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.
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.