Stirring the pot

Lawmakers in Maryland this year shied away from legalizing the medical use of marijuana by certain very ill patients under carefully controlled clinical conditions. Voters elsewhere, it seems, are not so cautious.

On Tuesday, Colorado and Washington passed ballot initiatives legalizing the possession and sale or marijuana for purely recreational use — no prescription required — making them the first states in the country to do so. (A similar initiative in Oregon was narrowly rejected, but voters in Massachusetts approved a law allowing doctors to prescribe marijuana for medicinal purposes.) The law would allow individuals to have up to an ounce of marijuana, and get high on it, with no criminal risk.

Supporters of the measure say legalizing pot will cut billions from the profits of the Mexican drug cartels responsible for an epidemic of violence along our southern border. But while voters can overturn state laws prohibiting marijuana, pot remains illegal under federal law, and the U.S. Department of Justice says it will continue to enforce the ban. That sets up a potential conflict between state and federal authorities that is unlikely to be resolved any time soon, even if it succeeds in prompting a wider public discussion of the issue.

Federal authorities are right to be wary of local laws that seek to get around the national prohibition on illegal drug use. There's no evidence that a marijuana policy that varies from state to state — or, as in California, from city to city, for that matter — is workable. Even if it were, there's little to suggest that a patchwork of state and local laws that left marijuana legal in some places and illegal in others would be any more effective than current policy in curbing the violence committed by criminal gangs.

On the other hand, it's clear our current approach to the problem of illegal drugs isn't working either. Over the last decade, some 60,000 people in Mexico have been murdered by drug-smuggling organizations, many of them along the U.S.-Mexico border, and the traffickers frequently attack and sometimes kill U.S. Border Patrol agents. As long as marijuana remains illegal in the U.S., the cartels' biggest market, drug gangs will resort to horrendous acts of violence — including torture, beheadings and the murder of entire families — to carve out a share of the trade.

Supporters of marijuana decriminalization say depriving criminal organizations of the enormous profits they reap from the monopoly on marijuana — estimates range from $2 billion to $20 billion a year — would lead to a reduction of violence spurred by cartel rivalries the same way the repeal of Prohibition-era laws banning alcohol led to fewer killings by bootleg liquor gangs. It would also allow states to tax the profits from drug sales just as they now tax alcohol, and use the revenue to pay for schools, roads and other public projects.

There's little doubt the dangers of most illegal drugs far outweigh any conceivable benefits to society. Marijuana, while often considered more socially acceptable than narcotics such as heroin or cocaine, is still a Schedule 1 controlled substance under federal law that poses physical and mental health risks to users.

At the same time, states are beginning to recognize the huge problems and costs associated with the large number of people incarcerated for minor drug offenses involving marijuana. Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper was right to urge a sincere but measured approach to his state's new law: "The voters have spoken, and we have to respect their will," he said in a statement afterward. "This will be a complicated process, but we intend to follow through. That said, federal law still says marijuana is an illegal drug, so don't break out the Cheetos or Goldfish too quickly."

State-by-state legalization of marijuana is not the way to reform America's approach to the drug war. But there is no doubt that the approach needs rethinking. If the new laws in Colorado and Washington prompt a rational discussion about the costs and benefits of treating drug use as a matter of criminal justice rather than public health, so much the better.

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