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I write this with a little trepidation because our police chief, Jim Ryan, whose opinion I respect, told me he is flatly opposed to legalizing marijuana. Nevertheless, I want to take a shot at laying out a rationale for why pot should be at least decriminalized.

It all started with observing the behavior of the throngs attending our annual spring event, the St. Patrick’s Day Parade on March 10. I watched the parade from the sidewalk right next to Healy’s and saw a lot of beer being consumed. At that point, I wished I owned stock in one of the taverns lining our main drag.

What struck me was that in spite of the large amounts of alcohol entering thousands of people’s blood streams, I didn’t see anyone misbehaving. I wondered if the orderliness of the revelry continued into the wee hours of that night, so I called Deputy Chief Tom Aftanas, who is always responsive, and asked him how many police calls were made that night. Following are excerpts from his email to me:

There were a total of six incidents. All occurred after the parade and involved alcohol. None were very serious:

Alcohol consumption in public at 8:30 p.m. two local ordinance tickets issued.

One Public Intoxication local ordinance ticket issued at 8:33 p.m.

One criminal damage to vehicle report taken at 8:37 p.m. Offender was caught, but the vehicle owner did not want him arrested.

The remaining three incidents involved three separate fights at three different bars. A total of five local ordinance tickets for public fighting were issued.

Every weekend usually has a couple of fights and public intoxication. These statistics are higher than some Saturdays and lower than some. Considering the number of people who were on Madison, there weren’t many incidents.

Now, the moralistic part of me wants to say that one case of intoxication is one case too many. From a public health point of view, too many traffic fatalities are due to drunk driving and millions if not billions of dollars are spent on rehabbing alcoholics. When I was a pastor, I heard so many painful stories about how drinking ruined marriages and business ventures. Reading a good book or dancing the night away are healthier ways of taking a break from reality than getting tipsy. From what I’ve heard, dancing rarely causes a fatal car accident.

A more pragmatic side, the one with a historical consciousness, reminds me that we tried eliminating drunkenness with the Volstead Act in 1919. Not only was Prohibition unable to get rid of the problem of overindulging, it also opened the door for the Mafia to make an awful lot of money. Even the Women’s Christian Temperance Union (yes, it still exists with some 20,000 members) promotes individuals taking an oath of abstinence from alcohol for individuals more than trying to abolish drinking through legislation.

A few days after the parade, I watched a travel show on Holland where marijuana is legal. All you have to do, according to the show’s host, Rick Steves, is join one of the many clubs, called “coffee shops” – euphemisms abound even among potheads. There the product is highly regulated by the government and can be purchased only in small amounts.

Let me be clear. I don’t approve of getting drunk on alcohol or high on pot. My values tell me there are better ways to alter my consciousness. Nevertheless, I have to conclude that attempts to outlaw “victimless” behavior like drinking bring with them costs which are higher than the benefits gained. It was true for Prohibition, and I think it is true for smoking marijuana.

I never in my wildest fantasies ever thought I’d be quoting televangelist Pat Robertson to support anything I wrote, but I have to agree with what he was quoted as saying in the New York Times.

“I really believe we should treat marijuana the way we treat beverage alcohol,” he wrote. “I’ve never used marijuana and I don’t intend to, but it’s just one of those things that I think: This war on drugs just hasn’t succeeded. … It’s completely out of control.”

Robertson continued: “Prisons are being overcrowded with juvenile offenders having to do with drugs. And the penalties, the maximums, some of them could get 10 years for possession of a joint of marijuana. It makes no sense at all.”

We Forest Parkers have a lot of experience with drinking. Most of us are very aware of the high cost our society pays for alcohol abuse. Still, we have chosen to regulate the consumption of alcohol rather than criminalizing the drinking of it. We don’t put people in jail for getting drunk. We arrest them for driving while intoxicated and fine them for getting into bar room brawls.

I think a cost/benefit analysis would indicate that we as a society should do the same for pot.

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