End the war

Criminalizing marijuana use is (still) a losing proposition

"Dope? Do you think the Russians allow dope? Hell no. ... You see, homosexuality, dope, immorality in general: These are the enemies of strong societies. That's why the Communists and the left-wingers are pushing this stuff; they're trying to destroy us." —Richard M. Nixon

The question isn't whether weed is inherently good or bad.

Like a lot of things in life, it has the potential to be both.

Tens of thousands here in Michigan rely on it to legally treat ailments identified by the state's two-year-old medical marijuana law, and many thousands more use it illegally to help cope with other medical issues, or simply to relieve the stress of this modern life, or to have a good time while partying with friends.

In part, it is a matter of perspective. What some consider a form of relaxation others deem to be an attempt to escape reality, a dangerous copout for the weak-willed and a sign of some moral failing.

There are also some definite dangers. It can raise a person's heart rate. Dependency is an issue for many. There are concerns it might trigger mental illness, especially among adolescents.

Many are able to use the drug responsibly. Others abuse it and have problems — either at home or on the job — as a result. On a strictly anecdotal basis, a number of people we know smoked it at one time, but don't anymore. "It makes me paranoid," they say with great consistency.

It's hard not to wonder, though, if at least some would feel less paranoid were they not committing a criminal act every time they light up. Who's to say when a neighbor might catch a whiff of what's going on and turn you in, or a random drug test at work could end a job or derail a career?

In that way, paranoia is a natural byproduct of weed in today's America.

The point is, marijuana, which as been used by humans for thousands of years, has been a significant part of mainstream American life for more than 40 years now.

And for almost as long, this country has been waging a war — not on drugs, but on people.

On our brothers and sisters. On our spouses and our kids.

It has been waging a war on us.

And it is high time that it stops, because this is a way littered with casualties, and waged at great financial cost, and with no end in sight.

It is a war whose failure was seen even as it was being declared

Twisted Dick

Marijuana had been around for a long time when Richard Nixon declared in 1971 that, along with the losing campaign then winding down in Vietnam, America would be entering another kind of war: the War on Drugs.

In part, it was a war on what had long been seen as a medicine.

Here's what Time magazine reported in 2002:

"As early as 2737 B.C., the mystical emperor Shen Neng of China was prescribing marijuana tea for the treatment of gout, rheumatism, malaria and, oddly enough, poor memory. The drug's popularity as a medicine spread throughout Asia, the Middle East and down the eastern coast of Africa, and certain Hindu sects in India used marijuana for religious purposes and stress relief. Ancient physicians prescribed marijuana for everything from pain relief to earaches to childbirth. Doctors also warned against overuse of marijuana, believing that too much consumption caused impotence, blindness and 'seeing devils.'"

By the early part of the 20th century, fear of those devils suspected to be lurking inside marijuana was beginning to attract the attention of American lawmakers. Although the federal government didn't make marijuana illegal nationwide until the late 1930s, a number of states had begun outlawing pot a decade or two earlier.

What was the concern over a plant that much of the country knew nothing about? Charles Whitebread, a law professor at the University of Southern California Law School, told a gathering of the California Judges Association in 1995 that these early attacks on marijuana had their roots firmly planted in xenophobia.

"The only thing you need to know to understand the early marijuana laws in the southwest and Rocky Mountain areas of this country is to know that, in the period just after 1914, into all of those areas was a substantial migration of Mexicans," Whitebread explained. "They had come across the border in search of better economic conditions, they worked heavily as rural laborers, beet field workers, cotton pickers, things of that sort. And with them, they had brought marijuana.

"Basically, none of the white people in these states knew anything about marijuana, and I make a distinction between white people and Mexicans to reflect a distinction that any legislator in one of these states at the time would have made. And all you had to do to find out what motivated the marijuana laws in the Rocky Mountain and southwestern states was to go to the legislative records themselves. Probably the best single statement was the statement of a proponent of Texas' first marijuana law. He said on the floor of the Texas Senate, and I quote, 'All Mexicans are crazy, and this stuff (referring to marijuana) is what makes them crazy.' Or, as the proponent of Montana's first marijuana law said, (and imagine this on the floor of the state legislature) and I quote, 'Give one of these Mexican beet field workers a couple of puffs on a marijuana cigarette and he thinks he is in the bullring at Barcelona.'

"... And so what was the genesis for the early state marijuana laws in the Rocky Mountain and southwestern areas of this country? It wasn't hostility to the drug, it was hostility to the newly arrived Mexican community that used it."

By the 1930s, demonization of marijuana was reaching a crescendo. Among those leading the attack was Harry J. Anslinger — who, as head of the newly created Federal Bureau of Narcotics, was the first of what would later be referred to as a drug czar. Joining him in the crusade was newspaper magnate William Randolph Hearst, the king of yellow journalism who had purchased vast timber tracts to supply pulp for his papers and didn't want to see competition from marijuana's cousin, hemp.

Fear of minorities was still a driving force, but by this time it had expanded beyond Mexican-Americans. A quote widely attributed to Anslinger offers a clear picture of the ugliness behind the policy:

"There are 100,000 total marijuana smokers in the U.S., and most are Negroes, Hispanics, Filipinos and entertainers. Their Satanic music, jazz and swing, result from marijuana use. This marijuana causes white women to seek sexual relations with Negroes, entertainers, and any others."

Throughout the '40s and '50s and early 1960s, marijuana remained outside the margins of mainstream white America.

Then the war in Vietnam began to escalate, and the young people being drafted to go and fight it began to resist. A counterculture emerged, and the hippies who populated it — mostly white and middle-class — embraced marijuana in a big way. Meanwhile a significant number of troops in Vietnam were toking up in the war zone itself.

By the time Nixon moved into the White House in 1969, a culture war was in full swing, and Nixon, filled with a venomous paranoia, saw marijuana as being a key feature of the side that wore its hair long and had no respect for the authority he desperately clung to.

And so he went to war against the youth that had risen up to protest the death and destruction occurring in Vietnam.

Nixon was a man who needed enemies, and drugs soon became what he declared to be "public enemy No. 1."

A new war was declared, even though the people he handpicked to advise him on exactly how to attack the problem told him that ratcheting up the criminal consequences was the wrong way to fight it.

Known officially as the National Commission on Marihuana and Drug Abuse, the group empanelled to analyze the problem and develop a response was presided over by Raymond Shafer, former Republican governor of Pennsylvania and former prosecutor who had earned a reputation as a true anti-drug crusader. Others on the panel were similarly inclined.

But they took their task seriously, and performed a diligent examination of the issue. As one writer noted: "They launched 50 research projects, polled the public and members of the criminal justice community, and took thousands of pages of testimony. Their work is still the most comprehensive review of marijuana ever conducted by the federal government."

Tapes from the Nixon White House publicly released in 2002 reveal the extent to which the administration attempted to strong-arm Shafer to keep his "commission in line" so that they didn't come off sounding like a "bunch of do-gooders."

Despite that pressure, the report's authors announced their findings that an "extensive degree of misinformation about marihuana" existed, and that it was their duty to "demythologize" it.

Among the commission's findings:

• "No significant physical, biochemical or mental abnormalities could be attributed solely to ... marihuana smoking."

• "No verification is found of a causal relationship between marihuana use and subsequent heroin use."

• "Most users, young and old, demonstrate an average or above average degree of social functioning, academic achievement and job performance."

• "In short, marihuana is not generally viewed by participants in the criminal justice community as a major contributing influence in the commission of delinquent or criminal acts."

• "Neither the marihuana user nor the drug itself an be said to constitute a danger to public safety."

• "Marihuana's relative potential for harm to the vast majority of individual users and its actual impact on society does not justify a social policy designed to seek out and firmly punish these who use it."

The commission's bottom line recommendation: No criminal penalties for simple possession.

Nixon completely ignored the commission's findings, and made taking a tough stand on drug use one of the central planks of his 1972 re-election campaign.

The war in Vietnam would soon be over, and Nixon, of course, was driven from office because of his own hidden contempt for the rule of law he so praised in public.

But the war he declared on us has continued to expand.

In 1971, about 225,000 people were arrested for marijuana-related offenses. Last year, that number topped 858,000 — the most ever.

Each of those arrests carries with it an untold personal cost to the person nabbed.

The annual cost to the federal and state governments for fighting this war: More than $40 billion.

As for the young people this war is supposed to be protecting, well, you might say they are the collateral damage of a failed approach. Marijuana use among U.S. 12th-graders, according to the group Monitoring the Future, has increased, jumping from 27 percent in 1990 to 32 percent in 2008.

As a result of skyrocketing costs and the ongoing failure to make great strides in reducing use overall, new approaches are being explored.

Giving up & gaining

The idea is extreme, and the estimates are, admittedly, of the "ballpark" type. But with the nation facing its highest levels of debt since World War II, and states and local units of government wading through their own seas of red ink, a pair of economists have produced an eye-popping study that attempts to calculate how much money could be save — and how much revenue could be generated — if America hoisted the white flag and declared unconditional surrender in the War on Drugs.

The bottom line numbers: More than $41.3 billion a year in savings if the United States gives up on prohibition completely and makes all drugs legal. And if those same drugs were to be taxed at rates similar to alcohol and tobacco, the income generated would be somewhere in the neighborhood of $46.7 billion.

That represents a swing in the neighborhood of $88 billion, which is not a bad neighborhood at all if you are a lawmaker looking to balance budgets and continue providing services.

The report was done for the Cato Institute, a libertarian think tank. Conducting the study were Jeffrey A. Miron, who is a senior lecturer in economics at Harvard, and Katherine Waldock, a doctoral candidate at New York University's Stern School of Business.

Here's another number to figure into the equation, which is the probability that the federal and state governments are going to quickly act to implement the report's recommendations.

That figure, roughly speaking, works out to a ballpark figure of about zero percent.

For one thing, as the report points out, realizing the full extent of savings from not pursuing, trying and incarcerating drug dealers and users is more than a challenge. For this to show up in actual budgets rather than a hypothetical spreadsheet, "policymakers would have to lay off police, prosecutors, prison guards, and the like. Because such a move would be politically painful, it may not occur."

However, even if the cost side of the equation isn't dramatically reduced, ending prohibition can still be beneficial "if those criminal justice resources are re-deployed to better uses. ..." Instead of going after druggers, police would be freed up to concentrate on killers, robbers, child molesters and other assorted bad guys.

Who knows, maybe law enforcement would have the manpower to go after corporate criminals as well.

Given the unlikelihood of totally ending prohibition, Miron and Waldock also calculated the economic benefits that could be derived if just marijuana were legalized. The estimate that states and the federal government would save abut $8.7 billion and generate an equal amount in new tax revenue if pot was no longer a battleground in the drug war.

When Miron produced a similar study in 2005, more than 500 economists — led by conservative stalwart Milton Friedman — called on the bush White House to conduct "an open and honest debate about marijuana prohibition."

However, when shifting from the theoretical to the real world, you only need to look at the number of Michigan communities that are passing restrictive zoning ordinances in an attempt to keep compassion clubs — dispensary-like operations where medical marijuana is sold to patients — from setting up in their towns.

With marijuana still only semi-legal in the state — it is still in violation of federal law to buy, sell or use the drug — the concern is that these facilities will attract a criminal element.

So, the outright dismantling of prohibition for all drugs anytime soon seems a farfetched concept at best.

However, as we go to press, Californians are voting on a statewide ballot measure that would legalize possession of an ounce and allow personal grows of as much as 25 square feet. Cities and counties would have the option of being able to authorize commercial cultivation and retail sales.

The breakdown of proponents and opponents gives insight to how complicated the issue is. Among those who have come out against the measure are some of the state's most prominent liberal politicians, including gubernatorial candidate Jerry Brown, who is currently the state's attorney general and formerly occupied the governor's mansion. Joining him is San Francisco Democratic U.S. Sen. Dianne Feinstein and incumbent Republican Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger. The California Chamber of Commerce is opposed, as are some marijuana growers, who see legalization as an impediment to profits.

Among the reasons given for opposing the measure are concerns about people driving and showing up for work under the influence, and the fact that legalization would send the wrong message to youngsters. A report by the Rand Corp., a nonprofit think tank, predicted that the price of pot, now selling for about $375 an ounce, could fall to less than $40 an ounce, and that use would skyrocket as a result.

Also opposing it are nearly all the state's sheriffs, and the California District Attorneys Association.

Having law enforcement come out against the measure isn't much of a surprise. What is surprising, perhaps, are all the former cops speaking up in favor of the measure. Two of them, former San Jose police chief Joseph McNamara and Stephen Downing, former deputy chief of the LAPD told the Los Angeles Times that cops still on the job are invested in a drug war that's supported with federal money and the proceeds from asset forfeitures. There's also a risk, they said, for any officer still in uniform to speak out in favor.

"If I stood up as an individual in the time I was at the LAPD, I would have been rendered completely ineffective," Downing told the paper.

The California Chapter of the NAACP also came out in favor of legalization, calling it a civil rights issue in that low-income people of color "bear the disproportionate burden and stigma of arrest, prosecution and permanent criminal records." Billionaire financier George Soros put $1 million into the campaign.

Although the race was too close to call at press time, this much is certain: The mainstream is moving more and more toward the idea that the risks posed by marijuana use aren't worth the financial costs of trying to keep it illegal. A Gallup poll take last year found that 44 percent of Americans were in favor of marijuana legalization. That number has been climbing steadily since 1970, when just 12 percent said they favored legalization. So the longer pot remains a part of the culture, and the longer the effort to suppress it drags on, the more opposition to prohibition grows.

Certainly the passage of medical marijuana laws in 14 states and the District of Columbia reflects a liberalizing attitude among people in general. But turning that change into victory at the polls when the question involves decriminalization for citizens as a whole is far from a sure thing.

And here's another point to consider for those still trying to justify the War on Drugs: Why not make the most dangerous recreational drug of all illegal?

Because that was tried, and it fared miserably. It was called Prohibition, and the only real practical effect it had was to fuel the meteoric rise of organized crime in the early part of the last century.

And lest you think that calling alcohol the most dangerous drug is outrageous hyperbole, take a look at a group of drug experts in England have concluded:

Scoring a variety of drugs for their potential harm on a scale of 0-100 — weighing a variety of factors including mortality, dependence and impairment of mental function, as well as things like loss of relationships and economic costs — alcohol obtained what was by far the highest score with a mark of 72. Heroin got a 55, crystal meth 33, and tobacco 26. Pot got a 20.

That kind of assessment, however, might not be enough to sway the Golden State's electorate.

On the eve of California's big election, at least one high-profile proponent for changing the state's pot law was less than optimistic. Dale Gieringer, director of the National Organization for Reform of Marijuana Laws' California chapter, told a reporter from Mother Jones: "I have never thought it was likely to pass and it's going exactly like I expected. You've got an idea which a majority of people support as a general concept, but when you get down to the specifics there's a lot of objections that arise."

But there are also examples from elsewhere of why activists should press on with their efforts to change both minds and policy.

In praise of Portugal

In 2001, the country of Portugal decriminalized not just marijuana, but all drugs, including cocaine and heroin.

The results of that bold move were analyzed in a report Glenn Greenwald, a constitutional lawyer and a contributing writer at Salon, did for the Cato Institute. This is what he found:

"The data show that, judged by virtually every metric, the Portuguese decriminalization framework has been a resounding success."

Under the new law, there are no criminal penalties for possession of any kind of drug if it is intended for personal use — which is defined as an amount sufficient to last a person 10 days.

Possession remains prohibited, but infractions are treated as administrative, not criminal offenses. Cases are handled by what are called "Commissions for Dissuasions of Criminal Addiction."

The reason for taking this approach was compelling — and, to Americans, all too familiar:

"The political impetus for decriminalization was the perception that drug abuse — both in itself and its accompanying pathologies — was becoming an uncontrollable social problem, and the principal obstacles to effective government policies to manage the problems were the treatment barriers and resource drain imposed by the criminalization regime. Put another way, decriminalization was driven not by the perception that drug abuse was an insignificant problem, but rather by the consensus view that it was a highly significant problem, that criminalization was exacerbating the problem, and that only decriminalization could enable an effective government response."

Just as is the case in the United States, locking people up for drug offenses wasn't making things better, it was making them worse.

The difference is that Portuguese leaders accepted that reality and acted to make changes.

The new policy came about after an extensive study by an "elite" commission.

Read that, and think how much better off we as a country would be — how much money would not have been wasted, how many lives would not have been damaged — if, more than 40 years ago, we would have followed the advise of the Shafer Commission and sought to fight drug problems with treatment rather than jail.

The goal wasn't to punish people; rather it was to put the focus on prevention and ensuring treatment would be available to all drug addicts who sought help.

Before Portugal changed its law, drug officials acknowledged that the "most substantial" barrier to treatment of addicts was the fear on the part of drug users that they would be arrested if they sought help, particularly from state agencies.

So taking away criminal sanctions and promoting treatment programs was seen as the "most effective way for reducing addiction and its accompanying harms."

Among other things, newly reported cases of HIV and AID among drug users "has declined substantially every year since 2001" when the new law took effect. Drug related death rates — which, like HIV and AIDS cases, were rising before the law was changed — have fallen significantly as well.

Think about that, and then consider this 2008 report in the publication Science Daily:

"A survey of 17 countries has found that, despite its punitive drug policies, the United States has the highest levels of illegal cocaine and cannabis use."

Portugal, on the other hand, was among the five countries with the lowest rates.

The message is clear:

"Around the world, it is apparent that stringent criminalization policies do not produce lower drug usage rates. If anything, the opposite trend can be observed. The sky-high and increasing drug usage rates in the highly criminalized United States, juxtaposed with the relatively low and manageable rates in decriminalized Portugal, make a very strong case for that proposition."

Is the message sinking in?

Apparently not with U.S. officials overseeing drug policy.

As Greenwald reports:

"According to [European Union] drug policy officials, the United States has displayed very little interest in understanding the improving trends in Europe generally, and in Portugal specifically, that have clearly resulted in an environment of drug liberalization and decriminalization. Quite the contrary, over the last two decades the United States has single-mindedly agitated for greater criminalization approaches and appears, at least to the EU officials, interested solely in enforcement actions rather than empirically vindicated policy changes at the use level designed to manage usage rates and ameliorate drug-related harms."

Where to start?

Dan Solano doesn't need to be convinced that prohibition is a losing proposition. Having seen the War on Drugs both from the perspective of a guy wearing a uniform and badge and that of a medical marijuana user once led from his house in handcuffs, he has no doubts that liberalized laws are the most effective way to combat drug use, especially among kids.

But he doesn't think the United States is ready to end prohibition completely. However, with the passage of medical marijuana laws in Michigan and other states, he sees the pendulum swinging in the right direction.

Solano has a rare perspective on the whole debate.

One of 14 kids from a Mexican-American family, he grew up in southwest Detroit, enlisting in the Marines for a three-year hitch before joining the Detroit Police Department in 1989. He patrolled the city's streets for four years until a suspect he'd pulled over rammed him with a car, dragging him along, causing all sorts of injuries. He underwent more than a dozen surgeries over two years, but the worst injury was to his head.

He had to relearn how to do just about everything — read, write, talk. After recovering and returning to work at a desk job, he retired in 1994. The pain from his injuries was intense, and constant. And he hated the prescription meds, especially the Vicodin and Oxycontin.

Then a friend suggested he try smoking pot to relieve the pain. It worked like a charm, and launched him on the road to activism. Early in this decade he founded the group Police Officers for Drug Law Reform, and then helped launch a larger national group, Law Enforcement Against Prohibition (LEAP).

It was that activism, he says, that attracted the attention of the FBI, and led to his arrest on what he says were "bogus" cultivation charges, which ended up getting dropped within a few weeks.

Unlike his peers in LEAP, Solano isn't pressing for a total end to prohibition at this point. Given the pushback many municipalities are engaging in as they respond to medical marijuana dispensaries opening in Michigan, he doesn't see lawmakers being ready to take that big of a step forward.

For now, he has his sights set on just ending the war against marijuana users.

So maybe we won't see the legalization or decriminalization of heroin, crack or speed anytime soon.

But he does see the day approaching when public pressure will reach the point where politicians will be forced to adhere to what he perceives as simple common sense and stop a war that is both terribly costly and needlessly hurtful.

And also counterproductive, especially when it comes to keeping drugs out of the hands of kids.

Just as a bar or liquor store owner will card people to make sure they are of age to keep from losing their license — and hence their livelihood — a licensed dispensary won't sell pot to minors. It's not worth the risk.

Illegal drug dealers, on the other hand, are already breaking the law, so they'll sell to anybody.

He's sees it as his job to keep spreading that message.

Momentum is building.

The outcome is inevitable, he says. It is only a matter of time.

"There's just too much empirical evidence that our drug policies are a failure," he says. "I can't figure out why there is still so much resistance to taxing and regulating marijuana. But that resistance is going to crumble. It is inevitable."

It's just a matter of people like him continuing to be active, and getting the facts out.

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