Californians will vote in a Tuesday referendum on whether to end the prohibition of marijuana. The current policy has been a fiasco. What have punitive laws and billions of dollars a year in anti-cannabis law enforcement yielded? Widespread use of marijuana. Hundreds of thousands of petty criminals, languishing in prison or under the state's scrutiny. Violent criminal empires based on an illegal trade.
California's Proposition 19 to legalize the drug is a flawed measure, in itself: Decriminalization would be more than sufficient to tame the ill-devised war on drugs' greatest excesses. But the initiative is a welcome move because it puts a spotlight on the failures of the war on soft drugs.
Few of the prohibitionists' arguments stand up to scrutiny. Consider the claim that decriminalizing marijuana will lead to an increase in use. Says who? In the Netherlands, where marijuana has been sold in coffee shops since the 1970s, about 20 per cent of the adult population has tried it, compared with 42 per cent of adult Americans.
Ingesting any drug involves dangers. But marijuana is less addictive, and poses less overall harm, than long-term, intensive consumption of alcohol or tobacco, both highly regulated but legal substances.
Proposition 19 has defects. In addition to legalization, it will allow each of California's 478 cities and 58 counties to develop its own rules on growing, possessing, distributing and taxing the drug - a scattershot approach that could lead to confusion and a continuing role for drug lords. Marijuana possession will remain illegal under federal law, and U.S. Attorney-General Eric Holder promises to "vigorously enforce" it.
The initiative, however, is an important acknowledgment that the failings of the drug war cannot be neglected any longer. Reforms are now endorsed by a motley crew, from the College of Physicians in Britain, to Fernando Henrique Cardoso, the former president of Brazil, and George Soros, the billionaire philanthropist.
The American war on drugs has led to more, not less, criminality, and not just in the U.S., but throughout the hemisphere. California's approach may be flawed, but it is right to search for a better way.