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State-level marijuana legalization? Yes!

It’s time to end the misguided and ineffective “war on drugs” insofar as marijuana is concerned, and there are solid reasons why conservatives should join in that effort. It makes sense on so many levels.

There is a long history to this debate, and many conservative leaders have supported legalization. William F. Buckley, the founding editor of National Review magazine and the entrepreneurial godfather of modern American conservatism, supported legalization. So did Barry Goldwater and Milton Friedman. More recently, Sarah Palin, Pat Robertson, Glenn Beck and George Will have voiced support for it.

Eighty years ago the voters of Colorado adopted a measure repealing alcohol prohibition, and one year later, in 1933, the nation followed. Too many conservatives seem to have forgotten that it was state-level experimentation that led to the federal constitutional amendment adopting prohibition in 1920, and afterwards, it was state-level reforms and state-by-state support for repeal that led to abandonment of Prohibition 13 years later.

States can adopt reforms and then learn from their mistakes, unlike the federal government, which never abandons anything once a constituency is entrenched. We need more of the former and less of the latter.

Even after the end of Prohibition nationally in 1933, states retained the option of continuing the prohibition, and in many states even today, counties retain that option. This is the strength and glory of federalism, and we ought to recover and apply that sound conservative principle in the regulation of marijuana.

The value of state authority in the enforcement of government’s plenary police powers is a well-established constitutional principle, and federal courts continue to give states wide latitude in that arena. Why should the regulation of marijuana be treated differently?

In November, here in my home state of Colorado, voters will have the opportunity to be the first state to decriminalize possession of small amounts of marijuana for personal use by voting for Proposition 64. Colorado is having a vigorous and very healthy debate on the merits of this proposal, and current public opinion polls show the measure to be winning over a majority of likely voters.

Both support for and opposition to marijuana legalization cuts across the political spectrum. Libertarians on the left and right have strong arguments based on both personal liberty and common sense: Since the use of marijuana is no more dangerous to your health than the use of alcohol, why not regulate and tax marijuana use the same as we regulate alcohol use?

But, you say, we don’t really know what will happen if we legalize pot. Won’t legal access to marijuana by adults lead to an explosion in use by teenagers? Well, teenagers manage to get alcohol, too, but we are not denying adults access to it. Is that a valid argument for denying a freedom to adults? Conservatives should recognize that that same argument could be used to outlaw possession of firearms.

How do we settle that argument about a potential “explosion” in teenage use of marijuana if it is legalized? Well, my answer is, let’s allow states to try it and then see what happens. Then we’ll know the answer and not have to speculate about it. If that fear proves to be well founded, we can repeal legalization as easily as it was adopted.

That is exactly what happened with alcohol prohibition over a 40-year period. States experimented with prohibition, the nation followed; then we saw that Prohibition had unforeseen consequences and the nation repealed it. Why is this not a sound and prudent course with regard to marijuana regulation?

The unforeseen consequences of marijuana prohibition are even more severe and costly than what happened with alcohol prohibition. The costs of prosecuting this misguided war on marijuana are enormous.

The Mexican drug cartels derive the majority of their money today not from cocaine or heroin but from the smuggling and sale of marijuana to markets in the United States. We now have not the Sicilian Mafia in a half-dozen large cities but “transnational gangs” in 200 cities. The struggle inside Mexico for control of those smuggling routes – and increasingly, for control of those interior American markets – has decimated that country with over 60,000 deaths in the last decade. Some of those proceeds from this criminal enterprise are channeled to terrorist organizations.

There are solid, even compelling reasons to call an end to this folly. As with other battlefronts, conservatives learn from history and strive to limit the scope and reach of government. This is one area where government “crime-fighting” has failed. It’s time to admit that and move on to battles that can be won.

The war on marijuana is useless, counterproductive and contrary to conservative principles. Let’s get the federal government out of this arena and allow states to show the way to sensible regulation.

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