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John Havelock: Marijuana prohibition is a wasteful failure

  • Author: John Havelock
  • Updated: June 29, 2016
  • Published October 18, 2014

Making a crime out of conduct that half of us don't think should be a crime? That's crazy. All crimes should be supported by public consensus. That's a standard just about everybody agrees on -- until it comes to marijuana. Choose regulation, maybe, for practices about which we disagree, but stick to consensus in defining crimes.

Marijuana criminalization is a craziness that Americans have been engaged with for more than half a century. The criminal prohibition of manufacture or possession of alcohol was the last time a slight majority squeezed conduct through as a crime that half of us (or more) didn't think was criminal. We have produced all the same negative results with marijuana criminalization.

We generated a new criminal class and new giant profit sectors, illegal and legal, including policing, prosecution and imprisonment. Less noted, but still of great importance, we have infected our society with distrust as a majority of all young people and a great many adults believe law enforcement is not on their side. We need to flip that to improve crime prevention. The first step: decriminalize and regulate possession or trade in marijuana.

That doesn't mean we have to approve marijuana consumption. The growth of the public campaign against tobacco serves as an opening example of how to handle marijuana consumption. In the case of cigarettes, the public has been faced with beating back a powerful, legal industry, willing to spend billions to preserve billions in profits. Yet we are succeeding.

With marijuana, we start with a relatively clean slate. Yes, hundreds of thousands of Alaskans have already illegally purchased or consumed marijuana. But most of this population can live with reasonable regulation. Users are not throwing billions into a war against regulation: they support it. Ironically, a great many consumers of marijuana oppose legalization from fear that it will kill off existing supply sources and substantially raise the price of the product.

Decriminalizing trade in marijuana does not mean we have to legalize narcotic trades. Though many people believe that decriminalization should apply to all drugs, these same people join the rest of the public in agreeing that, unlike marijuana, a sedative, many other substances are dangerous enough to justify tightly controlled prescription with criminal penalties.

There are many indications that the aggregate police forces of Alaska are stretched too thin. In part this is because police spend time going after the marijuana trade. A legalized marijuana commerce will free up police resources to address the many other forms of more serious criminal conduct -- with the cooperation of those who previously feared police contact because of their possession of marijuana.

Look back on the circumstances of the American people 100 years ago. Hard to conceal a certain smug, self-satisfaction isn't it? Look how much everything is improved, from horse and buggy to modern cars and jet aircraft! Quackery to modern medicine, grade schools to universities, life expectancy and life's pleasures all far ahead. How uninformed, how backward they were in 1914! How near perfect we are today!

The use of cannabis in those days was no big deal. Marijuana was not widely used until the late sixties, when its use began to grow on college campuses along with other mind-altering substances, particularly LSD. The rest of America slowly caught on to its mild intoxicating qualities.

Now try jumping a century ahead in your imagination. What will Americans of that time see looking back? You can bet on it: "how backward people were in 2014." Among the practices they will most disdain will be the primitive state of our 20th century, prison-grounded criminal justice system, rooted too often in moral maxims rather than injury. They will remark on the preference for extended incarceration, further damaging the offender, rather than fixing both victim and offender. At the top of our social follies they will list the consequences of the ill-considered war on drugs, particularly on marijuana. 'What an incredible waste,' they will say! It's 2014. Let's smarten up.

John Havelock is a former attorney general of Alaska and as founder of the UAA Criminal Justice Center in the 1970s directed the only revision of the Alaska Criminal Code.

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, email commentary(at)alaskadispatch.com.

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