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Elise Patkotak: Keeping pot illegal has only made substance abuse, illicit trade harder to address

Elise Patkotak
OPINION: It's time we realized that prohibition of substances people want to use badly enough simply doesn’t work. It was a failed policy with alcohol in the 1920s and it’s a failed policy now with marijuana. Aaron Jansen illustration

Even a cursory review of history reveals that prohibition is a failed policy. Whether it’s forbidding your teen from seeing the boy of her dreams or forbidding a nation to have a beer after work, the result is the same. The forbidden will somehow be accessed. All prohibition does is drive the behavior underground, thus making it that much harder to deal with the consequences.

America’s War on Drugs has been a colossal failure. Not only has it not even come close to achieving its stated goal, it has driven the issue so far underground that the only people who truly benefit from it at this point are the drug lords who live high off the tastes of America’s citizens.

While I can understand concerns people have over the potential for abuse if pot is legalized, keeping it illegal has not made much of a difference in its availability or people’s use of it. For village leaders concerned that if pot is legalized it will make its way into their villages, trust me that it’s already there in abundance. Keeping pot a prohibited substance does not diminish its availability.

I’ve always wondered why alcohol, a proven destructive substance, has received so much support while pot is viewed as so evil. People spill out of bars on Fourth Avenue at closing time and fistfights and gunfights ensue. But no one is demanding that alcohol be banned. Instead we turn ourselves inside out trying to adjust hours of operation, defining when the last drink can be served, and putting more police presence nearby at high violence hours. We do all that to keep a substance legal that creates more family and societal destruction than pot ever has in its history.

I think one of the reasons no one is calling for a prohibition on alcohol is that we’ve already seen where that leads. It leads to exactly the same place the war on drugs has led us, a place where gangs rule with violence and make money hand-over-fist. Our infamous War on Drugs has created some of the most successful businesses in the world. They may be illegal and murderous, but you can’t deny they are very profitable.

Here’s something else I often wonder. Why does no one look at the success of the campaign against tobacco and have some light bulb go off over their head that says here may be a realistic model for discouraging use of an addictive substance. And if one successful campaign doesn’t convince you, how about the campaign against drunk driving? In both those instances, it was public and peer pressure, public embarrassment and public information that won the day, not making cigarettes or alcohol illegal.

Do we still have smokers in our midst? Sure. But they smoke surreptitiously, knowing that their habit is almost uniformly viewed in a negative light. How much has this changed since the public information campaign began? Well, when I first started hospital nursing in the early 1970s, anyone who wanted could smoke at the nurse’s station in the hospital. Imagine trying to do that now. As for drunk driving, I grew up at a time where you could kill someone driving drunk and alcohol was considered a MITIGATING factor. You were too drunk to know what you were doing, so the charge was less serious, if you were charged at all.

Pot has been in Alaska a long time. It’s in every village and city. Alcohol is also everywhere, local option laws notwithstanding. I don’t know how far you have to stick your head into the sand to know that prohibition of substances people want badly enough simply doesn’t work. It was a failed policy in the 1920s and it’s a failed policy now. I say let’s take this issue out of the shadows and into the light of day where people with a problem can feel free to seek help without fear of criminal penalties and people who simply want to relax on a weekend with a joint and a movie don’t have to go to an underground dealer for their stash.

Let’s dump what is obviously an overwhelmingly failed approach to pot and deal with any problems that arise in the light of day and not the darkness of prohibition.

Elise Patkotak's latest book, "Coming Into the City," is available at AlaskaBooksandCalendars.com and at local bookstores.

The views expressed here are the writer's own and are not necessarily endorsed by Alaska Dispatch News, which welcomes a broad range of viewpoints. To submit a piece for consideration, e-mail commentary(at)alaskadispatch.com.