initiatives got the legalization question onto the ballot in those states.

But we won't be getting pot by plebiscite here; in Maryland, the General Assembly has to make the call. Under the state constitution, voters can only petition to referendum laws that have first been passed by the legislature. So the pro-legalization crowd is stuck with the General Assembly, with its fussy and deliberative committees and politicians who worry about being labeled soft on crime.

Still, polls show support for liberalizing the marijuana laws, and there's a consensus building that pot will be legal across the land some day soon.

Police chiefs and sheriffs can push back, call for studies and issue warnings about the bad things that will occur if marijuana becomes fully legal, but it's just a matter of time before it does.

Getting to the future is always tricky, especially when we're stepping into the unknown. There are lots of questions, starting with this one:

Will legalization mean more people smoking pot? Answer: Certainly, that's what happened with booze after Prohibition.

Will we become a nation of potheads? No one really believes that.

But here's what I think explains the opposition, the fears about marijuana: We're a country with a lot of problems — a disturbing amount of violence, depravity, dysfunction, cynicism, poverty, uncertainty. We look around and see lots of people breaking bad, medicating themselves with everything from painkillers to beer.

Americans have always done that, of course, but there seems to be more of it going around now, in different forms.

So here we are, looking at legalizing or decriminalizing pot, and all but its most self-absorbed fans acknowledge the possibility that it could lead to more problems, especially among the young. You can dismiss those concerns, but who really knows how this will turn out?

I'm getting into something that's hard to describe, but something you can sense: the unhealthiness of our culture, too many Americans without a grand vision of the future, too many worries about the country and the planet. You add that to the personal problems people experience in the course of living their lives, and no wonder they want painkillers.

The real fear here should be this: that we'll add marijuana to the legal choices and leave it at that. We waged a war on drugs without healing enough of the people who demanded them. It's time to end that wasteful war, but we have to build a healthier society, too, and that's the hard part.

Dan Rodricks' column appears each Tuesday, Thursday and Sunday. He is the host of "Midday" on WYPR-FM.

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