A college student loses his financial aid because of a youthful indiscretion. A woman coping with the ravages of ovarian cancer lives in fear of being arrested for using what best eases her suffering. Across town, a front door bursts open and police rush in to handcuff a man relaxing in his living room.
These events have one thing in common: marijuana. Whether it is being kicked out of college for a youthful mistake, being denied relief from pain as a cancer patient, or getting arrested for personal use in one's home, marijuana laws have far-reaching consequences.
And these consequences are often totally disproportionate to whatever societal risk or danger marijuana use may pose.
So, can we talk?
I think we should. As a nation, we spend at least $7.5 billion annually enforcing our marijuana laws. In 2006, the latest year for which we have numbers, a record 830,000 Americans were arrested for marijuana - 89 percent of them simply for possessing it.
Our criminal-justice system wastes time and resources with these low-level marijuana-possession cases while half our violent crimes go unsolved. And those facing the judge are disproportionately African American and Latino.
A recent report to the Seattle City Council on Initiative 75 - which made the adult personal use of marijuana the city's lowest law-enforcement priority - showed people of color are still far more likely to be arrested than whites, despite similar rates of marijuana use.
Unjust and uneven enforcement is just one of the ramifications of treating marijuana use as a criminal matter. Noted physician and pharmacologist John Morgan has said, "The most dangerous thing about marijuana is to be arrested for its possession or use."
Indeed, the consequences of an arrest for even a small amount of marijuana can haunt someone for the rest of his or her life. We have met and heard from people who lost or were denied jobs, had their homes raided and their property seized, lost child-visitation rights, and had their medical marijuana confiscated.
Ironically, we've been down this path before. Prohibition didn't stop people from drinking. Instead, it created gang warfare between bootleggers over the profits to be made. Sound familiar?
We realized Prohibition was creating a lot of new problems and solving few, if any, of the old ones. States now control alcohol sales and consumption. And our tax dollars are more effectively directed at regulation, public education and treatment for those whose use becomes problematic.
As parents, we want to shield our children from harm and reserve certain choices for when they are old enough to understand the risks and repercussions. Certainly, this is as true of marijuana as it is of alcohol and tobacco. But just as certainly, and as most teenagers will tell you, it is easier for them to buy marijuana than beer or cigarettes. Our marijuana laws don't work. I know it. You know it. Scores of our neighbors know it.
But no one is talking. Most of us have our own ideas about what should be done, but this has to be a decision that we make as a community. Too much is riding on this issue not to have an honest, candid discussion. Please join us in the conversation.
Kathleen Taylor is the executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Washington.
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