Friday, January 30, 2009

Legalize Marijuana Now!

I rarely take much interest in the drug war any more. It's similar to the way I feel about a college football playoff: the arguments are the same as they have always been, those that favor the status quo have been trounced by any logical and factual measure, but those in power still refuse (for a variety of reasons, not all irrational) to change their position.

But now that we have a president who has seen the drug culture first hand, there is hope. Hopefully this article on the advantages of legalizing marijuana will get his attention.

"With our economy going to pot, President-elect Obama has promised a “top-to-bottom audit to eliminate spending for programs that don’t work.” So, here’s a sane, simple proposal to save the country billions of dollars a year: end the war on marijuana users.

This failed and counter-productive program is an assault on people who pose virtually no threat to themselves or anyone else, certainly no more than that all-American "Joe Sixpack" revered in our recent presidential election.

Yet, getting caught with a few seeds or trace marijuana residue on a pipe is enough in some jurisdictions to trigger an arrest. Most who favor continuing the war assume that law enforcement focuses on sweeping up kingpins and members of cartels. But, here’s a sobering statistic. Of the 872,000 arrests in 2007 for marijuana-related offenses, almost 90 percent were for simple possession of the dried vegetation in question. The typical arrestee is younger than 30. Think college-age kid caught lighting up a joint. Now, multiply that by 775,000 — that’s where a significant chunk of your drug war dollars are going.

The price of deploying an army of local, state and federal cops, prosecutors and guards to arrest, try and imprison the perpetrators of this non-scourge? Using data from 2000, Harvard economist Jeffrey Miron estimated it as $7.7 billion per year while a 2007 study, by public policy expert Jon Gettman, figured it closer to $10.7 billion per year.

Most of that money is eaten up by law enforcement according to Miron, with $2.94 billion going to prosecution costs in 2000, and less than half a billion toward incarceration.

Add in the revenue we’d eventually gain if marijuana were regulated and taxed like alcohol and tobacco (from $6.2 billion to as much as $31.1 billion per year), and you’re talking real money."

Those are staggering figures, and they don't even consider the tangential costs of releasing rapists and murderers to clear cramped prison space for drug offenders, or the clogged courts, or the costs to society of having such a huge proportion of our population become artificially unemployable due to becoming ex-cons.

David Doddridge took pride in his work for most of his 21-year career with the LAPD. But when, five years before his retirement, he got transferred into narcotics, he began to feel he was doing more harm than good.

Cops see the collateral damage done by the drug war, costs that don’t show up on anyone’s budget analysis and are paid, not just by those arrested for the high crime of preferring a doobie to a Bud Lite, but by their families: The father whose car is confiscated when junior gets pulled over by an officer with a nose for burnt herb. The daughter who tries to buy medical marijuana – because it’s the only medicine that relieves her parent’s chemotherapy-induced nausea – and gets arrested in the process. The children who get shuffled from foster home to foster home while mom serves time.

“One of the first things that struck me as a narcotics officer was the tremendous amount of damage we were doing to the social structure – homes, families, children, parents,” says Doddridge. “I look back and still see the faces of the people I arrested and threw in jail.”

He recalls a young mother he busted who had been working her way through college. “Her boyfriend left her and she was trying to make a better life for herself and raise two children at the same time. All of that was gone now. All of it was gone.

“I got to thinking, what are we doing? I’d been thinking it for a while but that just made it worse.”

When I ask him to give me the positive side of prohibition, Doddridge’s usually soft, thoughtful voice betrays anger. “It’s really helped out the drug cartels. It’s created lots of new jobs, building new prisons, hiring new guards.” Doddridge also decries how, under the guise of protecting us from ourselves, the government has enacted laws that ignore the fourth amendment’s prohibitions against unreasonable search and seizure.

And there are practical considerations even the fiercest anti-drug crusader should take into account. When law enforcement agencies allocate more time, money and officers to drug task forces, those resources aren’t available to fight crimes against people and property.

“The homicide clearance rate today is less than it was in 1950,” says Doddridge. “Today we have all the DNA and all the electronic stuff and CSI and all these other people. But we can’t clear as many because serious investigative resources, that could go into clearing homicides, rapes, robberies and other things are now being diverted into this war on drugs.”

President Obama, it is time to stop this madness, and get the country on a more rational program for combating our drug problems. We no longer have the luxury of spending so much money on ineffective programs simply because so much of our population is ignorant of what is really going on. A massive reprioritization and reeducation of our society is in order. It is only a matter of time, as those who lived after the 70's become a greater and greater proportion of the populace, before this new policy will have the support of the majority of Americans, assuming it doesn't already.

No comments: