Decriminalizing Marijuana

October 20, 2008

Question 2 on the Massachusetts ballot this November has to do with decriminalizing possession of marijuana. It wouldn’t make pot possession legal, but would change possession of small amounts from being a criminal offense to a civil offense (so you’d get a ticket and a fine akin to a motor-vehicle violation). Personally, I don’t have a dog in this fight. But I am heavily swayed by the following (from the Globe):

“In a study of the potential effects of marijuana decriminalization on Massachusetts, Jeffrey Miron, a senior lecturer in the economics department at Harvard University, disputed the contention that few arrests are for marijuana possession alone. Based on a review of court records in Brockton and Barnstable and interviews with judges and lawyers, he estimated that about one-third of marijuana-possession arrests in the state involve only that charge. He also said studies of decriminalizing marijuana possession in the United States, Australia, and the Netherlands have shown that it does not increase usage.

He estimated decriminalizing marijuana would save the state’s police departments, courts, and jails nearly $30 million.”

We’re slashing the state budget right now. If the $30 million we’re spending on catching marijuana users doesn’t reduce usage of the drug, what, exactly, is the point? Public policy should be designed to meet practical goals for society, not simply go after people because we disapprove of their behavior even when going after them accomplishes nothing. Certainly not in the case of something so innocuous as smoking weed.

And to put it into the simplest terms, is smoking a joint all that much worse than, say, speeding past a school bus letting off kids? Yet one’s a criminal act and the one isn’t.

And why is this so politically charged, anyway? When we discuss things like the regulation of credit default swaps, which impacted the lives of hundreds of millions, people’s eyes glaze over. Same with alternative energy, cap-and-trade regimes for carbon emissions, etc. But smoking a joint? Riot ensues.

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