EDITORIAL: Smoke signals point to legalized marijuana

Republicans weren’t the only ones living the high life on Election Day. Proponents of legalized, recreational marijuana also were big winners, with decriminalization measures passing in Oregon, Alaska and Washington, D.C.

Nevada could be the next state to join them.

Oregon’s ballot measure passed Tuesday night with 54 percent of the vote, creating the country’s third legal market for recreational marijuana (Colorado and Washington state voters passed similar measures in 2012). Oregon residents 21 and older can now possess and grow marijuana. Hours later, Alaska became the fourth state, with 52 percent of voters approving a measure to tax and regulate the production, sale and use of marijuana, making its use legal for people 21 and older. Florida voters narrowly rejected recreational marijuana despite providing majority support — that state’s measure required 60 percent of the vote to pass but received 58 percent.

Time reported that Washington, D.C., passed a “soft legalization” measure, with nearly 70 percent voting in favor. The city won’t have a regulated market, but it will be legal for residents 21 and older to possess up to 2 ounces of marijuana and cultivate up to six plants at home, as well as give 1 ounce of marijuana to someone else, without payment. Selling pot remains a crime, yet that has done nothing to deter sales.

This week’s marijuana votes set the stage for even more pot petitions. USA Today reports that marijuana legalization advocates are advancing similar decriminalization initiatives in 10 other states, and that voters in Nevada, California, Arizona, Maine and Massachusetts could see recreational marijuana questions on their 2016 ballots.

In Nevada, marijuana petitioners have been collecting signatures for months, needing 101,667 registered voters by next week to push the measure forward. Should they meet that threshold, the initiative will go before the 2015 Legislature. If that happens, the Republican-controlled body should approve it. But if the Legislature rejects it or ignores it, the initiative would go before voters in 2016.

It will pass. As with gay marriage, public opinion has shifted on recreational marijuana. Polls show a majority of Americans recognize the futility of prohibition and would rather see governments collect taxes on the sale of the drug. Of course, excessive taxation defeats the purpose of decriminalization because it keeps prices artificially high, which ensures criminals remain in business.

State by state legalization of marijuana use is a step forward. But it would be far better if Congress got out of its haze and removed marijuana from the Schedule I list of controlled substances. The war on drugs in general, and specifically marijuana, has been a colossal failure at tremendous cost. DrugSense.org reports that nearly 730,000 people have been arrested on suspicion of marijuana offenses this year, but 89 percent of those suspects are charged only with possession. Since President Richard Nixon officially declared the war on drugs in 1971, we’ve spent more than $1 trillion investigating, prosecuting and locking up nonviolent offenders. There has been no reduction in American demand for illegal drugs.

Nevada’s first medical marijuana dispensaries will open soon, which should help smooth the road for eventual recreational sales. Legalizing marijuana would allow Nevada to help lead the country away from one of its most expensive mistakes.

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