Steve Chapman

Don't look for a live-and-let-live approach in California, where Gov. Jerry Brown recently went off on the sort of addled tangent that could be excused only if he were high. "All of a sudden, if there's advertising and legitimacy, how many people can get stoned and still have a great state or a great nation?" he asked scornfully. "The world's pretty dangerous, very competitive."

Brown apparently is unaware that cannabis use is far more common in the United States than in the Netherlands, which has one of the most permissive regimes in the world. Banning pot doesn't actually prevent people from getting baked.

Of course, if you truly wanted to worry about a mind-altering toxin that damages productivity and ruins lives, you wouldn't focus on marijuana; you'd focus on alcohol. But Brown doesn't worry that the Golden State's many wineries and craft breweries put it at a competitive disadvantage.

Even Democratic governors presiding over legalization are not wearing "Bong Hits for Jesus" T-shirts. When Washington voters voted on legalization in 2012, Jay Inslee was running for governor and unsuccessfully opposed it. Colorado's John Hickenlooper came out against the Colorado initiative, which also passed. Neither has gotten giddy about the idea since then.

But it's hard for Democrats to justify treating mere possession as a crime, if only because that policy has so many corrosive effects they should care about. It squanders revenue that could be used for more useful government programs. It causes blacks to be arrested four times more often than whites, even though they smoke weed at roughly the same rate.

It encourages police to stop and frisk -- a practice that in New York City, a federal judge ruled last year, led to violations of the Constitution and unjustified racial profiling.

Democratic politicians could be making the case for change at a time when the public is increasingly receptive to a new policy. Instead, they are clinging blindly to the status quo. They undoubtedly are smarter than the average rodent. But even rats know enough to leave a sinking ship.

Steve Chapman

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

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