04/24/2012 04:14 pm ET Updated Jun 24, 2012

Time to End Marijuana Prohibition

I am not a marijuana smoker and never will be. Based on what I have seen, even casual use can be psychologically addicting. If consumed heavily, pot can sap ambition, destroy creative energy and ruin lives. Except for some very sick people, weed is something to avoid.

But just because an activity is foolish, that doesn't mean we should pass laws against it and spend billions of dollars locking up the offenders. That's especially true if prohibition creates a huge, violent black market for the thing being outlawed and generates costs out of proportion to any social good the ban produces. Such is the case with marijuana criminalization, and it's time to put an end to it.

A current ballot initiative would decriminalize marijuana in Michigan for adults at least 21 years old. While the proposal would have zero impact on the federal laws against Mary Jane, putting it on the ballot and passing it would be worth doing. The simple reason: Decades of using the law to fight marijuana use have been a colossal failure.

Legal or not, people will use marijuana. That's a fact. The real issue is not how we eliminate the pot business; we can't. All we can realistically do is decide who to put in charge of it. It makes no sense to keep the pot trade in the hands of violent, unscrupulous criminal gangs when it could run by law-abiding citizens, taxed and regulated.

I don't know how much money a marijuana tax could generate for Michigan. I suspect it could be a lot, but that's hardly the best reason to legalize weed. In this case, control is perhaps even more important.

By keeping pot illegal, we not only help finance the black market, we delegate to criminals the task of managing the cultivation and distribution of a product used by hundreds of thousands (perhaps millions) of Michigan residents. Because of that, we really don't know what's in it, how it might be contaminated or who is buying it. And the people who sell the stuff... well, they get to keep all the money they make, tax free, without ever having to meet an inspector.

If we brought the marijuana trade out of the shadows and into the light, society could get at least a modicum of influence over what's being puffed and by whom. Sure, we cannot entirely keep liquor, beer and wine out of the hands of minors. We won't be able to do that with pot, either. But we can make it more likely that the stuff kids get their hands on meets basic standards for purity. As with liquor dealers, we also would create an incentive for sellers to be licensed and stay that way, producing a self-policing effect on the good ones.

These ideas are already taking hold. Sixteen states, including Michigan, along with the District of Columbia, now allows medical use of marijuana.  Several states have already decriminalized it, even for non-medical purposes.  In many cases where pot is still at least nominally illegal, incarceration has been replaced with civil fines or drug treatment for small-time possession and prosecution of marijuana offenses has been officially made a low priority.

There is a good reason for that. Marijuana, for all its many faults, is not considered to be a deadly drug. A recent paper published in the British journal The Lancet, for example, found, unlike some other illicit drugs, "cannabis contributes little to mortality." Other research finds health effects that, while real, are less scary and dramatic than those associated with amphetamines and cocaine.

I do not want bus drivers or airline pilots to be under the influence when they are working. But, based on my own experience with co-workers -- and some legitimate research -- I find no reason to think that the effects of moderate marijuana use are dangerous once the high wears off. Given all that, it's unclear what society is protecting itself from when it prohibits people from smoking "the herb."

Here in Michigan we have a chance to help America move toward a sane marijuana policy. An unregulated industry that now finances violence and corruption could begin putting tax money into state and local coffers. Legal jobs would be created. Jail cells now used to house marijuana offenders could be freed up to incarcerate people far more dangerous to society. Over-stretched law-enforce personnel could spend more time protecting the public from real threats. More importantly, a lot of really bad people would be cut out of a very lucrative line of business.

I will never be a marijuana advocate in the sense of actually encouraging people to use it. If every cent collected from marijuana taxes was used to fund anti-pot education, then that would be fine by me. But trying to stamp out marijuana use by making it illegal has failed. Another 50 or 60 years of doing the same thing is not likely to work out any better. It's time to try a new approach.