The Washington Post: On pot, just say 'slow'

Published January 14, 2014 1:01 am

The Washington Post
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Democratic Maryland Gov. Martin O'Malley has said he's "not much in favor" of following Colorado and Washington state down the path of legalizing marijuana sales. His opposition probably seals the fate of the major pro-pot bills introduced in the state legislature this year.

Still, momentum for legalization is building, and the term-limited Mr. O'Malley will be gone in a year. So here's a question for cannabis-loving lawmakers in Annapolis, led by Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller, D-Calvert: What's the rush?

The arguments for and against legalizing, regulating and taxing retail marijuana have been around for years, but a few things have changed. One is public opinion, which has tilted clearly toward more lenient treatment of people who possess small amounts of pot and, more gradually, outright legalization.

That, and the supposed lure of tens of millions of dollars in sales-tax revenue for state treasuries, led to new laws in Colorado, where legal retail sales of marijuana began Jan. 1, and Washington, where they will begin later this year. Over time, those two states should provide answers, or at least significant new data, that shed light on the real costs and benefits of allowing adults to buy pot openly and legally.

Right now, the cost-benefit equation is mainly a matter of conjecture. Studies to date, in the 20 or so states where legal medical marijuana is available, are of limited use.

Will the new laws in Colorado and Washington lead to increased use? More marijuana in schools? Spiking rates of addiction and treatment? Widespread "smurfing" by people who go from store to store buying 1-ounce bags (the per-purchase limit) and selling them on the black market?

Perhaps most important, will the wide availability of marijuana in those two states prompt people to drink more alcohol — especially when they drive — or less? And will there be more stoned driving, which itself is dangerous? Given the stakes — the already-staggering carnage on the nation's roadways caused by drunken (and stoned) drivers, and the risk of more of the same — that's a powerful argument in favor of gathering more information before rushing headlong toward legalization.

A couple of generations of Americans have come of age amid relatively widespread use of pot; many are inured to its effects. It is true that THC, marijuana's active ingredient, is generally less harmful and debilitating than alcohol. Still, it's foolish to overlook the effects of long-term use, and the Drug Enforcement Administration reports that potency levels are higher than ever.

It makes sense to decriminalize the possession of small amounts of marijuana by imposing modest fines rather than jail terms. Overly harsh sanctions have filled prisons with users who are left with criminal records; that's irrational. The wise course for states considering legalization is to regard Colorado and Washington as data-generating laboratories.