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Marijuana legalization is a response to the failures of the war on drugs

The debate over marijuana legalization is just one of the many ways the political landscape is changing as the US comes to terms with drug and criminal justice policies that many experts and Americans consider to have failed at a great cost to the nation’s liberty and finances.

The war on marijuana in particular has cost the US billions of dollars over decades, led to a black market for pot that criminal organizations use to fund violent operations, and contributed to the explosive growth of America’s incarcerated population, which is now the largest in the world. And despite those costs, millions of people still use marijuana — a drug that most Americans view as relatively safe.

Purple marijuana plants. Seth McConnell/Denver Post/Getty Images

Supporters and opponents of legalization alike acknowledge these failures, but both sides disagree on whether legalization goes too far.

Supporters, such as the Marijuana Policy Project and the Drug Policy Alliance, say that legalization is the only way to cut off a major source of revenue from criminal organizations and totally end the arrests of nonviolent marijuana users and sellers. But there’s disagreement among some supporters, such as New York University drug policy expert Mark Kleiman, about how to legalize pot, and whether for-profit companies should be allowed to sell and aggressively market the drug.

Opponents, such as Smart Approaches to Marijuana, worry about the consequences of legalization — whether legally allowing pot could make it more accessible and therefore easier to misuse, especially if for-profit enterprises are able to advertise the drug similar to how alcohol companies promote their products during major public events like the Super Bowl. Some critics of full legalization instead favor smaller steps toward reform, like allowing pot only for medical uses or decriminalization, which would remove criminal penalties for possession but keep distribution and sales illegal.

The legalization debate, then, isn’t about whether reform should happen at all, but if a certain kind of change goes too far. This is typical of drug policy: It’s not about which option is perfect, but about which option is the least bad. In the case of marijuana, both sides are weighing whether the costs of prohibition — more arrests and drug-related violence — outweigh the risks of increased access to marijuana, given its potential harms to society and personal health.

But the choice is potentially one of huge magnitude: If legalization supporters triumph, it would amount to the greatest strike against a drug policy regime that has dominated the US for decades. After decades of dealing with the war on drugs and its failures, Americans appear increasingly willing to try something else.