Awesome! I'm so glad I asked for clarification rather than assume I knew what you meant. tl;dr I think we're 99% on the same page here. But I'd be remiss if I let one of the few good /. threads peter out due to agreement. :)
I thought the example I gave of the busted taillight - which could ordinarily get you a fix-it ticket but not jail time on its own - was pretty fair but I might not have fleshed it out.
It wasn't so much that as I suspect that you, as I, don't feel this is a good use of law enforcement. If someone is behaving in a dangerous manner or committing something more serious than an infraction, I'm okay with police stopping them and escalating if there is a good reason. Conversely, if they aren't, leave them alone.
This gets into unequal enforcement, stop-and-frisk, expanding infraction laws that give police an excuse to pull "everyone" over... But as we have both seen, this tends to be enforced on certain minorities more than the populace as a whole. Again, not this exact topic (percentage of incarcerated due to drugs alone), but a pressing next question once you look at who eventually gets incarcerated.
I wanted to give you the opportunity to choose a different example to see if you felt using small infractions like that was justified, but it seems we're in agreement. That still leaves the question of whether or not "a large percentage of inmates" would be released under decriminalization of cannabis or even other drugs. Unfortunately, I don't have the numbers for pot alone, but the numbers above seem to answer the question w.r.t. drugs as a whole. Not the subject of this thread, but to me, the entire landscape of drug prohibition—and the vast destruction it has brought with it—is the more interesting and meaty discussion topic. :)
I have mixed feelings about street dealers. . . . [explanation of the problems they introduce] . . . Which is generally a good call for legalization, although the recreational drug industry being what it is right now I don't see it going away just because we would end up with Philip-Morris brand pot and Anheuser-Busch brand heroin.
You must ask yourself how many people have died from an overdose or drug interaction due to incorrect packaging of beer, wine and spirits combined. The answer, in my view, is the only evidence needed to argue for decriminalization and legalization of nearly every* drug—from pot to heroine. Why are people dying from bath salts? Pot is illegal and they are not. Why do we have a heroine epidemic? People are getting cut off from their legal source of Oxy.
My point is that street dealers would almost entirely disappear with regulation. I have a very small investment with a cannabis edibles company in California (I have a dog in this race, but the race is essentially won), and the amount of testing that we put into every step of the process is considerable. Each plant is randomly tested. Each batch of combined plants is again randomly tested. Each batch of oil is randomly tested. All of our confections are randomly tested. Anywhere along the way, you can pick up any product, scan its label, and track every single seed that went into it. Hell, I'd bet you can't even do that with wine and grapes. Of course, wine has been around for much less time than cannabis use.
* I view drug use on par with extreme sports. You might injure yourself severely or even die while engaging in either activity, and people will engage in both regardless of the law. Given that, why is there so much research into safety equipment and better regulations for extreme sports? The law. If reasonable people are going to engage in both activities, isn't it society's responsibility to work to make both as safe as possible and minimize the drag on society's productiveness? Prohibition has clearly devastated productivity for a large portion of society and fails the test immediately.
That it hasn't even slightly stemmed the damage from drug misuse and costs us billions of dollars annually makes this issue so one-sided for me. It's like asking, "Should we start paying women on par with men?" Is there any defensible no answer?
Okay, I rambled on quite a bit there. Blame it on the beer! Thanks for reminding me why I keep checking in to /. :)