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Experimenting with pot

The broader desire to legalize marijuana is no reason to vote for a badly flawed Prop. 19.

October 30, 2010

Just days ago, Proposition 19's prospects seemed shaky. A Los Angeles Times/USC poll found likely voters opposing it by 51% to 39%, and the Yes on Prop. 19 campaign was short on funds. Then George Soros, the billionaire financier and philanthropist with a long-standing interest in loosening drug laws, resuscitated its chances with a last-minute $1-million donation.

In a statement outlining his support for ending marijuana prohibition, Soros said, "Regulating and taxing marijuana would simultaneously save taxpayers billions of dollars in enforcement and incarceration costs, while providing billions of dollars in revenue annually." Legalizing marijuana, he added, would "also reduce crime, violence and corruption associated with drug markets, and restore civil liberties lost by the mass incarceration of otherwise law-abiding citizens."

Well, maybe it would and maybe it wouldn't. But those broad, sweeping arguments for legalizing marijuana don't really speak to the numerous problems with this badly drafted ballot measure. The Times completely agrees that there are deep flaws in the nation's drug policy. We're even willing to concede that there might be benefits to ending the ban on pot. But a close look at Proposition 19 suggests that it is the wrong vehicle to accomplish that.

That the so-called drug war has been a disaster is widely acknowledged. Even the Obama administration has abandoned the terminology and places increasingly greater emphasis on prevention and treatment rather than incarceration of low-level drug users. Rather than making marijuana unavailable or reducing consumption, prohibition has led to the imprisonment of 750,000 people a year on possession charges, a black market that fuels gang rivalries and contributes to the violence among the Mexican drug cartels, and an unequal enforcement of drug laws that has fallen heaviest on black and Latino communities.

But Proposition 19 isn't the answer. Even voters who want marijuana legalized should beware of a measure that permits each of California's 478 cities and 58 counties to create local regulations regarding cultivation, possession and distribution. Plus, marijuana, though legal in California, would remain a prohibited Schedule I drug under federal law, setting up an inevitable conflict. Its strength and purity would not be overseen by federal drug authorities, and whether or not the much-hoped-for tax revenue comes in would depend on local governments — the ones that choose to, that is — setting up new and untried bureaucracies and enforcement agencies. Meanwhile, Californians, understandably confused by a crazy quilt of laws throughout the state, could actually end up more likely, not less, to face federal prosecution.

It's easy for residents of other states to encourage Californians to experiment with their safety on the broad, general principle that marijuana should no longer be illegal. But California voters have to look at the details. Opposition to the unsuccessful war on drugs is not sufficient reason to support a counterproductive solution such as Proposition 19. One has almost no relationship to the other.

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