Legalize Marijuana and Then Move Forward From There

Tackle Health Care, Federal Spending and High Incarceration Rates in One Fell Swoop

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FILE -- This Sept. 2, 2012 photo shows marijuana growing in a grow house in Denver.  Pot smokers in Colorado were the biggest winners in the vote that legalized the drug. Now state regulators are working out the details of exactly how to tax it, so the benefits are shared statewide in the form of increased revenue. A state panel meets Thursday to draft final recommendations based on the voter-approved marijuana legalization question that asked for excise taxes up to 15 percent to fund school construction.(AP Photo/Ed Andrieski)
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FILE -- This Sept. 2, 2012 photo shows marijuana growing in a grow house in Denver. Pot smokers in Colorado were the biggest winners in the vote that legalized the drug. Now state regulators are working out the details of exactly how to tax it, so the benefits are shared statewide in the form of increased revenue. A state panel meets Thursday to draft final recommendations based on the voter-approved marijuana legalization question that asked for excise taxes up to 15 percent to fund school construction.(AP Photo/Ed Andrieski)

What big ideas can help America solve its most pressing problems? In an ongoing project, Yahoo News is soliciting creative, outside-the-box and possibly controversial (but still credible) solutions. Here's one about government and culture.

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COMMENTARY | What if a single, common-sense solution were available that would reduce federal spending, taxpayer health care costs and the rate at which our nation incarcerates people? Such a solution exists, but it requires open-minded conversations about the best interests of the citizenry.

An additional benefit to the proposed solution is that our nation would eliminate one major instance of legislating individuals' morality. The laws of the United States have always been intended to protect individuals from harm from one another; laws created to protect a person from his/her own actions are based on a morality judgment.

Is it necessary to make or enforce a law that prohibits suicide? How about a law that prohibits you from getting a tattoo? It sounds silly, doesn't it, but until 2006, tattoos had been forbidden by law in Oklahoma for more than 40 years. Many states still have laws that govern what consenting adults do in the privacy of their homes. Can we agree that these laws, and many others, are based on morality rather than potential harm from another individual?

The proposed solution? Legalize drugs. Begin by legalizing marijuana, then move forward.

In Dec. 2012, 51 percent of Americans, according to a HuffPost/YouGov poll, favored the federal government not seeking arrest or prosecution of marijuana users in Colorado or Washington, the two states that made smoking marijuana legal in November. A CBS poll taken Nov. 16 through Nov. 19 revealed that 47 percent of respondents favored legalizing the recreational use of marijuana.

Last year's federal government spent $3.6 trillion. The United States has more than 6 million people in prisons, a rate of 760 people per every 100,000; in 1980, that rate was 150 prisoners out of each 100,000 people. In 2004, more than 44,000 people were imprisoned for marijuana or hashish -- non-violent offenses. In 2010, more than 375,000 people were imprisoned for drugs.

Legalizing marijuana would save money at local, state and federal levels. The government would control its sale, much like that of alcohol and make millions of dollars in sales and taxes. Issue permits so that only adults age 21 and older could purchase the drug; use the permit money to help fund health care. The incarceration rate would slow and it would be possible to commute sentences of imprisoned marijuana users.

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