02/18/2014 12:27 pm ET Updated Apr 20, 2014

Marijuana Decriminalization Sends a Better Message Than the Drug War

This month, the DC Council voted 11-1 to decriminalize marijuana possession. The only vote against the bill was Councilmember Yvette Alexander's, who claimed that removing criminal penalties would be "sending the message that it's OK to smoke." This all-too-common talking point needs to be put to rest. Not only does reform not promote drug use, it sends a far better message than continuing the life-destroying War on Drugs.

If signed by Mayor Gray, who has already expressed his support, DC's decriminalization law would be one of the most progressive in the country. Rather than face arrest and possible jail time, people caught with under an ounce of marijuana would have it confiscated and pay a $25 fine. Small-time possession would remain illegal, but as a civil offense rather than criminal; the production, sale, and possession of over an ounce would remain a criminal offense.

To say that making marijuana possession a civil offense encourages its use requires an Olympic stretch of the imagination. There are numerous small-time offenses people are fined for rather than arrested, such as smoking in restaurants or speeding. To claim that our current policies are encouraging either of these behaviors would be ridiculous, so why do we accept that argument when it comes to illegal drugs?

Contrary to Alexander's fears, experience in the United States and abroad suggests that decriminalization does not encourage drug use, and may even decrease it. A 2002 study by Harvard economics professor Jeffrey Miron concluded that the "evidence provides no indication that decriminalization leads to a measurable increase in marijuana use." In the 14 years since Portugal decriminalized the possession of all drugs -- not just marijuana -- fewer teens are using illegal drugs, and substance abuse has been cut in half.

Perhaps surprisingly to many, the same logic also applies to outright legalization. There are plenty of products and behaviors that, while legal, are far from encouraged: gambling, tobacco, and alcohol, to name a few. Using reasonable regulations like age requirements and advertising restrictions, it is entirely possible to discourage something while not fining or jailing those who still choose to do it. Thanks to such regulations, paired with honest and direct public education, both alcohol and tobacco use among youth are at their lowest levels since they started being tracked in 1975. Meanwhile, marijuana use among teens is at a 30-year high.

Treating marijuana the way we treat alcohol and tobacco would likely lead to similar drops in usage. People living in the Netherlands, famous for its relaxed marijuana laws, actually use marijuana about half as much as Americans and far less than their European neighbors. When asked how this could be, the Dutch Minister of Health explained, "We have succeeded in making pot boring." This sentiment was confirmed by a 2010 RAND study, which found that Dutch people "mature out" of marijuana use faster than their American peers.

Still, there are some who paradoxically insist that reforming our drug laws "sends the wrong message" even if it causes use and abuse to drop. But what kind of message is our current approach sending? The Office of National Drug Control Policy acknowledges that drug addiction is a treatable disease, yet over half of federal prisoners are there for drug crimes. A politician who endorsed imprisoning alcoholics just for drinking would be ridiculed, yet hundreds in Congress support the same approach for addictions to other drugs. Many have called the Drug War "the new Jim Crow," and DC is the perfect example: while blacks make up about half the city's population, they account for over 90% of drug arrests, even though whites are more likely to abuse drugs.

If our elected officials really cared about reducing drug use and sending the right message to youth, they would abandon our failed experiment with prohibition -- and decriminalizing marijuana in the nation's capital is a big step in the right direction.