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Monday, November 19, 2012

Memo to Pence: Legalize it

Posted By on Mon, Nov 19, 2012 at 12:00 AM

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OK, so Mike Pence is about to be the next governor of Indiana. Speculation has already begun about what he'll do. With giddy Republican majorities in the state Senate and House, it seems the sky's the limit for the governor-elect. A lot of folks think he'll use his office as a stepping-stone for an eventual run for president. So attention is turning to how he will parlay his executive clout into legislative accomplishments.

I have a suggestion: Pence should legalize pot.

The elections on Nov. 6 were big in a number of ways. America's first African-American president was handily re-elected by a surge that included majorities of young adults, women, Asians, blacks, and Latinos. Gay marriage was approved in three states and an anti-gay marriage amendment was defeated in a fourth. And in two states, Washington and Colorado, proposals were passed to legalize marijuana.

The prospect of legalized pot for recreational purposes looks like it could be a game changer. What's been called a war on drugs has really been a war on people who like some marijuana in their lives. While it is now permitted for medicinal purposes in 18 states, plus the District of Columbia, so-called medical marijuana has failed to drive a stake through the heart of the country's cannabis prohibition. To a great extent, this has been because the Justice Department has seen medicinal dispensaries as Trojan horses intended to circumvent the antiquated federal law intended to separate people from pot.

The new laws in Colorado and Washington have honesty on their side. They make no bones about their aim to let people smoke pot if they want to, without fear of being busted. They will also turn a relatively minor vice into a potentially significant source of economic development.

In Colorado, for example, marijuana will not only be taxed, it will be regulated so that any merchant selling the stuff is required to show they've grown it themselves. This combines a brew-pub business model with a buy-local ethic to help assure, ahem, a high level of quality, plus a righteous alternative to the Mexican drug cartels that currently provide most of the grass for sale on today's black market.

Instead of ceding an industry that could be worth millions — by some estimates billions — of dollars to Mexican gangsters and turning otherwise law-abiding citizens into criminals, people in Colorado and Washington voted for freedom — and an enhanced revenue stream.

Mike Pence should pay attention.

Just as it took a staunch Cold Warrior, Richard Nixon, to open diplomatic relations with communist China, it will probably take a social conservative like Pence to bring sanity to our state's outmoded and wasteful prohibition against pot. Liberals can't do this for fear of being branded libertines by right-wing reactionaries like, well, Mike Pence. Mitch Daniels might have done it in the name of pragmatism. But Daniels arrived in office ahead of pot's historical curve; he had to spend a fair amount of time living down his having been busted for possession when he was in college.

In case he's not aware of it, Pence needs to know that Indiana has developed a rather nifty reputation for the quality of its homegrown product. From our state forests in the south, to the Indiana Dunes up north, the Hoosier state has proven to be a remarkably hospitable environment for the cultivation of primo weed. Time magazine estimates that pot is California's leading cash crop. The same could be true here. Instead of photo-ops showing cops burning down lush stands of our artisanal cannabis, we should be featuring it at the State Fair.

Once Pence takes office, he's going to find himself presiding over a state with scant means of support. Property taxes are capped. Our cities and towns are struggling to keep cops on the beat. Pence and his Republican chums will need to find money somewhere. Legalizing, regulating and taxing pot will provide the state with enough revenue to fix plenty of, er, potholes.

But that's not all. If Pence is really serious about running for president one day, he's going to have to add something besides hostility to Planned Parenthood and gay marriage to his resume. Like just about every other Republican in the country, he'll have to try to at least make it seem like he's open to new ideas. Making Indiana the Mississippi of the Midwest isn't going to cut it.

Pence can sell pot legalization as an advancement for individual rights, a new cash crop and a lucrative source of revenue. If he moves quickly enough, he can also make ending pot prohibition part of his crusade against big government. We all saw the commercial. Pence said he wanted "to say yes to Indiana and no to Washington, D.C." Well, what better way to do this than by legalizing marijuana? It'll be a stick in the eye to the Justice Department and blow a raspberry at the Obama administration. Why leave all the fun to Colorado and Washington state?

Pence claimed he would fight for the right of Hoosiers to run our own schools, choose our own health care, and produce our own energy. But where's the joy? All most Hoosiers have ever really wanted is the right to get high.

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