The End of Marijuana Prohibition

LONDON – In the coming days and weeks, critics will try to minimize what voters in the US states of Colorado and Washington accomplished by backing referenda permitting marijuana legalization and regulation. They will likely produce puns and editorial gags about a legislative coup for “hippies” hosting patchouli-scented victory celebrations. They will be tempted to reduce the story to witticisms about hedonism and decadence in America’s free-thinking mountain states. But such reactions will be wrong.

In fact, America’s disastrous preoccupation with marijuana prohibition is more than a story of a relatively harmless substance being sent into legislative exile. Rather, it is part of the larger story of the country’s misguided “war on drugs,” which has resulted in the incarceration of more than two million people at any given time. It is a story of lawmakers branding young people with criminal records for actions that they may well have taken in their own youth – but without getting caught.

Support Project Syndicate’s mission

Project Syndicate needs your help to provide readers everywhere equal access to the ideas and debates shaping their lives.

Learn more

Legalizing and regulating marijuana will not only help to protect consumers from such life-altering penalties; it will also reduce the incentives for violence associated with black markets that are common in US cities and narcotics-producing countries. Profits from marijuana consumption will now benefit legitimate economies, rather than fuel violence in producer or transit countries and lead to the exploitation of vulnerable people. And those who struggle to control their use can seek treatment without fear of arrest or the stigma of dependence on an illegal substance.

In backing initiatives that would regulate the sale and use of marijuana, the voters of Colorado and Washington did not vote recklessly. On the contrary, they did something contemplative, even courageous.

Prohibition is embedded so deeply in the American psyche – and that of other countries troubled by illicit drug use and the narcotics trade – that drug-policy reform is a non-starter in many environments. After all, prohibition is not just governed by states and municipalities; it is enshrined in US federal, and even international, law. How Colorado and Washington balance their local responsibilities with such laws will be hotly debated in the coming months.

Indeed, the approval of these referenda will drive drug-policy debates worldwide. Governments in three Latin American countries – Colombia, Mexico, and Guatemala – have called on the United Nations to open a debate on the drug-control treaties. And the Organization of American States has undertaken a scenario-planning process to consider the relative costs and benefits of all policy approaches.

Moreover, proposals to decriminalize or regulate certain drugs are routinely being presented around the world. Marijuana regulation is already under consideration in Uruguay, while the various forms of decriminalization that have been introduced in Europe have been resounding successes.

For example, since Portugal abolished all criminal penalties for drug use in 2001, drug use has not exploded, as some predicted, and has even declined among some groups. Moreover, HIV/AIDS among intravenous drug users plunged from 52% of all new cases in 2000 to 16% in 2009.

Given that the US is the biggest backer of the international “War on Drugs,” Colorado and Washington voters’ decision is particularly bold. Regulating marijuana – and the initiatives that could soon follow – has the potential to reduce violence at home and abroad, spare young people from undeserved criminal records, and reduce stigma among vulnerable people. These states’ citizens should be proud.

Read more from our "Breaking the Drug-War Habit" Focal Point.