As Illinois becomes the 11th state to legalize marijuana for recreational purposes, the direction of history is unmistakable. Cannabis is well on its way to becoming a part of the landscape of normal life across vast expanses of America. At this point, it’s not easy to decide which is more significant: that public policy has come to this, or that it took so long.
Medical marijuana has been allowed here and in most states for years. Illinois decriminalized possession of small amounts in 2016, as more than 20 other states have done. Familiarity with permissive laws has not bred contempt; instead, it’s dispelled fear by proving how dangerous they aren’t.
The drug war was once a popular crusade. But when more than half of adults have tried pot, it no longer has much scare value. Today, the most recent Gallup survey found, 2 out of 3 Americans favor full legalization — including most Republicans.
This is a huge change. But policies haven’t quite caught up with public sentiment. In 2016, some 576,000 people were arrested for simple possession of weed — more than were arrested for all violent crimes.
The erosion of the pot prohibition has been a long, uneven process. In light of modern attitudes, it’s hard to believe that in the 1970s you could get a sentence of life imprisonment in New York for being caught with just 4 ounces of marijuana. It was about the same punishment as you would expect for second-degree murder. Until 1973, Texas allowed life in prison for mere possession.
Even then, not everyone thought it was sensible to lock people up for using a substance that was less harmful than alcohol or tobacco. In 1976, voters elected a president, Jimmy Carter, who supported decriminalizing cannabis at the federal level, and he proposed legislation to achieve it.
But Congress refused, and he lost his reelection bid to Ronald Reagan, who as president promised, “We’re going to win the war on drugs.” But the war on drugs came to resemble other American conflicts, past and present: a costly, endless slog that ravaged countless lives and led nowhere.
In addition, it didn’t curb crime and violence but stimulated it, while snaring millions of African Americans and Latinos in the coils of the criminal justice system. “Black Americans are nearly six times more likely to be incarcerated for drug-related offenses than their white counterparts, despite equal substance usage rates,” reports the Center for American Progress. In spite of all this, pot smoking remained widespread. In 2013, nearly 20 million people used it at least once a month.
In time, the futility of trying to stop them became apparent. In 2012, the dam finally broke: Voters in Colorado and Washington state approved ballot measures to permit recreational consumption as well. Alaska and Oregon followed suit in 2014.
The calamity opponents predicted didn’t come. In Colorado, a state report last year noted, teen marijuana use didn’t increase — and regular use among Colorado high school students was no higher than in the rest of the country.
One study concluded that “legalization of recreational cannabis in Washington caused a decrease in crime rates” — including “rape, assault, robbery, burglary and theft.” Another study found that three years after legalization, traffic fatalities in the two states “were not statistically different from those in similar states without recreational marijuana legalization.”
Cannabis use is not entirely devoid of risk, for users or their fellow citizens, but the evidence suggests it’s far less harmful than prohibition has been. And there’s a lot to be said for letting adults decide for themselves without fear of the police. It took a long time, but in the end, freedom won.
Steve Chapman, a member of the Tribune Editorial Board, blogs at www.chicagotribune.com/chapman.
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May 31, 2019 at 05:21PM