Archived Story

Decriminalizing marijuana good for society

Published 9:47am Tuesday, January 14, 2014

Column: My Point of View, by Jennifer Vogt-Erickson

Colorado recently became the first state to legalize recreational marijuana. It’s a step in the right direction for this complicated issue.

Jennifer Vogt-Erickson
Jennifer Vogt-Erickson

The reasons behind federal prohibition of marijuana, or pot, in the 1930s were flimsy. Prejudice against Mexicans and fear of young people and their raucous jazz music motivated faulty claims that smoking marijuana causes psychotic behavior. Since then, enforcement has become institutionalized, and charges related to trafficking, sales and possession of marijuana have upended millions of lives.

I take the opposite tack of syndicated columnists David Brooks and Ruth Marcus, who both admit to casually using marijuana when they were younger but think it should remain illegal. The “do as I say and not as I do” argument has gone over well with no young people ever in history. I’ve never used marijuana, and I wouldn’t encourage its use, but keeping it illegal has worse impacts on society than decriminalization.

I do drink alcohol, and I’m happy to pay taxes on it. Alcohol often has negative consequences when people use too much of it or don’t use it responsibly, so government must regulate it and pay for mitigating the societal ills it creates. Alcohol is more addictive than marijuana, and a person can overdose on it and die from alcohol poisoning. It’s debatable whether it’s even possible to lethally overdose on marijuana, a relatively mild intoxicant, though some people become heavy users.

Part of the reason some people resist ending the prohibition era on marijuana is that it may harm the legitimacy of our criminal justice system.

In a free society, the state needs widespread support for its laws — the consent of the governed — to maintain order. If we loosen marijuana laws that the state has worked to maintain for decades, it would seem arbitrary that so many people have spent years of their lives under the supervision of the correctional system and had their families strained or torn apart.

The laws against marijuana were arbitrary to begin with, and maintaining laws that are based on a knee-jerk response to biased anecdotal evidence is unacceptable in a democracy.

It’s also unhealthy for government when generally law-abiding people openly break laws; this disrespect was one of the reasons for ending prohibition of alcohol. Laws haven’t been enforced equally either — white people are a lot less likely to be arrested or go to jail for pot than black or Hispanic people are, even though rates of use are similar. Since the curtain has been pulled back, the government should move forward with decriminalization. It’s the most enforceable course of action and the just thing to do.

It’s humane not only for people in the U.S. who are tangled in the criminal justice system due to pot, but also for people in Mexico, where an estimated 80,000-100,000 people have been killed or disappeared in connection to the drug war the country has been fighting since 2006. It’s a staggering number, and in the vast majority of those deaths, no one has been prosecuted or even charged.

Parts of the country are essentially lawless or run de facto by drug cartels. These drug cartels draw most of their money from the drug trade in the U.S., and the largest part of that business is smuggling marijuana. Decriminalizing marijuana will likely diminish the power of the cartels.

Ideals of justice and reason aside, the jostle over money in the U.S. will probably be the final determinant in this story. Billions of dollars are being poured into stopping marijuana from flowing across our borders, growing on our soil, and being sold on the streets. Police departments get to keep money and property from marijuana busts and private prisons aim to sustain high occupancy rates. Marijuana enforcement is thus institutionalized, and won’t be given up easily. It may be slow progress for a while until a tipping point is finally reached.

Congress admitted that federal prohibition of alcohol was a failed experiment after 13 years, and state legislatures agreed. Hopefully Congress will belatedly concede that reefer madness was madly overinflated and end marijuana’s much longer prohibition. Depending on how things go in Colorado (and soon in Washington state), states seeking tax revenue from marijuana sales may spur the change.


Albert Lea resident Jennifer Vogt-Erickson is a member of the Freeborn County DFL Party. The “My Point of View” columns alternate weekly between local Democrats and Republicans.