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March 21, 2009 -- Bellingham Herald (WA)

OpEd: Retired Judge Says It Is Time To End War On Drugs

By David A. Nichols, Whatcom County superior court judge for 20 years, retiring in 2004

A recent letter to the editor argued against reforming marijuana laws, missing the mark entirely in my opinion. After serving as a Whatcom County superior court judge for 20 years, I can assure you that the prohibition of marijuana has been a colossal failure. Arresting, prosecuting, and jailing people are an expensive and ineffective way to address a public health issue.

We should take a lesson from recent anti-tobacco public education campaigns targeted at youth. Youth initiation rates of cigarette smoking have plummeted in recent years, both in Washington and nationwide. We did not have to arrest a single cigarette smoker to accomplish these successes.

It is time we take a hard look at the irrefutable fact that marijuana prohibition is causing more harm than good. I think we can do better. That is why I support Senate Bill 5615, which has been introduced in the Washington state Legislature. This bill would make adult possession of small amounts of marijuana a civil infraction instead of a misdemeanor crime.

The state estimates that the bill would save Washington taxpayers over $16 million each year, and the experience of the 12 other states who have already taken this step demonstrates no negative impact to their communities.

It is my fervent belief that this state and nation must come to recognize that continuing to treat drug users as criminals perpetuates an evil that rewards the drug sellers and corrupts our society. Until we honestly and appropriately deal with the entire drug issue as a health problem analogous to tobacco or liquor, and not as a "war" we cannot win, we will continue to reap the whirlwind of huge world-wide illegal drug profits which are costing us billions, threatening the stability of nations, causing soaring crime rates and diverting money which is sorely needed elsewhere.

The pending legislation in Olympia is a first step toward a rational approach to the drug problem and deserves to be supported by all of us.

With the exception of a few brave souls willing to stake their careers on speaking out, the nation and world are mystifyingly deaf and mute to the reality that the "war on drugs" not only is not working; it is having the opposite effect of escalating the problem exponentially.

The present generation has forgotten that emotions also ran rampant in the years leading up to Prohibition. Convinced that alcohol was evil and that society would be ruined if it were not outlawed, Congress was persuaded to pass legislation which had the inevitable result of encouraging the black market to flourish, allowing organized crime to gain a foothold which it has never relinquished, to seize control and enjoy huge profits, requiring the creation of colossal state and federal police forces to combat the crime and wasting millions of dollars, only to be repealed when enough people realized that the efforts were availing nothing. We now sensibly have liquor under state control, and treat addiction as a health problem.

We have also been smart enough to treat tobacco use the same way. Cigarettes are regulated but not proscribed. We have left it to the culture to censure cigarette smoking, which has been far more effective than if we criminalized their use.

Why cannot we understand that, even though alcohol and nicotine abuse cause far more damage and loss of productivity to our society than do drugs, by not criminalizing their use but treating their misuse as a health problem instead of a crime has allowed us to avoid all the problems that now beset us as we wage the "war on drugs?"

If we ever want to stop the craziness and futility of our present anti-drug approach, we must de-criminalize possession and use of all drugs. Education, addiction treatment and state regulation need to replace arrests, trials, jail sentences, growth of cartels and drug gangs, corrupt government institutions, and the mindless head-bashing against brick walls that characterize what we are doing now.

It will never work. It didn't work in the past. If we would only study the past, maybe we would not be condemned to repeat it.

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