Akst: Government should get off pot's back

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Daniel Akst Portrait of Newsday editorial board member Daniel Akst

Daniel Akst is a member of the Newsday editorial board. Before joining Newsday, Akst was a columnist at

You are about to read four words in this column that will shock you -- four words I never thought I would live long enough to write, at least not in a family newspaper.

Are you sitting down? The four words are: Pat Robertson is right.

The good reverend isn't right about everything, of course. After the 9/11 attacks, when Jerry Falwell laid much of the blame on feminists, gays and the American Civil Liberties Union, Robertson readily concurred.

On other occasions Robertson -- a Yale Law School graduate! -- has also suggested feminism promotes witchcraft and child-murder, and that America should assassinate Venezuelan leader Hugo Chávez. More recently, he implied that victims of a tornado might have avoided it by praying more.

OK, so we'll agree to disagree about a few things. But lately there is one thing the reverend actually gets right: Marijuana should be legalized.

It's hard to believe, but Robertson has repeatedly expressed this view in the last couple of years. Overcome by common sense, he's been arguing that we ought to treat weed like strong drink, and stop throwing people in jail for it. In perhaps the nicest thing he's ever said, Robertson explained: "I believe in working with the hearts of people, and not locking them up."

Amen, brother. Readers, take a look in the mirror. Most of you have probably tried marijuana. Some of you have marijuana in your very own home; it might be yours, or it might belong to your kids. If you don't own any, your neighbors just might. And you know as well as I do that none of you deserve to be prosecuted for this. It's simply none of the government's business.

The tragic reality is that, by making it the government's business, we've vastly magnified the ills associated with all kinds of illegal drugs, just as Prohibition did for alcohol.

Isn't it time to face the fact that the war on drugs isn't just a costly failure, as Robertson has publicly acknowledged, but an affliction that does more harm than the problem it's supposed to solve?

Making drugs illegal in this country has spawned a global criminal underground, sowing corruption and violence wherever drugs are produced. Mexico's hideous drug wars are a prime example.

But we suffer too. Thanks in large part to our obsession with stamping out drugs, America is the world leader in incarceration. We are keeping more than 2 million people behind bars in this country, up from 300,000 three decades ago -- a rate of increase much faster than population growth. A quarter are nonviolent drug offenders. Many more are behind bars for offenses they might not have committed if the drug business weren't illegal.

In her book, "The New Jim Crow," Ohio State law professor Michelle Alexander highlights the terrible impact all this imprisonment is having on poor, minority Americans. And she points to the drug war as the great driver of increased incarceration.

"Drug convictions," she said in a 2010 speech, "accounted for about two-thirds of the increase in the federal system, and more than half of the increase in the state prisons, between 1985 and 2000."

Let's be clear: drug abuse, like alcohol abuse, is a serious problem. We can combat it by taxing it, education, advertising, treatment programs, good parenting and strong social pressure. Thanks to these very measures -- and not by outlawing tobacco -- the United States is a world leader in reducing smoking.

Conservatives like Pat Robertson often call for reducing the role of government. Legalizing marijuana would be a great place to start.

 

Daniel Akst is a member of the Newsday editorial board.

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