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Restoration Not Retribution

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Why would a respectable, responsible and caring group of parents want to legalize marijuana? Because we are fed up with the violence and the loss of lives and liberty caused by the war on drugs, which has become a war against our loved ones who use, struggle with, or are addicted to drugs, and our families. We simply cannot stand for the continued criminalization and punishment of what is essentially a public health problem.

We have an opportunity in California now to turn the tide on the drug war by passing Proposition 19, the Regulate, Control and Tax Cannabis Act of 2010, in November. Moms are uniting and leading the charge to end marijuana prohibition, just as mothers did to end alcohol Prohibition in the 1930's. We are demanding an end to the pointless and punitive criminalization of drug users and the needless deaths caused by the illegal drug trade. We are joining across the state -- mothers who have lost their children to overdose and parents whose families have been ravaged by both addiction and incarceration -- in an effort to promote therapeutic and restorative approaches to drug use.

I have experienced the damages of marijuana prohibition first-hand. My older son was arrested for marijuana possession in 1990, a minor charge but one that led to a decade of cycling in and out of the prison system for non-violent, low-level drug possession charges. This was a devastating emotional saga for our family, a tremendous waste of human potential, and an extreme financial burden to the state.

Classifying someone who smokes marijuana as a criminal, or labeling an addicted person as a villain, not only exacerbates the problem, but also promotes fear-based stigma and discrimination. It can also lead to life-long social exclusion. The consequences of a drug conviction may include loss of even basic public benefits and place significant limitations on future educational and employment opportunities. Ultimately, addiction may be easier to overcome than a criminal record.

Since 1990, the year my son was first arrested, marijuana possession arrests are up by 127% in California. And, although marijuana use happens in all of our neighborhoods, African Americans are disproportionately affected by these tactics of arrest and imprisonment. How many lives continue to be destroyed by these misguided policies!

It is nonsensical that marijuana is so targeted and demonized, since it actually has much fewer harmful effects than alcohol or cigarettes, both of which are legal for adults. There is no violent behavior associated with marijuana use, and it does have some medicinal benefits. Given all this, marijuana prohibition clearly has much more to do with "tough-on-crime" politics than on reason and science.

Proponents of prohibition say that these policies are designed to protect children. They don't. Despite the fact that marijuana arrests have tripled in Californian in the last 20 years, marijuana remains widely available to young people. Teenagers in high school or junior high consistently report that marijuana is easier to get a hold of than either cigarettes or alcohol. Regulating marijuana would mean that young people have less access, and that law enforcement can focus on more important public safety matters. It would also allow us to utilize our dwindling resources on much needed services for addiction treatment. Prevention, harm reduction and treatment programs are far too few in number currently, and getting further diminished as funding is cut.

Prohibition has failed. I have endorsed Prop 19, not because I am in favor of drug use, but because I love my children, and I firmly believe that the war on drugs has done more harm than good to our society. Prop 19, which will be on the November 2 state ballot, will decriminalize possession of up to an ounce of marijuana by adults 21 and older. It will allow local governments, including San Diego County, to decide how to regulate the sale of marijuana to adults 21 and older. It is sound and reasonable public policy.

My passion for this cause was born out of love for my sons. My compassion for individuals with addictive disorders, as well as my abiding belief in human dignity, add fuel to this advocacy work. It is time to endorse and promote policies of harm reduction and restoration, rather than retribution. Perhaps together we can let go of angry politics, and lead the way to positive and healing alternatives, for the sake of all of our children and the futures of the next generation.

Gretchen Burns Bergman is Co-Founder & Executive Director of A New PATH (Parents for Addiction Treatment & Healing), an organization established in San Diego by parents seeking therapeutic, rather than punitive alternatives to the War on Drugs. Moms United to End the War on Drugs is a campaign of A New PATH, in partnership with other organizations and individuals across the state. Join us on Facebook.