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Chris Ladd

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Winning the War on Drugs

Posted: 01/20/12 12:14 PM ET

America passed a little-noted milestone in 2009 as drug overdoses outnumbered traffic fatalities for the first time ever to become the primary cause of accidental death. The cause? It wasn't cocaine or heroin or some terrifying new criminal import. The doubling in drug related deaths over the past decade was driven by prescription drug use.

We spend billions of dollars each year on a campaign to limit access to illegal narcotics, but regardless where the drugs come from we remain a heavily medicated society. Anti-depressants alone are consumed on such a spectacular scale they are starting to be found in significant concentrations in river fish.

The time has come for us to finally turn the tide in the drug war by imposing realistic access regulations and abandoning our policy of absolute prohibition. It won't happen overnight, but we need to start taking sensible steps toward narcotics regulation, starting with marijuana. Perhaps we could then turn our attention to the wider crisis of substance abuse.

Public enthusiasm for drug prohibition, especially as it relates to marijuana, is steadily eroding. State and local governments are looking for ways to make marijuana medically available and even rolling back enforcement aimed at recreational users. No presidential nominee from either party since the '90s could say that he'd never smoked pot, and George Bush even waffled on the subject of cocaine use. Marijuana has become far too pervasive for draconian prohibition to make sense.

State and local governments' piecemeal efforts to ease marijuana prohibition can only create a muddle so long as Federal prohibition remains in place. States' "medical" marijuana dispensaries and reduced user enforcement merely build islands of criminality, eroding the legitimacy of our laws while leaving the cartels' business untouched. Anyone visiting a locally legal marijuana dispensary anywhere in the U.S. remains vulnerable to arrest under Federal law and businesses can still be raided by authorities.

Representatives Ron Paul and Barney Frank, the oddest of all odd couples, last summer introduced legislation that would end the Federal prohibition on marijuana by simply removing it from the schedule of controlled substances. The legislation went nowhere. The public isn't ready to treat marijuana as if it were basil. It is still a powerful narcotic deserving reasonable controls.

Voters may, however, be ready for a considered effort to change the way we handle illicit drugs, especially if that effort began with marijuana. The most significant barrier to public support for a reasonable drug regulation scheme is the absence of any commonsense Federal proposal.

What if people could purchase marijuana the way they buy Sudafed? The restrictions would be slightly more strict than the purchase of tequila, but easier than buying Vicodin or Oxycontin. Government would regulate the form, dosage and delivery in the same manner as over the counter pharmaceuticals. It could only be sold in limited volumes, by a pharmacist, to a verified adult, in a form that meets quality and labeling standards.

What if farmers could be licensed to grow marijuana and sell it into a regulated channel? What if licensed adults could grow it in small quantities for their own use in the same way that people make their own beer or wine?

What impact would such a change have on the local dealers scattered throughout America (hint: how many black-market beer dealers are there in your neighborhood)?

Getting from strict prohibition to regulation would not be quick or easy, but it could be done and the public is ready to support it. Congress would have to amend the Controlled Substances Act, probably creating a sixth category for marijuana. The FDA would then issue regulations for the production, distribution and possession of substances in that category. Congress would also have to amend the Controlled Substances Import and Export Act and the FDA and DEA would have to set up new controls for the substance passing through the border.

Even if Congress could be persuaded to endorse regulation, it might take years for the FDA and the DEA to work out the details of a new regulatory scheme. It would be up to the FDA, for example, to determine the form marijuana could take on the market. Would it only be available in a pill or could you purchase it in raw form? What versions or strengths would be available?

Would regulation increase marijuana use? Perhaps, but judging by how well and truly drugged up we already are it is tough to imagine that a marginal increase in marijuana use is going to make a meaningful difference. Compared to the tens of thousands of alcohol-related deaths each year in this country, the potential harm of marijuana seems like a marginal concern.

If someone, anyone, died last year from an overdose of marijuana it has escaped attention entirely. The official figure for marijuana overdose deaths appears to be zero. Marijuana use might lead to tragic levels of snack food consumption and escalating demand for Scooby Doo reruns, but compared to the damage we tolerate from alcohol and prescription drugs this might be a price worth paying.

It will not be easy to find the right mix of regulation and availability for narcotics, but we have to start exploring new options. Right now it's easier for a high school kid to buy weed than it is for them to purchase beer or sinus medicine. Finding a way to make marijuana available through a controlled channel makes more sense than devoting billions of dollars to futile prohibition efforts.

Perhaps the $13 billion we spend each year trying to ban marijuana is a poor investment. When it comes to drug abuse we have bigger fish to fry... and they're chock full of Prozac.

This post previously appeared on FrumForum.