Steve Chapman

Candidates running for president can easily wreck their campaigns with one serious misstep. Back in 1976, one Democrat said he favored getting rid of criminal penalties for marijuana use. Can you imagine how Americans of that primitive era reacted to his blunder? They elected him.

Once in office, Jimmy Carter didn't abandon his temperate approach to cannabis. He proposed that the federal government stop treating possession of small amounts as a crime, making a sensible but novel argument: "Penalties against possession of a drug should not be more damaging to an individual than the use of the drug itself."

Nothing came of it, of course. Carter's logic was unassailable even 35 years ago, but it has yet to be translated into federal policy. The American experience with prohibition of alcohol proved that we are capable of learning from our mistakes. The experience with prohibition of marijuana proves that we are also capable of doing just the opposite.

The stupidity and futility of the federal war on weed, however, has slowly permeated the mass consciousness. This week, the Gallup organization reported that fully 50 percent of Americans now think marijuana should be made legal. This is the first time since Gallup began asking in 1969 that more Americans support legalization than oppose it.

The shift has shaped drug policy at the state level. Seventeen states have approved medical use of pot, according to the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws (NORML), and 14 have decriminalized possession of small amounts for personal use -- including such staunchly conservative places as Mississippi and Nebraska.

Changes in a permissive direction may bring casual use out of the closet, but they don't elicit the disasters that anti-drug zealots fear. In fact, research indicates that decriminalizing cannabis has only a tiny effect on consumption, if any.

For that matter, hardly anything has an effect. Over the past 30 years, federal spending to fight drugs has risen seven times over, after inflation. Since 1991, arrests for possession of pot have nearly tripled. But all for naught.

As a report last year by the International Centre for Science in Drug Policy noted, more high school students and young adults get high today than 20 years ago. More than 16 million Americans smoke dope at least once a month. Pot is just as available to kids as it ever was, and cheaper than before.

Steve Chapman

Steve Chapman is a columnist and editorial writer for the Chicago Tribune.

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