We need to legalize marijuana, not merely decriminalize it

Last year a ballot measure to legalize marijuana in North Dakota failed at the ballot box.

Despite this outcome, many of our state’s politicians recognize there is a need, and an appetite among voters, for some further loosening of our state’s laws with regard to marijuana.

Enter state Rep. Shannon Roers Jones, a Republican from Fargo who is proposing a bill in this legislative session to decriminalize the possession of small amounts of marijuana.

If it passes, those possessing less than an ounce of marijuana (or no more than two plants) would face only a $200 fine.

Currently the fine is a $1,500 fine and up to 30 days in jail.

The legislation has the backing of Attorney General Wayne Stenehjem, who argues that our criminal justice system isn’t treating this sort of marijuana possession as a serious infraction anyway.

“There is nobody in jail who only possessed or used a small amount (of marijuana),” he told the Associated Press. “That just isn’t the typical sentence in those cases.”

I support this legislation, and I’m grateful to both Stenehjem and Roers Jones for supporting it, but it will accomplish very little in terms of public health or safety.

Recently I watched a documentary on Netflix called “Murder Mountain.” It’s about Humboldt County in California which, dating back to the days the hippy days, is the epicenter of domestic marijuana production.

It’s been estimated that, despite decades of almost military-style campaigns by law enforcement, as much as 70 percent of the black market marijuana in America is grown there.

The resilience of the black market growers is due to America’s enormous demand for marijuana, and while “Murder Mountain” tells the story of legalization and the emergence of the county’s marijuana industry from the shadows, the title of the documentary is inspired by the violence born of that black market.

Just as the bootleggers of another era of prohibition used murder to protect their trade, the black market marijuana industry uses violence and other sorts of mayhem as a business tactic.

Which brings me back to decriminalization.

If anything, such a policy is going to increase demand for marijuana by lowering the risk for using it on our state. Demand that, at least in North Dakota, would still very much be served by a black market.

So what, then, are we accomplishing with decriminalization?

If anything, we’re fueling the very worst side effects of marijuana prohibition, which are the networks of criminals which grow, distribute, and sell marijuana.

The right path forward is legalization. Bring the marijuana market into the sunlight, and let capitalism succeed where law enforcement has failed when it comes to defeating the criminals.

We should support decriminalization as a step toward that end, but let’s not kid ourselves about what it will accomplish in terms of practical outcomes in our communities.