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I read with interest Nolan Finley’s Editor’s Note, “Get pot legalization right,” and his prediction that marijuana would be legal for adults in Michigan by the end of 2016.

To that end, I have been working on legislation to decriminalize and regulate the trade in marijuana. Getting it right and learning from the experience in Colorado is critical if Michigan is to maximize the public safety and financial gains of ending prohibition.

Marijuana prohibition is a colossal failure. It is an expensive and hopeless endeavor that drives profits for violent criminals. Our head-in-the-sand policy doesn’t keep marijuana out of the hands of adolescents, and it pushes the trade in marijuana into neighborhoods. Additionally, it distorts the priorities of our law enforcement resources. Rather than wasting hundreds of millions of dollars every year arresting and prosecuting marijuana users, we can redirect those efforts toward providing substance abuse treatment and taking down violent criminals.

When Americans put an end to alcohol prohibition, legal and regulated alcohol brought greater safety for consumers and took money out of the hands of violent cartels. Ending marijuana prohibition can bring the same benefits. But how do we get it right?

What we’ve learned from Colorado is that encouraging compliance is the linchpin of a successful policy. Since marijuana has been illegal for so long, illegal paths of commerce are well established. If the barriers to get into the legal marijuana business are too onerous or the taxes too high, buyers and sellers won’t switch to the legal and regulated market.

That’s why we need to set a tax rate and licensing rules that encourage residents to legitimize their activity and comply with the law. Regulations should be drafted narrowly to protect consumers and maintain safe facilities. But regulations should not cater to Reefer Madness hysteria, smothering legal players with rules and thereby advantaging illegal sales. Put simply, we should make participation in the legal market the most rational choice for buyers and sellers.

As it did with alcohol, ending prohibition and bringing marijuana out of the shadows will increase public safety and give us a better chance of preventing drug abuse. However, there are some important differences between alcohol and marijuana that need to be considered. For one, ending illicit sales and cultivation cannot be accomplished with a big government solution like our system of alcohol regulation. Black market sales of marijuana are too entrenched, and an overly aggressive regulatory posture would maintain the advantages enjoyed by the cartels and other illegal sellers.

Also, marijuana is inarguably safer than alcohol. Alcohol poisoning can and does kill, while it is impossible to overdose on marijuana alone. Alcohol is physically addictive, while marijuana is not. Alcohol also produces a more intense intoxication that is much more likely to lead to violence or self-harm. For these reasons and more, marijuana regulation should be not be identical, but instead analogous to alcohol regulation. The regulations must be tailored to the risks and market forces that apply to the substance in question.

The War on Drugs is the granddaddy of all big government programs. It is expensive, it doesn’t work, and it violates our basic principles of American freedom. Now is the time to take the lessons from Colorado and other nations and adopt a market-friendly policy that discourages criminality and enhances public safety.

I agree with Nolan Finley that, as with alcohol, a system of licensed producers and retailers will help reduce violence, weaken organized crime and keep intoxicants out of the hands of kids. But we need to respect market forces and the limitations of government’s power and enact a smart legalization policy. If we try to grasp too tightly, the benefits of ending prohibition will slip through our fingers.

State Rep. Jeff Irwin, D-Ann Arbor, represents the 53rd District.

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