The end of pot prohibition as we know it

How much longer will it take before the United States declares a truce in the Drug War? This latter-day prohibition is taking an immense toll. And most Americans don’t want to jail those caught with small amounts of pot.

But it takes some courage to speak up. So thank you, former Supreme Court Justice John Paul Stevens, for joining the swelling chorus that wants to see marijuana legalized. “The distinction between marijuana and alcoholic beverages is really not much of a distinction,” Stevens said during an interview with NPR’s Scott Simon in April.

The retired judge’s words came a few months after President Barack Obama spoke candidly on this matter. “I smoked pot as a kid, and I view it as a bad habit and a vice, not very different from the cigarettes that I smoked as a young person up through a big chunk of my adult life,” Obama told The New Yorker’s David Remnick. “I don’t think it is more dangerous than alcohol.”

The White House’s Office of National Drug Control Policy is slowly moving from a tough-on-crime approach to a deeper focus on the public health side of the illegal drug challenge. That’s OK, but it’s only taking what StoptheDrugWar.org calls “baby steps in the right direction.”

The good news: The drug czar’s office recently set a five-year goal for reducing deaths from drug overdoses. Its report to Congress called for measures to meet that objective, such as encouraging state laws that grant people who try to prevent those deaths immunity from prosecution.

The bad news: no progress on marijuana legalization.

How is that possible for an administration led by a president who openly admits to having inhaled deeply and repeatedly? Well, many careers are vested in the status quo. Take Corrections Corporation of America, a giant private prison outfit. Can it make a profit on imprisoning just heroin and cocaine dealers, without jailing the pot purveyors too?

Maybe, but the company isn’t eager to find out. And what would happen to the Drug Enforcement Administration if the bud beat were to dry up?

That and congressional deadlock explains why most of our national experiment with withdrawal from prohibition is taking place at the state and local level. A total of 23 states allow the sale and use of medical marijuana.

Colorado and Washington took the next logical step and now let people buy pot for recreational use. Oregon could be next if its voters approve a marijuana ballot initiative on Election Day. The District of Columbia’s government passed a similar measure that House Republicans are trying to block. Obama is threatening to veto the related legislation.

Without federal leadership, you can count on legalization to keep spreading one state at a time and posing daunting logistical challenges. Like how to handle the money.

Federal regulations prohibit banks from trafficking in drug dollars, legal or not. So for now, marijuana dealers must operate on an all-cash basis. All those Benjamins make legal marijuana businesses both crime targets and a growth market for the armored car industry.

Legal pot’s many benefits include a new tax revenue stream. If the government were to stop locking up 750,000 people a year for no good reason it would save money and all those nonviolent “offenders” wouldn’t have their lives wrecked. Plus, growers would stop squandering electricity on growing one of America’s top cash crops indoors.

It’s high time this country ended its addiction to the Drug War.

Emily Schwartz Greco is the managing editor of OtherWords, a nonprofit national editorial service run by the Institute for Policy Studies. William A. Collins is a former state representative and a former mayor of Norwalk.