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The Decriminalization Downfall

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By Lucas Husted

Beginning April 1 -- just in time for 4/20, coincidentally -- possession of up to an ounce of cannabis will no longer be a misdemeanor in Rhode Island. Instead of receiving a year in jail and a $500 fine, offenders can expect to get no more than a $150 fine, akin to an expensive parking ticket.

Rhode Island will join the ranks of 14 other states to make possession of marijuana an offense punishable only by fine. Like them, it is paving its way to sensible governance -- choosing to focus limited resources on targeting real crime and addressing one of the myriad criminal justice failures of a wasteful "War on Drugs."

While this is cause for celebration, don't pull out the pipes quite yet. Decriminalization isn't the panacea it is championed to be.

For starters, decriminalization does absolutely nothing to address the inherent problems with a black market for cannabis. Money that pours into this market here in the United States goes to fund criminal organizations both within our country and in neighboring ones. Estimates for the money that Mexican criminal organizations make from selling marijuana in the United States range from 9 to 17 percent of their total revenues.

This is not the largest chunk of their incomes by any means, but the fact that any money from consumption of cannabis goes to fund criminal terror -- from a country where 56 percent of the population supports legalization -- is a national embarrassment. In theory, decriminalization does nothing more than make this problem worse by lowering the cost of trafficking and selling the drug.

Black markets are also unregulated. There is no market mechanism to ensure quality control in the growth or distribution of cannabis, and there exist few methods of testing potency or the presence of other chemical components in pot. While this is a public health concern in its own right, what is more unfortunate is that there is no market mechanism to keep marijuana out of the hands of minors. All sides in the legalization debate seem to agree that keeping pot away from teens is a priority, but marijuana -- due entirely to its illegality -- is more available to teens than alcohol.

This is because the black market turns friends and classmates into drug dealers. Kids have to approach negligent store owners or complicit elders to buy alcohol, but the illegal market for pot has no age limits. And though it is not a gateway drug -- this false "fact" has thankfully been refuted -- the market for harder drugs piggybacks off of the market for marijuana. Teens who seek marijuana will encounter others in the process, and thus it is important to keep marijuana -- which is a less harmful substance than other Schedule I drugs -- separate from harder drugs. This can only come through legalization.

I am likely preaching to the choir when it comes to marijuana legalization. Most Americans are becoming pragmatic with regards to marijuana regulation.

And in some ways, decriminalization is a step along this same path of sensible marijuana reform. In more ways, though, all it does is take the wind out of the sails of marijuana reformers who want to address these real issues. From a self-interested point of view, decriminalization fully placates an average cannabis purchaser. He can continue to purchase easily without fearing criminal penalties. What incentive does he have to rally or march for sensible reform when he is no longer personally affected by marijuana policy?

Who is going to speak up for marijuana providers who deserve to be welcomed as fellow tax-paying citizens? Who is going to combat the flawed first-order groupthink that has perpetuated the idea that keeping pot illegal ensures it stays away from kids? Who is going to help fight to keep marijuana profits out of bad hands when most Americans haven't even thought about doing that with cocaine? The answer: fewer people.

In essence, marijuana decriminalization is a tiny Band-Aid that has been touted as a quick fix for state governments across the country. Want to deal with overflowing prisons? Decriminalize. Want to make citizens happy? Decriminalize. Unfortunately, a Band-Aid is pretty bad at healing a bleeding artery. So too, decriminalization is a pretty poor way to deal with the majority of issues surrounding failed drug policy. If anything, it lowers the cost of distributing an illegal drug throughout the country. It also makes your average American consumer just happy enough that he doesn't demand tougher reform.

But stronger reform is what we really need. We need more states like Colorado and Washington to take hold of a large black market and bring it into the light. We need more people to challenge failed federal policy. We need more people to step forward and demand change. Decriminalization is to sensible marijuana reform what civil unions are to gay marriage reform: an unacceptable compromise. State legislatures will find that this "quick fix" works in the short-term -- mostly by pleasing its citizens -- but in the long run, we need real solutions to a multifaceted problem.

Lucas Husted '13 wants an end to the Drug War, too, but knows that undoing decades of failed policy isn't easy. He can be reached at lucas_husted@brown.edu.

Originally published in The Brown Daily Herald.