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A Tilting Domino

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In the 1960s and ‘70s, the war hawks screeched that there was a domino effect in Southeast Asia, that if Vietnam fell to the communists, so too would Thailand, the Philippines, and other countries in the region. North Vietnam won — despite the 58,000 American lives and the untold Vietnamese lives lost in that fiasco — but South Vietnam was the only domino that fell.

Today, there may be a domino effect at work in another fiasco, the decades-long drug war. The domino in play is marijuana. It is the chink in the drug warriors’ armor, and the crack is getting larger.

In an Associated Press story earlier this month, David Klepper writes

Once consigned to the political fringe, marijuana policy is appearing on legislative agendas around the country thanks to an energized base of supporters and an increasingly open-minded public. Lawmakers from Rhode Island to Colorado are mulling medical marijuana programs, pot dispensaries, decriminalization and even legalization.

Klepper wrote specifically about efforts in Rhode Island to change the state’s marijuana laws. To date, there are 17 states plus the District of Columbia that allow medical marijuana use, and the AP story points out that 14 states have reduced or removed criminal penalties for possession of small amounts of the substance. According to Klepper, Rhode Island could become the 15th state to decriminalize pot possession:

The state’s General Assembly passed legislation last week that would eliminate the threat of big fines or even jail time for the possession of an ounce or less of pot.… Gov. Lincoln Chafee has said he is inclined to sign the legislation.

Klepper reports that similar measures have been introduced before, but they have always died in committee. Not so this time. He writes that some legislators want to go further.

State Rep. John Savage, a retired school principal, acknowledges that the war on drugs has failed and that pot should be legalized. Klepper quotes him as saying, “America’s 50-year war on drugs has been an abysmal failure.… Marijuana in this country should be legalized. It should be sold and taxed.”

The value in taxing marijuana is speculative, at best. The real reason for re-legalizing pot — there was a time when there were no prohibitive laws against its use — is for the sake of liberty and responsibility. People need to be able to make their own choices without the government giving a yea or nay on what they ingest.

There are people who earnestly believe that legalizing marijuana would do nothing more than introduce another intoxicant into a society that already has enough intoxicated people. They ask what type of message that would send to the younger generation. But there’s a nauseating hypocrisy to that argument.

Joe Sixpack and Mary Margarita are legally allowed to drink themselves into a stupor any night of the week. They can guzzle enough alcohol to kill brain and liver cells. They can also smoke enough tobacco to burn their throats and shrivel their lungs to charred dust. But if people want to toke on a joint before dinner or eat a pot brownie before watching some videos on the DVR, they face trouble with the law through fines, incarceration and the possibility of being shot by a SWAT team storming into the home.

Some drug warriors are getting the message, even if it’s not a true libertarian message. One former Drug Enforcement Administration agent now says that prohibition is costing lives.

The Fort Worth Star-Telegram reported in early June that former agent Sean Dunagan told a group of libertarians that drug dealers resort to violence to settle disputes because of prohibition. This isn’t news to most anti-prohibitionists, but it’s refreshing to hear a former law-enforcement officer say it.

This is actually a lesson from history that’s being repeated, one that’s ignored by most people in government; during the era of alcohol prohibition, bootleggers killed rivals and any innocent bystanders who got in the way.

“There are no arbiters, there are no courts, there are no contracts, so necessarily all disputes get settled by violence,” Dunagan says.

Dunagan is a member of LEAP, Law Enforcement Against Prohibition, whose membership comes from current and former law-enforcement types, including judges and prosecutors who realize the war on drugs must end.

With people like these speaking up, and with the efforts of politicians who do see the light — such as those in Rhode Island and the other states that are reducing penalties for pot possession — maybe the rest in government will finally realize that prohibition does more harm than the drugs that are prohibited.

Marijuana is the first domino. May it fall soon.

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    Rich Schwartzman is managing editor at Chadds Ford Live in Chadds Ford, Pennsylvania.