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Commentary: It's time for North Dakota to legalize pot

MINOT, N.D.—This week organizers of a ballot measure aimed at legalizing recreational marijuana turned in an estimated 18,700 signatures to the secretary of state's office.

By law they needed less than 14,000 to qualify for the November ballot. Barring some unforeseen problems with the petitions this issue will be before North Dakota voters in the fall.

This humble observer hopes the state's voters cast their ballots for legal marijuana.

For one thing, legalizing recreational marijuana would likely render the efforts to implement the absurd medicinal marijuana statute approved by voters in 2016 moot.

That law, so poorly written by organizers of the measure that it had to be modified by lawmakers in their 2017 session so it was workable, is a testament to why legislating at the ballot box is a generally terrible idea. State officials are still working on unraveling the tangle bureaucracy that measure foisted on us. Once it's in effect, it's unlikely to help marijuana patients much. The product sold through that process will likely be so expensive, and so arduous to obtain, the black market will likely continue as the preferred option for many.

For another, I'm not at all certain what we're accomplishing with continued marijuana prohibition.

Opposition to this ballot measure is already forming in legal circles, particularly among law enforcement officials, and I suspect they're going to make a public safety argument against it.

They'll talk about people driving stoned and the appeal of legal marijuana to criminal elements.

Yet what's appealing to criminals is law making a hugely popular product like marijuana illegal. Prohibition creates a lucrative market for criminals to serve.

Just ask Al Capone.

What will be unmentioned by those in the law enforcement community who oppose this measure is just how lucrative marijuana prohibition is for them.

Consider that arrests for marijuana charges increased 119 percent from 2009 to 2016 according to data from the attorney general's office. More than 50 percent of all drug crime in North Dakota during that time was related to marijuana.

Each of those arrests generates a lot of revenue for people in the law enforcement community. More arrests means more justification for bigger budgets, bigger police forces, and bigger equipment purchases. Then there's the revenues the government collects from the fines and asset forfeitures, not to mention the money paid to the rehabilitation industry by marijuana offenders ordered to seek treatment in sentencing.

But is any of that making our communities safer?

Here's a sobering truth: If you want marijuana in North Dakota you can get marijuana. Just about every community in the state likely has a dealer who can sell you some pot. It's a product more ubiquitous than Starbucks or McDonald's.

Why fight it?

There's no question that marijuana has some negative social side effects. But then, so does alcohol. We've decided that we'd rather deal with the problems legal alcohol creates than the much larger problems that come with alcohol prohibition.

It's time to make that same decision about marijuana.

Rob Port, founder of SayAnythingBlog.com, a North Dakota political blog, is a Forum Communications commentator. Follow him on Twitter at @RobPort

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