In the late ’90s, for a national magazine story on the issue of somehow making marijuana legal, I interviewed then-drug czar Gen. Barry McCaffrey. Of course, McCaffrey swatted away any notion that pot should be legal. It was addictive, he said, and it was the “gateway” drug that led to heroin and cocaine use.

I told him that my own experience was nothing like that. Of the 10 or so friends I have kept up with from high school, none of us uses marijuana anymore, and most of us had gotten it out of our system by our early 20s. Sure, we experimented with other drugs through the years, but marijuana was not the gateway. The tendency of youth to experiment was the gateway.

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LegalI started thinking about the issue again while reporting on the fake pot (“The Real Deal on Fake Dope,” March 24, 2010) that is being sold legally around the country. The pro-legalization folks contend that marijuana’s illegal status causes young people to move to the legal fake pot, whose health consequences are not really known but potentially scary. The anti-dope folks repeat the myth about marijuana leading to much worse drugs.

We are seeing a huge amount of violence in Mexican cities lately as the drug cartels compete to control the huge American market. More than 18,000 people have been killed in drug-related violence in Mexico in the past three years. In this country, FBI crime statistics list narcotics as being behind more than 3,000 murders in the past five years.

In the past, the arguments for legalizing marijuana have been that it isn’t addictive and has few bad health effects and that people should have the right to decide what to put in their bodies. But those arguments should move to the background. The number-one reason to legalize pot is to put the powerful and violent Mexican drug cartels out of business — or at least to put a big dent in their profits.

Americans spend $9 billion on Mexican pot each year, according to the Office of National Drug Control Policy, a market that accounts for 62 percent of the cartels’ profits. In addition to the billions we spend with the Mexicans, Americans buy $36 billion worth of domestically produced weed. That leads to 800,000 marijuana-related arrests every year and the high cost of incarcerating those folks.

When you add it all up — including the $44 billion a year spent by law enforcement to fight this non-winnable drug war — it’s clear we need to make some choices. Are there negative consequences of legalizing marijuana? Sure. But they pale in comparison to the costs of keeping it illegal.

The violence in Mexico has driven more than 100,000 Mexicans to flee to this country in recent months, according to the latest reports. Surely some of the violence will follow them here.

Marijuana can be a gateway drug in one respect. By keeping pot in the shadows of the black market, folks buying it will likely be introduced to other, more addictive illegal drugs through their contacts with dealers. If pot is legalized, those contacts will be greatly reduced. After the Netherlands legalized marijuana, officials found that use of heroin and cocaine declined significantly.

So if marijuana were made legal, the drug cartels would lose major portions of their income, both from marijuana and more addictive drugs. American farmers could find themselves with a huge cash crop, and law enforcement could move on to other issues.

More than 100 million Americans — about one-third of the population — have tried marijuana, according to recent surveys. Nearly half of the population favors legalizing weed in some way, and that percentage has been rising for decades. The politicians must get it through their heads that public opinion is changing on this issue, and legalization might be a more politically viable option than it used to be.

I never liked pot very much and haven’t used it in about 10 years. I have friends who use it and manage their work and family lives fairly well. I have far more friends who have problems with alcohol addiction. If pot becomes legal, we can regulate its use and tax it to pay for a whole host of national programs.

The move to legalize marijuana shouldn’t be dominated by the stoners trumpeting their right to get high but by the general public, who bear the social, economic, and political costs of the illegal drug trade. Keeping pot illegal is a bad policy that, in essence, prints money for murderers.