10/16/2012 06:10 pm ET Updated Dec 16, 2012

Can the Marijuana Legalization Debate Bring Republicans & Democrats Together?

In the hustle and bustle of election season, impassioned Republicans and Democrats alike have forgotten one important concept: the politics of compromise. Whether discussing Obamacare, pro-life vs. pro-choice, or the legalization of marijuana, many are content to spend their time, money, and effort holding fast to highly polarized viewpoints that surround those issues. But instead, why don't we focus on what we CAN agree upon?

This is where politicians can take a second look at the marijuana legalization debate, which is at the heart of current ballot initiatives in several states. Marijuana is the most widely used illicit drug; in 2009, an estimated 104 million Americans aged 12 or older used marijuana. There are a great many Americans who insist that legalization would be the end of the nation's drug problem. It would, they argue, eliminate the unjust sentencing of nonviolent offenders and provide a path to better monitoring and regulation. On the other side of the aisle, there are a great many who insist that legalization would be a disastrous failure. By increasing the drug's availability, they believe rates of use and abuse would skyrocket.

This back-and-forth controversy over marijuana is like a microcosm of the entire polarized political sphere. But we're losing sight of the common ground here: we all agree that addiction is a disease. We know you can't cure a disease with handcuffs. We agree that non-violent drug users belong in treatment--not in jail. The policy of arresting marijuana users and petty dealers has only exacerbated America's explosive incarceration rate, the highest in the developed world. We know this must change. So there you have it: we can all agree on marijuana decriminalization.

The distinction between decriminalization and legalization is often left out of the discourse, which prevents the pro- and anti-prohibition camps from finding areas of agreement. Here's the difference: Legalization of marijuana would make the sale of marijuana legal, like tobacco. Decriminalization, on the other hand, would make possession of small amounts of marijuana more like a traffic violation than a jailable offense. Decriminalization is something few policy-makers oppose, regardless of where they stand on legalization--and it should be a mutual goal for both parties.

Moreover, both parties can also support substance abuse education, community-based alternatives to incarceration, harm reduction methods, high quality of and access to treatment...the list goes on. Focusing on these areas is a much more productive approach than political bickering, heel-digging, and refusing to budge. Howard Dean was spot-on in calling criminalization laws "antiquated" and the drug war a "new segregation." We as a nation can do better--so let's implement what we agree upon and not let stubborn opposing points prevent progress.

What does progress look like? It means closing the gap between the millions of Americans who need substance abuse treatment and the few who receive it. It means investing in treatment and prevention programs so that more citizens have access to the care they need. Politicians should also use their platforms to reduce the stigma of treatment and the shame of addiction that prevents many people from seeking help.

As we near the election, Republicans and Democrats should commit to fostering better cooperation and mutual understanding over the next four years. Let's respect the fact that many of us have entrenched points of view on certain issues--opinions we may never be able to change. But that doesn't mean we're doomed to stagnation.

Politicians can certainly take a tip from the addiction treatment and recovery community; whether or not we believe in the AA principles or alcohol abstinence or faith-based recovery or what have you, we all agree that people struggling with addiction need quality care. We strive not to let the nitty-gritty details destroy the overall goals that unite us--and we can only hope our politicians would do the same.