No more jail for potheads

Handing out tickets would be enough to express society's disapproval

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I have no desire to smoke marijuana. I don’t want to be one of those “cool parents” who pretend to be as culturally adventuresome as their kids. In my case, that’s a ridiculous aspiration anyway.

I also agree with those who call attention to the dangers of excessive indulgence in pot and want to encourage people to resist it. Nobody wants us to become a nation of stoners.

Nonetheless, I have come to believe that we should at least decriminalize marijuana use.

The way we enforce marijuana laws is unconscionable. The arrest rates for possession are shamefully different for whites and African Americans. The incongruence between what our statutes require and what Americans actually do cannot be sustained.

The key document in this debate should be a study released in June by the American Civil Liberties Union. It found that marijuana use is comparable across racial lines — 14 percent for African Americans and 12 percent for whites in 2010. But the arrest rates are not:

“A black person was 3.73 times more likely to be arrested for marijuana possession than a white person. In states with the worst disparities,” the report noted, “blacks were on average over six times more likely to be arrested for marijuana possession than whites. In the worst offending counties across the country, blacks were over 10, 15, even 30 times more likely to be arrested than white residents of the same county.”

Of course, we could equalize things by massively diverting police energies to make sure that whites got arrested at the same rate as African Americans, thus adding to the ranks of those with rap sheets. But to offer this “solution” is to show how absurd it is. If we’re not willing to guarantee that a law is enforced with rough equality, doesn’t this tell us something about what we think of it in the first place?

In a recent New York Times column, David Brooks made the classic argument for keeping marijuana illegal. “Laws profoundly mold culture, so what sort of community do we want our laws to nurture?” he asked. “What sort of individuals and behaviors do our governments want to encourage?”

The “law as teacher” thesis is attractive until you start jailing people and creating arrest records that can harm them for years. And we don’t need to make something illegal to discourage its use, as we have learned with cigarette smoking.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the proportion of cigarette smokers in our country dropped from 42.4 percent in 1965 to 18 percent in 2012. We have built legal fences around tobacco, using regulations to send the signals Mr. Brooks is talking about without making tobacco consumption a crime.

I know Mr. Brooks doesn’t approve of the racial disparities in marijuana enforcement, and I’m sure that’s also true of my Washington Post colleague Ruth Marcus, who wrote last week that “widespread legalization is a bad idea.” At the same time, she asserted: “Throwing people in jail for smoking pot is dumb and wasteful” — which is entirely right. That’s why we need to change our marijuana statutes.

The debate we need is not between the status quo and legalization but between legalizing marijuana for non-medical uses and decriminalizing it. Decriminalization would be a form of public disapproval without all of the contradictions and injustices of our current approach.

Here, our federal system can help. Colorado and Washington have embarked on their legalization experiments while more than a dozen states have decriminalized pot by imposing, at most, speeding-ticket- style penalties for possession.

Decriminalization, Adam Serwer wrote a few years ago in The American Prospect, might avoid the problems created by a wide-open marijuana market. “I’m not sure what a world with a fully commercialized marijuana industry that profits from turning people into potheads looks like,” he said, “but it makes me nervous.” The alternative is to permit a normal market while sharply restricting advertising and other forms of marketing, as we do with cigarettes.

One way or another, public sentiment is moving toward change, and for good reason. A Pew poll last year found that 72 percent of Americans agreed that “government efforts to enforce marijuana laws cost more than they are worth.” That’s true, and those costs are far heavier for some of our fellow citizens than for others.

E.J. Dionne Jr. is a syndicated columnist for The Washington Post (ejdionne@washpost.com).

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