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Jay Evensen: Marijuana acceptance will lead to social costs

Published: Thursday, Aug. 21 2014 12:00 a.m. MDT

Updated: Thursday, Aug. 21 2014 10:32 a.m. MDT

A visitor walks through the pot pavilion at Denver County Fair, the nation's first county fair to allow pot competitions, in Denver, Friday Aug. 1, 2014. There’s no actual weed at the fairgrounds. Instead, fairgoers will see photos of competing pot plants and marijuana-infused foods. A sign near the entry warns patrons not to consume pot at the fair. (AP Photo/Brennan Linsley)

Brennan Linsley, AP

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It didn’t take long on a recent family road trip to the Northwest for my family to come face-to-face with recent changes in Washington state law.

We were returning to the car after dinner at a fast-food restaurant in Yakima when I got a big whiff of an aroma I hadn’t encountered much since graduating from high school. Sitting in the car next to ours were two men happily smoking marijuana. Their Texas license plate was an indication of how far they must have come for the privilege, perhaps stopping in Colorado along the way for a similar experience.

It is, of course, still illegal to operate a car in Washington while high on weed. But enforcement, and rules in general, have become a bit confused since the state decided to legalize the recreational use of something that, despite growing popular opinion, is far from harmless.

Washington and Colorado are on the leading edge of a dangerous public policy move that separates getting high from responsible behavior, moving it into the realm of widespread tolerance. You can safely predict society will pay a cost for this.

Consider that one of the big stories recently in Seattle concerned evidence that one police officer was responsible for issuing 80 percent of the measly 82 citations so far this year for smoking pot in public, which comes with a $27 fine.

Few people seemed to question why other officers didn’t write more citations as well. Instead, the department took him off patrol duty. But then, an initiative passed in 2003 explicitly made the enforcement of laws against small amounts of marijuana a low priority for Seattle police.

This might not have happened if the president of the United States had decided to enforce a federal law against marijuana use.

Speaking of that, the city of Fife, Wash., a suburb of Tacoma, has decided to prohibit any business selling recreational marijuana from opening within its borders. In response to a lawsuit filed by some of those businesses, the city refers to that federal law.

Washington’s attorney general responded by taking the unusual position that Fife does indeed have the right to prohibit marijuana shops, but under state, not federal, law. The reason for this argument is simple. If courts rule that the federal anti-marijuana law takes precedence, it would be the end of Washington’s recreational marijuana party.

But of course, the federal government is uninterested right now.

These battles are bound to spread nationwide as popular opinion moves in the direction of legalization. And make no mistake, that is where it’s going. Even the New York Times editorial board recently advocated for legalization, referring to the “vast” social costs of keeping the drug illegal, but brushing aside the costs on the other end. It called “addiction and dependence … relatively minor problems.”

These “minor” problems include evidence that 9 percent of all users will become addicted. It includes memory, cognitive and behavioral impairments, as well as psychotic episodes among heavy users, according to the National Institute on Drug Abuse.

Most importantly, as NIDA notes, these things are intensified among young people who, after years of declining use, appear to be lighting up again. Among 12th-graders, 32.8 percent had used the drug in the past year, according to a national survey.

The Times, acknowledging this, would prohibit use by anyone under 21, naively thinking legalization for adults would not trickle down to teenagers.

Years ago, police in New York and elsewhere discovered that the best way to reduce crime was to respond to the small things, the broken windows and minor vandalism reports. People got the idea that a police force that cared about the little crimes also would not tolerate the big ones.

As the state of Washington treats minor infractions, such as smoking pot in public, as not worth the time of its law enforcement officers, it sends a far different message.

As I left the Texas car in the Yakima parking lot, I was glad not to have to encounter its occupants on the road. I was haunted, however, by how many others like them might be out there, now and in the future.

Jay Evensen is the senior editorial columnist at the Deseret News. Email him at even@desnews.com. For more content, visit his website, jayevensen.com.

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