By Reynold N. Mason JD
At long last, the burning issue of marijuana has been placed on the front burner of American politics. The two brave lawmakers stirring the political pot are Representatives Ron Paul and Barney Frank. They have introduced HR 2306, a bill aimed at decriminalizing the distribution and sale of marijuana. No doubt the task of garnering the votes required to pass this bill is gargantuan, and at this juncture, nearly impossible. But it is a commonsense new approach to an old problem now approaching crisis proportions.
Growing opposition to punitive marijuana policies
Increasing numbers of people––physicians, lawyers, judges, police, journalists, scientists, public health officials, teachers, religious leaders, social workers, drug users and drug addicts––now openly criticize the more extreme, punitive, and criminalized forms of drug prohibition. These critics, from across the political spectrum, have pointed out that punitive drug policies are expensive, ineffective at reducing drug abuse, take scarce resources away from other public health and policing activities, and are often racially and ethnically discriminatory.
U.S. drug laws mandate long prison sentences for repeated possession, use, and small-scale distribution of Marijuana. The Rockefeller drug laws have, over the decades, criminalized even users of small amounts of Marijuana. Many U.S. drug laws explicitly remove sentencing discretion from judges and do not allow for probation or parole. In the 1980s, the Reagan and Bush administrations substantially increased criminal penalties for drug possession and launched an expensive "War on Drugs." There are nearly half a million men and women in prison for violating its drug laws. Most are poor people of color who are imprisoned for possessing an illicit drug or "intending" to sell small amounts of it. The mandatory federal penalty for possessing 5 grams of crack cocaine, for a first offense, is 5 years in prison with no parole.
The most glaring weakness and the greatest misuse of tax dollars is plethora of marijuana laws across the US. Cannabis grows wild throughout the world, and is commercially cultivated in remote areas, in backyard gardens, and in technologically sophisticated indoor growing operations. Just as it was impossible for prohibitionists to prevent alcohol from being produced and used in the U.S. in the 1920s, so too, it is now impossible to prevent cannabis from being produced and widely used by those who desire its perceived benefits. Overwhelmed law enforcement lack the resources to arrest young people for minor marijuana infractions. And this inability to enforce the law breeds disrespect for law among the young who come to think they can violate the law with impunity. As a result the enormous and unstoppable use and production of marijuana has created a crisis of legitimacy for law enforcement.
Politicians, policy makers, police officials, journalists, and ordinary tourists from many countries have seen that decriminalizing cannabis use and regulating cannabis sales have substantial advantages and benefits––especially when compared with the disadvantages and costs of punitive U.S. drug policies. Since the 1980’s, and particularly since the Rockefeller drug laws in New York, Americans have come to realize that the criminalization of marijuana is harsh, expensive and ineffective. There have been movements afoot to decriminalize and ultimately legitimize the use of small quantities of the drug over the years. But the opposition has been steadfast. Marijuana is still classified as a banned substance by the FDA. All indications are that this likely will remain the case. Chairman Lamar Smith of the House Judiciary Committee says he has no intention of bringing the proposed new law to the floor for discussion. But there are chinks appearing in the armor of the marijuana prohibition movement
Lessons from Prohibition
There is an irony is the Chairman’s position. The anti alcohol movement too had its most staunch backer and supporter in a man who, in the 1920’s, occupied the same chairmanship now held by Rep. Smith. His name was Andrew Volstead. He was the sponsor of the bill named for him that eventually led to prohibition… The Volstead Act. He, along with his supporters, devoted themselves to banning alcohol and convincing the American public that it was dangerous in any form; that alcohol destroyed the moral character and physical and mental health of those who imbibed. They regarded booze in any form as a menace in much the same way that proponents of criminalization of marijuana do today…an inherently dangerous substance, the use of which leads inexorably to abuse of harder drugs such as cocaine and other hallucinogens. Drug use is blamed for evils of all sorts, from unemployment to poverty and crime to violence. Reduce drug use they say, and you reduce and banish the scourge of many of our social ills. They view the ban on drugs as a panacea.
But those who support the ban on marijuana are following the script of their predecessors in the prohibition movement. If the history of the prohibition movement taught us anything, it is that that movement to ban and criminalize the use of marijuana is doomed. It will not lead to prosperity and, will not increase law and order. Marijuana laws are openly and notoriously violated today and Marijuana is readily available on the streets and on college campuses. Young people can purchase marijuana more readily than they can a six pack. Sellers of illegal drugs to not check ID.
Banning marijuana does not stop people from obtaining and using it. Where there is a demand there will always be a supplier. People in the marijuana trade are small scale entrepreneurs. Busting the drug cartels will not have a lasting effect and, would not reduce the supply for long. Marijuana production is not centralized; the weed is grown in little family plots and the small producers would just move in to fill the void created by the big busts. After repeal of prohibition people did not suddenly switch from beer to hard liquor. And there is no basis to believe that recreational uses of marijuana will switch to the use of cocaine or other hard drugs, if its sale and use is decriminalized.
Dollars and common sense
Marijuana is the most widely used illicit drug in the world. According to a UN study 162 million people use marijuana annually, for religious, recreational, medicinal or spiritual purposes. There is no scientific agreement about any long term ill effects of marijuana use. Fourteen states have legalized the medicinal and recreational use of marijuana and have de-criminalized possession of small amounts of the drug. This puts state laws in conflict with federal law. The FDA now finds itself in the odd position of conducting raids on marijuana dispensaries in Colorado and California that are perfectly legal under the laws of these states.
The states as well as the federal government expend billions on marijuana enforcement. In 2003 there were 755,000 marijuana arrests in the U.S. These numbers are increasing and with them the costs of enforcement are skyrocketing. In 1973 the FDA had 2800 employees and an annual budget of $65 million. In 2009 the budget had grown to $2.6 billion and the number of employees to 11,000. NORMAL (National Organization for Reform of Marijuana Laws) estimates that New York spent $3 billion, New Jersey and Ohio $1billion each, Texas California and Florida about $2 billion each to enforce marijuana laws. While billions are being spent, drug cartels are raking in 70 % of their profits from sales of marijuana in U.S. sales alone. One study put the cost at $ 10, 200 for every marijuana smoker arrested.
Wrong on all levels
The ban breeds, rather than prevents criminal activity. It encourages teenagers to become criminal entrepreneurs in the illegal drug trade. While arrests increase there is no corresponding decrease in marijuana use of its availability. The ban on marijuana is simply wrong on all levels. College students busted for smoking a joint are criminalized and marked for life. And it is no surprise that blacks suffer the slings of outrageous and biased enforcement more than any other group. Blacks make up 1.9 % of marijuana users but account for 23 % of the arrests. In places like South Dakota, the disparity is even more pronounced. Blacks and Indians are arrested at a 1:9 ratio as against whites. And one of every four arrests is of young people under the age of 18. The current policy does not produce the intended results. Yet the more it fails the more money we throw at the problem.
A way out
California NORML estimates that a legally regulated market for marijuana could yield the state at least $1.2 billion in tax revenues and reduced enforcement costs. A basic $50/ounce excise tax (roughly $1/joint) would yield about $770 - 900 million per year plus another $240-360 million in sales taxes. In addition, the state would save over $200 million in enforcement costs for arrests, prosecutions and prison. Additional benefits would accrue from increased employment and spinoff industries. Total retail sales of marijuana could be on the order of $3-$5 billion, with total economic impact of $12-$18 billion including spinoff industries such as coffeehouses, tourism, plus industrial hemp. http://www.canormal.org
The legalization of drug production and sales and the establishment of drug control along the lines of alcohol control is a reasonable and practical policy option. Therefore, it would mark a significant advance if the current U.S. debate on drug policy could be moved beyond the question of whether such a system of legalized drug control is possible. It Is. Colorado, California and fourteen of their sister states already have in place legalized and sensible systems of decriminalizing the distribution and use of limited quantities of marijuana. And governor Christie of New Jersey this week implemented a scheme to license a limited number of dispensaries where marijuana can be legally purchased. The New Jersey plan was shelved to make certain that it did not run afoul of federal law. The proposal by Ron Paul and Barney Frank provides an opportunity for rational and non- moralistic debate on a workable system of at least partially legalized marijuana production and sales.
In the years before constitutional prohibition in the United States, there had been little systematic control of the alcohol industry. In 1933 a sprawling illegal industry for producing and distributing alcoholic beverages was in place, composed of uncountable numbers of small independent distributors and producers, and some larger ones. These sold whatever they wanted to whomever they chose and paid no taxes. Alcohol control put an end to nearly all of the lawlessness. Liquor stores are licensed and the time place and manner of every aspect of their operation is tightly regulated. And because towns, cities, counties, states and countries vary enormously, liquor policies are shaped according to local environments. There are still cities in Georgia and a number of other states that are referred to as “dry” because no alcohol sales are permitted. Consumers who desire to purchase the product must purchase it out of town.
In a June 29 memorandum, the Justice Department said it was primarily concerned with large money-making operations that also supplied the black market. Indicating that states like New Jersey, Colorado and California will be free to proceed to decriminalize marijuana. Let’s hope the Feds follow suit, and soon. A good start would be to give serious consideration to HR 2306, now gathering dust on the table.