It’s time to legalize marijuana and mellow out war on drugs

It’s hard out here for a libertarian in the Age of Obama. From bailout mania to the drive to nationalize health care, those who want less federal involvement in American life have plenty to be depressed about.

Is there any area in which it’s not too audacious to hope for less intrusive government?

Yes, thankfully.

Today, more and more Americans are open to winding down our destructive war on drugs.

In October, Gallup recorded its highest-ever level of public support for marijuana legalization, with 44 percent of Americans in favor. There’s “a generational rift” on the issue, Gallup reported: A majority of voters under 50 back legalization.

Sen. Jim Webb, D-Va., has called attention to the fact that the U.S. has more people in jail per capita than any other nation in the world, in large part because of the drug war.

About 60 percent of those serving time for drug crimes have “no history of violence or significant selling activity,” Webb said.

The U.S. holds 5 percent of the world’s population and nearly a quarter of the world’s prisoners — more per capita than authoritarian regimes like Iran, China and Russia.

As Webb put it, either we are home to the most evil people on Earth or we’re doing something wrong.

Webb’s National Criminal Justice Commission Act would set up a bipartisan commission to, among other things, “restructure the approach to criminalization of, and incarceration as a result of the possession or use of illegal drugs.”

“Distrust of government’s interference in people’s lives” is supposed to be a key GOP principle, according to the 2008 party platform. But too many Republicans abandon it when it comes to the drug war.

When President Barack Obama’s Justice Department announced it would no longer prosecute medical marijuana users in states that have legalized the practice, Rep. Lamar Smith, R-Texas, complained that the administration was “tacitly condoning the use of marijuana in the United States.”

Maybe so, but so what?

Pot is less harmful than alcohol, as shown by government-commissioned studies, including a 1999 report by the Institute for Medicine and the 1972 Shafer Commission, set up by the Nixon administration, which ignored its recommendation that marijuana be decriminalized.

Any number of prominent pols has inhaled, including our past three presidents and conservatives Newt Gingrich, Clarence Thomas and Sarah Palin. Yet, we still arrest more than 700,000 people a year for marijuana possession.

Our prohibitionist policies have filled America’s jails to bursting and made our streets less safe by funneling some $40 billion a year to organized crime. Drug warriors fear that decriminalization would make these problems worse. But recent evidence from Portugal refutes them.

In 2001, Portugal became the first — and so far only — Western democracy to decriminalize possession of small amounts of all drugs, including cocaine and heroin. A recent study for the Cato Institute reported that decriminalization has “had no adverse effect on drug usage rates in Portugal,” and drug-related pathologies “have decreased dramatically.”

It may be some years before American public opinion is ready to follow Portugal’s lead, but the prospects for reform are better than they’ve been in decades.

Examiner columnist Gene Healy is a vice president at the Cato Institute and the author of “The Cult of the Presidency.”

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