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ELECTION 06: Don’t decriminalize marijuana

WASHINGTON (BP)–We’ve come to voting season again, and as usual we’re being asked to consider many proposals. Some of these proposals are well-meaning, sensible plans to improve the lives of citizens. Others are misguided, irresponsible policy issues that will devastate and even destroy the lives of many millions of our fellow citizens. A perfect example of a misguided ballot issue is the proposal in Colorado and Nevada to decriminalize possession of up to an ounce of marijuana. Nevada is even being asked to authorize government-regulated sales of marijuana.

Decriminalizing marijuana possession is a bad idea. I used drugs for the first time when I was 14 years old. I still remember that day. It was a day that changed my life, but it wasn’t a change for the better. After my first introduction to drugs, I spent the next seven years of my life in a drug-induced stupor. By the time I was 21, I had no interests except to find ways to get high. Drugs dominated my life and the decisions I made.

The first drug I used was hashish, essentially a concentrated form of marijuana, but marijuana was the mainstay of my drug use because it was relatively inexpensive and readily available. Marijuana is the drug that kept me high between the availability of other drugs. As a longtime user of marijuana, I can attest to its completely destructive force. A person who is high on marijuana has no interest in doing anything. The debilitating effects of marijuana are more severe than those of alcohol.

Anyone who believes that decriminalizing marijuana possession will help control our nation’s drug crisis is completely out of touch with the reality of the problem. Decriminalization will make matters worse for a number of reasons.

First, decriminalizing marijuana possession will enable users to spend more time being high. When people can walk the streets with it in their pockets without fear of arrest, they will have it more often and use it more often. It is hardly an encouraging prospect to think that marijuana users will be high more often. Such a disastrous outcome will put even more pressure on our families, communities, businesses, health services and law enforcement officials.

Second, decriminalizing marijuana possession will increase the likelihood that more people, especially impressionable, curious young people, will try the drug. When government declares that something is no longer illegal, many people drop their guard. They surmise that if the government isn’t worried about it, it must not be very dangerous. Many of these people will begin a downward spiral that will only end when they hit bottom, with their lives and maybe their futures shattered. Equally troubling is the prospect that more young people will start out on the road to a lifetime of drug addiction. It is a scientific fact that the younger a person is when he starts to use illicit drugs, the greater the likelihood that he will develop drug dependency. We have enough young people living that reality already. We certainly do not need to increase their numbers.

Third, decriminalizing marijuana possession will not rid us of the illicit drug trade. The only thing decriminalization will do is create more customers for the illicit drug trade. People who use marijuana will be more inclined to want to try other drugs. They will know what it is like to get high, and they will want to experiment with other drugs to see how they affect them. This was certainly true for me. In addition, those who claim that regulating the sale of marijuana will undercut the illicit trade in the drug do not fully understand the issue. While commercialization may reduce the cost of marijuana, the illicit drug trade will still be able to undersell the legal market, though the profit margin might be reduced. It is even possible, maybe probable, that the legal drug will be more expensive than the current price of the illegal drug once the grower, the middleman, the shipper, the retailer and the taxing authorities add their various charges. It is also likely that people will be attracted to the illicit trade in marijuana if the illicit marijuana being offered is of higher potency. Finally, there will always be people who will not want it known that they use marijuana. They are going to buy it illegally in order to hide their use from public knowledge. This will be especially true for teenagers. Not only will they want to hide their use from their parents’ knowledge, they will still not be able to purchase the drug legally, so they will turn to illicit sources.

Fourth, decriminalizing marijuana possession will lead to an increase in the availability of other drugs. As the demand for other drugs increases, the supply of those drugs will also increase. In other words, decriminalization will not reduce the current drug problem afflicting our nation; it will increase it. When has demand for something ever not been met? People find a way to get what they want, and as long as there is an easy profit in it, there will always be someone willing to supply them.

Fifth, decriminalizing marijuana possession will not empty our prisons of drug offenders. Today, very few people go to prison for possessing small amounts of marijuana. While some people have ended up in prison for possession of marijuana, the majority of people who go to prison these days for drug offenses are there because of other crimes they committed. They may have had marijuana in their possession at the time of their arrest, but their sentencing was related to more serious offenses, like intent to sell drugs or robbery or violent crimes. Rather than reducing the prison population, it is likely that decriminalization of marijuana possession will result in more people going to prison for drug-related crimes. As the drug-abusing population increases due to the relaxed attitude about marijuana, more people will end up with drug addictions, and many of these people will turn to crime to support their habits or engage in other illegal behaviors that mandate prison time. According to a 1997 U.S. Department of Justice survey, 33 percent of state prisoners and 22 percent of federal prisoners said they were high on drugs when they committed their offense. Marijuana is often implicated in these crimes. The U.S. Department of Justice also reports that more inmates in federal and state corrections facilities who were high when they committed their crimes were high on marijuana or cocaine at the time of their offense. It is better to leave it in the hands of prosecutors and judges to determine whether or not a person should go to jail for marijuana possession than to decriminalize marijuana possession and produce more addicted drug-users, many of whom will find themselves facing jail time for their drug-related crimes.

Decriminalization of marijuana possession is just a bad idea. No one wins. Our young people will not be helped. Businesses will not be helped. Families will suffer even more. Some things are just wrong, and no amount of justification can make them right. This is one of those things. Some argue that efforts to reduce drug use in this country have failed to make significant progress in recent years. This is true; the statistics have not changed very much. However, I cannot help but wonder if the reason for this is not the ineffectiveness of our drug control policy but rather the fact that 12 states have already decriminalized possession of small amounts of marijuana. Such counterproductive policies are bound to short-circuit our efforts to reduce the drug problem in this country. They are essentially the equivalent of drilling holes in the bottom of your boat while you are frantically trying to bail water. Instead of making drug use easier, we should redouble our efforts to warn people of the dangers of drug use, develop more effective rehabilitation programs for those who are convicted of drug possession and increase our prosecution of those who supply the drugs. We are in a battle for the lives of millions of people. They deserve our best efforts, not our surrender.
Barrett Duke is vice president for public policy and research at the Southern Baptist Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission.

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