A realistic approach to pot from the Justice Department

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Fans of offbeat cinema have long derived guffaws from 1930s exploitation films like “Reefer Madness” and “Marihuana – The Weed with Roots in Hell,” both of which portray the flowering plant known more technically as cannabis as a rampaging public health menace that could lead users to wild-eyed acts of derangement.


Almost 80 years on, even the most abstemious among us will concede that marijuana use is far from being as harmful as those hapless filmmakers portrayed it as being. Though not a recommended component of a healthy lifestyle – studies have shown that long-term, heavy, recreational use can be damaging – the drug certainly doesn’t seem to be as addictive or lethal as heroin or cocaine, and stacks up well compared to alcohol, cigarettes or prescription painkillers on those fronts, and all of those can be obtained legally. It can also ease the pain of those suffering from terminal illnesses or other maladies.


In an overdue acknowledgement of its widespread availability and the futility of prosecuting small-time users, the U.S. Department of Justice announced late last month that it would not meddle if individual states allow adults to use marijuana or if regulated medical dispensaries for the narcotic are established. After its voters approved laws essentially legalizing marijuana for adults aged 21 or older last year, Colorado and Washington State will be able to implement those measures without interference, as will any other state that chooses to follow the same route.


The policy memo did say, however, that Uncle Sam would remain hands-off only if, among other conditions, marijuana is not sold to minors, not grown on public lands, the money from growing it doesn’t wind up in the hands of criminals, and driving while stoned is not condoned.


Relaxing laws around the sale of marijuana would, ideally, provide a source of revenue for dollar-starved state and local governments; more pressingly, it would ease the burden on a criminal justice system bursting with petty offenders going before judges and, in some cases, occupying jail cells due to marijuana possession. Having law enforcement focus on lassoing more serious drug offenders, or devoting resources to reducing violent crime, would seem a wiser use of time and energy.


The Obama Justice Department has its critics, but this, along with its recent recommendation that stiff drug sentences be curtailed in order to ease prison overcrowding, shows it is serious about combating crime with methods grounded in reality.


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