Minnesota legislators seem poised to follow the lead of 18 other states by legalizing medicinal marijuana in the next legislative session. While the effort is primarily a Democratic one, there is Republican support as well. Nevertheless, lawmakers are up against the same obstacle medical marijuana faced in 2009 — a reluctant governor.

Mark Dayton remains adamant, as was Tim Pawlenty before him, about deferring to a powerful state interest whose support most politicians covet: law enforcement. Indeed, the governor's spokesperson declared in the waning days of the 2013 session that Dayton won't support any legislation on the issue so long as groups like the Minnesota Police and Peace Officers Association oppose it.

Of course, the governor might change his mind, we're told, "if advocates are able to reach an agreement with law enforcement …" Well, now, there's a profile in courage.

Given all the talk of compassion coming from those in government these days, the idea of denying terminally ill patients the only substance they say brings relief from excruciating pain — placebo effect or not — seems absurd and more than a bit cruel.

Yet you can't pick up a press release from the Drug Enforcement Agency, the White House drug czar or the Minnesota County Attorneys' Association that doesn't include dire warnings about marijuana as a "gateway" drug. Problem is, the proverbial pot smoker is less likely to get hooked after one sitting than are those experimenting with any number of other stimulants or sedatives. According to a 1990s National Comorbidity Survey of 8,098 participants, the estimated percentage of people who used marijuana at least once and became dependent was 9 percent — much lower than tobacco and alcohol.

Besides, we have de facto legalization now for far more dangerous substances, and everyone knows it. They're called prescriptions.

The overall painkiller market totaled $9.4 billion in 2012, and there were more deaths from overdoses of those substances than from heroin and cocaine combined — notwithstanding the episodic high profile celebrity death. The Centers for Disease Control said only this month that the soaring number of overdoses was directly related to the large number of prescriptions easily obtained.

Some will say this is hardly comforting evidence when it comes to further decriminalizing drugs. And that pot smoking, especially at younger ages, poses a real threat over time to the proper development of cognitive functions, including the risk of psychosis.

Those concerns are real; abusing illicit drugs, like abusing alcohol, is dangerous. That's why dividends from decriminalization for adults should be used to keep these substances out of the hands of minors.

But if the failure of Prohibition (whose loudest supporters, such as teetotaler John D. Rockefeller, eventually became its loudest opponents) taught us anything, it's that banning a substance doesn't make it go away. It merely drives it underground, making it far more dangerous.

The risks in distributing any sort of contraband drive up its price and profitability. The result has been an era of unspeakable violence — from Columbia to Mexico to America's inner cities — as cartels large and small seek to protect their monopoly turf by any means necessary.

Mexico, our largest foreign supplier of marijuana, has seen 50,000 people brutally killed since 2006 — the year that country decided to crack down on trafficking. It's a strategy that two former Mexican presidents have publicly questioned, in no small part due to the corruption of government officials paid to look the other way by lethal cartels.

Those cartels have been given a monopoly on distribution in Mexico and the United States as a direct result of both nations' misguided policies. Whatever their faults, you simply do not see these kinds of problems with legal substances, whether tobacco, alcohol, or everyone's drug of choice, caffeine.

Unfortunately, logic hasn't stopped the Obama administration from expanding its "partnership" with Mexico by sending billions in added security assistance as part of the Merida Initiative's seemingly futile battle against drug trafficking organizations. Most experts agree that the latest head of the vicious Zeta cartel, captured last week in dramatic fashion, will quickly be replaced by another. Nor has the embarrassment of Operation Fast and Furious — the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives boondoggle that allowed thousands of assault weapons to flow into the hands of Mexico's most violent narco-terrorists — deterred our ardent law-and-order liberals.

If anything, the drug war seems to have emboldened the nanny state. Because a few folks lack discretion in their various eating and drinking habits, the neo-prohibitionist mayor of New York, Michael Bloomberg, has decided to regulate everything from soda to salt for the rest of us. Meanwhile, writes Reason's Greg Beato, "New York City in 2012 experienced its first overall increase in major crimes in 20 years."

Liberals are banning tobacco displays and smoking in your own home or car — and, in an uncharacteristic admission of how taxation changes behavior, are slapping massive tax increases on cigarettes in the hopes of discouraging consumption. The $1.60-per-pack hike that took effect this month brings Minnesota's cigarette tax to $2.83 per pack, sixth-highest in the nation.

In 2009, however, ATF officials estimated that states were already losing as much as $5 billion per year in tobacco revenues due to cigarette smuggling. The number is surely much higher now, because ever-increasing levies (a more acceptable form of prohibition) are encouraging more bootlegging. Naturally, state officials are stepping up law enforcement efforts on black market buyers and sellers.

Of course, increased revenue is no reason to legalize marijuana — though some say that motive was behind the reversal on Prohibition during the Great Depression. Nevertheless, the foregone tax revenue for Minnesota from keeping pot illegal amounts to $50 million annually, says Harvard University economist Jeffrey Miron.

In fact, far from collecting revenue, public spending on drug prohibition amounts to $41.3 billion annually nationwide ($88 billion if you include foregone taxes), according to Miron's calculation in a 2010 white paper for the libertarian leaning Cato Institute. Of this, $5.4 billion is spent on marijuana enforcement alone. Minnesota expenditures attributed to its ban on pot total more than $89 million.

But war is the health of the state, and the war on drugs has created some powerful governmental interests determined to keep it going. Put another way, all of this money employs a lot of people who have little interest in seeing their jobs vanish.

After all, it takes a lot of prison guards for America to lead the world in the number of persons incarcerated, at 1.6 million. Hoover Institution fellows Gary Becker and Kevin Murphy, writing in the Wall Street Journal, estimate that about 50 percent of inmates in federal prisons, as well as 20 percent in state prisons, are likely there for a drug offense.

It's even worse for the unlucky innocents caught up in a drive-by shooting or those subject to the Byzantine world of civil asset forfeiture. Both federal and state law allow officials to seize private property "associated" with or used to "facilitate" a drug crime — without granting the due process normally accorded under criminal sanctions. The statutes not only transfer the burden of proof to the property owner in order to retrieve the assets, but conveniently allow the "appropriate agency," usually the police department, to keep most of the proceeds.

Ostensibly designed to nab the professional dealer, the forfeiture laws have snared countless innocent bystanders who have not been charged with wrongdoing but who may be running a hotel where drugs happened to be used, or piloting a plane that has shuttled a courier, among others, from here to there.

Those of us who believe the war on drugs has failed should also admit that ending it is not a panacea. Substance abuse may rise (though there is conflicting evidence, e.g., Portugal). And as California, Washington, and Colorado are finding out, decriminalizing marijuana is not without logistical problems. But can we not at least agree there are two legitimate sides to the issue?

In the meantime, if someone's dying of cancer, we should probably dispense with the lectures that smoking dope is bad for your health?


Jason Lewis is a nationally syndicated talk-show host based in Minneapolis-St. Paul and is the author of "Power Divided is Power Checked: The Argument for States' Rights" from Bascom Hill Publishing. He can be heard locally from 5 to 8 p.m. on NewsTalk Radio, 1130-AM, and at jasonlewisshow.com.