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Legalizing marijuana will boost public safety: Guest opinion

The following is a guest opinion piece for The Oregonian by John Urquhart. He is the "sheriff of the largest jurisdiction in the country that has legalized marijuana" (King County, Washington) and wrote this piece voicing his support for the measure 91. This November the citizens of Oregon will vote on Measure 91, which would regulate and tax the sale of Cannabis. See original piece here.

When it comes to marijuana, there are a few things we can all probably agree on. No one wants minors using marijuana. No one wants impaired drivers on the road. No one wants the drug cartels or other criminals to profit. While it may seem counterintuitive, legalizing and regulating marijuana can address all of these problems and more.

As sheriff of the largest jurisdiction in the country that has legalized marijuana, I have experience with both the regulated and the criminal market system for marijuana. I know which system works better. And like a growing number of people in law enforcement, I support a regulated approach, because it's a more efficient and effective system for controlling marijuana.

Police Car Downtown Seattle Patrol For more than a decade, I was a narcotics detective and witnessed firsthand the failure of the "War on Drugs" and the futility of trying to arrest our way out of it. As a society, we've spent more than $1 trillion and countless hours of police, prosecutor, judge and court staff time, but we have not significantly reduced demand for marijuana. Worse, we have incarcerated generations of individuals (resulting in the highest incarceration rate in the world) and created a system of criminalization and stigmatization that ruins lives — all due to a substance that is considered less damaging than alcohol or tobacco.

The negative repercussions from this failed drug policy are staggering. Consider how much time and money is being thrown away in Oregon. According to the Washington Post, one out of every 14 arrests and citations in Oregon (or about 7 percent) are for marijuana. The Oregon Annual Uniform Crime Report estimates that a marijuana arrest or citation is made every 39 minutes (99,000 in the past decade). In 2010 alone, more than $50 million of your taxpayer money was spent enforcing marijuana possession laws. And these aren't all hardened criminals wreaking havoc on communities. An analysis by the American Civil Liberties Union of Oregon, Oregon State Police data found that 90 percent of the marijuana possession incidents in 2010 involved less than one ounce.

These numbers and expenditures simply do not make sense. It is time for smarter, safer drug laws that control the use of marijuana, while also protecting children and communities, generating revenue for important public needs and freeing up time and resources for law enforcement officials to focus on serious crimes. All of this can be achieved through Measure 91 in Oregon, just as it is through similar policies elsewhere.

In Washington and Colorado, we're already seeing the widespread benefits of regulating marijuana as we separate consumers from gangs and divert the proceeds from the sale of marijuana toward furthering the goals of public safety. In both states, revenue is up and crime is down. In Washington, court filings regarding marijuana possession have plummeted from 5,531 in 2012 to only 120 in 2013; and economists are projecting $51 million in tax revenue in the 2015-2017 biennium. In Colorado, the state has received more than $27.2 million in taxes, licenses and fees in the first four months of legalization with $1.9 million being distributed to state programs in March alone.

With these kinds of results, it should come as no surprise that an increasing number of law enforcement officials support the legalization and regulation of marijuana. Yet, their voices often go unheard as they are bound by their legal obligations to enforce the current law (despite the fact that it's failing) and can't come forward in public forums.

Today, I'm speaking from experience and I'm speaking on their behalf. I supported the Washington measure to regulate marijuana and I support Measure 91 in Oregon because no officers anywhere should have to spend their valuable time on petty marijuana arrests instead of more serious law enforcement priorities. As a society, our time and our money could be put to better use. As citizens, we deserve policies that truly protect and serve the greater good.