As activists repeatedly pointed out during this legalization process, the US is the worlds largest jailer.
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  • As activists repeatedly pointed out during this legalization process, the US is the world's largest jailer.

Congratulations, Washington. Today you've started selling recreational marijuana, which is a historic glimmer of hope in the long, sad, and dumb story of drug prohibition in the US.

So. What's next?

The US, as I-502 activists repeatedly pointed out while they were fighting to get legalization on the ballot back in 2011, is the world's largest jailer, in large part due to our catastrophically failed policy of prohibition.

To revisit the familiar statistics: We've got roughly five percent of the world's people and around a quarter of the world's people in prison. The ACLU reports that the US general population growth rate has been around 44 percent for the past couple of decades, but our prison population growth rate is around 700 percent. The Department of Justice reports that around half of our prisoners are serving time for drug crimes. I probably don't have to tell you that people of color are far more likely to be in prison for drug crimes, even though white people are statistically more likely to abuse drugs.

"It's time we caught up with Jimmy Carter's maxim, back around 1977, that the penalty for drug use should not cause more harm than the drugs themselves," says Sanho Tree, a drug policy expert based in Washington, D.C. "Prohibition is the obstacle to the solution and creates a false dichotomy—you're either a drug warrior or you're for an anarchic, anything-goes scenario."

But what Washington is proving today, he says, and what Colorado has already proven, is that there are all kinds of in-between solutions about regulation and management—not just for pot, but for everything.

"The blessing in America, or I guess the curse if you're libertarian, is that we can regulate everything," Tree says. "Who can open a bank, who can sell car insurance, who can sell a hotdog on the street. Legalizing coca leaf and opium is not currently on the radar, but attitudes are changing—what's important to learn today is that you can take a formerly illicit, illegal drug and figure out different ways to regulate it."

Latin America is leading the way on decriminalization of drug possession for personal use (follow this link for an interactive map), which makes sense since Latin America is carrying the gory burden of US drug prohibition. In 2012, Tree points out, the Colombian constitutional courts approved the decriminalization of small amounts of cocaine and marijuana. "The court had this radical notion that your body belongs to you," he says. "That you have sovereignty over your corpus—where does the state derive the right to break down your door, put you in handcuffs, throw you in jail for something you do in the privacy of your own home that doesn't harm anybody else? Where is that power enumerated in the Constitution? It isn't. It runs counter the founding philosophy of this country."

Kris Nyrop, the program director for Seattle's Law Enforcement Assisted Diversion project (LEAD) says he hopes Washington's legalization will "open up the conversation about the fact that making stuff illegal is far more harmful that criminalizing it." He had a come-to-Jesus experience about legalizing all drugs several years ago at a talk given by epidemiologist Dr. Martin Schechter at a conference in Vancouver.

"He said, 'think about what's harmful about heroin for a couple of seconds,'" Nyrop says. "Then he put up a slide with two columns—one was the pharmacological harms of heroin and it was, like, four things. The other column listed the sociological harms due to heroin being illegal, and the list was like 40."

"It's hard for people to take," Nyrop says, "but it's true for cocaine, true for methamphetamine, true for ecstasy." Clean drugs, even hard drugs, of consistent strength are far, far less dangerous than the toxic cuts and roller-coaster potencies created by an illicit drug market.

"Now that Washington has taken a relatively harmless drug and legalized and regulated," Nyrop says, "we can start to talk about what to do about drugs that are genuinely harmful in their present state—and how the fact that making them illegal makes them much, much more harmful than they were when they started."

So sit on the couch, look out the window, and enjoy your afternoon of legal marijuana. "But," Tree says, "if people stay on the couch, that's the surest way to guarantee nothing will change." He recommends that people interested in the subject subscribe to action alerts from the Drug Policy Alliance. You can also donate to drug policy research at the Institute for Policy studies, where Tree works, over here.

Back when 502 was first getting off the ground, its architects made a deeply intelligent move—they appealed to clergy to join their fight for marijuana legalization. Those clergy members, many of color, then appealed to their congregations to approve drug legalization—not as a means of encouraging drug use, but as a way to mitigate the drug war's disproportionate destruction of their communities.

One possible next step: Communicate to clergy, and to voters in general, that we have a long way to go before we've undone the harms of drug prohibition in the US.

Marijuana was the easy part.