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California's vote to legalize marijuana is a step in the right direction

By Edward Schumacher-Matos
Friday, October 15, 2010;

BOSTON

In the upcoming California referendum on legalizing marijuana for recreational use, Mexican President Felipe Calderón and U.S. drug czar Gil Kerlikowske have something in common. Both are missing the forest for the weed.

According to recent polls, Californians are on the verge of approving the legalization of marijuana and overthrowing nearly a century of failed American drug prohibition. Hail to the Golden State.

In the four decades since President Richard Nixon declared a "War on Drugs," the toll of prohibition includes at least $1 trillion in taxes spent, according to the Wall Street Journal. Worse are the millions of lives damaged by prison time and street violence. In 2007, for example, about 500,000 people were in jail on drug charges.

Yet, while drug preferences go in and out of style, total use by Americans of all stripes remains virtually unchanged.

The toll in Latin America, and especially Mexico today, is even more tragic. More than 28,000 Mexicans have died in the past four years in a macabre war among drug cartels and the government. Yet, along the U.S.-Mexico border, the ruthless cartels remain more powerful than the government.

And there is no light at the end of the tunnel, there or here.

We parents understandably worry that legalization might encourage drug use by our children, but that's a management issue, as with alcohol. The drugs are readily available anyway. Instead of hurting children, what legalization really does is undercut the gangs, keep our young people out of jail and reduce the violence.

Still, Calderón and Kerlikowske, with the Obama administration in tow, oppose the California measure.

Kerlikowske recently went to Mexico City to ensure that the government there doesn't give in to the growing popular demands by Mexicans, including former president Vicente Fox, to legalize marijuana and help stop the spilling of Mexican blood so that Americans can toke an illegal substance virtually at will.

He needn't have worried. The strait-laced and highly determined Calderón had hosted an honest national debate on the issue, but in a visit to Tijuana a week ago, he made clear that he had no intention of letting up on the fight.

He told the Associated Press that California's legalization would amount to hypocrisy while the United States keeps pressuring Mexico to be forceful.

Calderon is right, but only if you don't see the California referendum for what it is: a step. And a very big one, considering that California represents one-seventh of American marijuana consumption and has long been a first-mover in American cultural and political trends.

Other small American steps, moreover, have already been taken. Since California approved "medical marijuana" in 1996, 14 states and the District of Columbia have followed in what is -- let's admit it -- a veiled sort of legalization by wink. The usage is illegal under federal law, but the Obama administration, like the Bush one before it, has largely let states and communities do what they want.

If the California law passes, anyone 21 years and older can possess up to one ounce of marijuana, enough for dozens of joints. Ingesting in public or around minors would be banned, as would possessing the drug on school grounds or driving under its influence. Residents could grow small plots. Other drugs would remain illegal.

A study released this week by the Rand Corp. questioned how much the new law might reduce Mexican violence. The study suggested that Mexican cartels derive 15 to 26 percent of their income from marijuana, and not the 60 percent often cited. Given also that roughly half of U.S. consumption is homegrown, cartel export revenue might only be cut between 2 percent and 4 percent, though it could go as high as 20 percent if California takes over the U.S. market by exporting to the rest of the country, the study said.

But what all this means for the United States and Mexico is that more steps away from prohibition need to follow. Issues such as pricing, taxation and other drugs also need careful confronting. But marijuana and California are good beginnings.

Edward Schumacher-Matos is syndicated by the Washington Post Writers Group. His e-mail address is edward.schumachermatos@yahoo.com.

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