Jane Hamsher from Firedoglake.com and the national organization Students for Sensible Drug Policy (SSDP) have launched a new project called Just Say Now, focused on supporting marijuana law reform around the country, particularly in California where voters will be voting on making it the first state to allow legal sales for non-medical use.
The effort includes an impressive Advisory Board, including former Reagan Administration attorney Bruce Fein, former Seattle Police Chief Norm Stamper, former Baltimore anti-narcotics officer Neill Franklin, and University of Vermont College of Medicine professor Dr. Joe McSherry. The organization is quickly becoming a presence within the national media, something that previous campaigns of this nature have never had the connections or resources to accomplish.
I’m often challenged in the comment threads of my posts about why I put so much emphasis on this issue. People often dismiss it as a fringe cause that doesn’t matter. And even worse, they assume that my advocacy for the issue is rooted merely in a desire to buy pot. The latter accusation is the most ridiculous and insulting considering that not only have I had no desire to buy pot since I became a father last year, but even if I did, the current prohibition doesn’t prevent me from buying it. It only forces me to buy it from a person who’s willing to break the law to do so. And there’s no shortage of those people here – or in any other American city. People in this country who want to buy pot can already buy pot.
The reason that former government attorneys and police chiefs are going on TV right now in an effort to end marijuana prohibition is because the issue has become important, even if many of us don’t recognize its importance.
Friday night, I was watching the NBC Nightly News and they reported on the violence in Mexico, where drug cartels are now using car bombs as a way to protect their profits. But in that entire report, it was never explained to the viewer why there’s so much violence. The connection between the billions of dollars in marijuana profits and the cartel’s military and operational superiority was never made. There was no mention of Mexican President Felipe Calderon’s call to have a debate about drug legalization. The most dire impact of our marijuana laws – the deaths of tens of thousands of people south of the border – is effectively hidden from the average viewer by the inability of our traditional news outlets to provide context for the stories they report on.
America’s brief experiment with alcohol prohibition came to a crashing halt after only a decade. By the end of the 1920s, with organized crime making astronomical profits and wielding enormous power over major cities, few would have argued that the issue of alcohol prohibition had no impact. But with marijuana prohibition, much of the impact has been outside of the U.S., making it easier to pretend that the dynamics aren’t the same and the impact isn’t as severe.
The violence and chaos in Mexico alone is a sufficient reason to regard marijuana prohibition as an important issue that needs to be discussed and dealt with, but that’s only part of the overall impact that this insane policy has had. The economic impact is also wide-ranging and difficult to quantify. The enforcement of marijuana laws runs into the billions of dollars per year – and does absolutely nothing to impact the willingness or the ability of Americans to buy marijuana.
And beyond the massive cost of enforcement, arrests, and incarceration for marijuana offenses, the effect on the economy of having a legal and regulated market for the drug – similar to alcohol, would be substantial. Not only could you tax it, but taking the control of the industry away from the cartels and handing it over to organizations who can compete and win in a well-regulated environment is a tremendous way to create new jobs all over the country. Think about alcohol, and the amount of people that are employed, from truck drivers to bartenders to brewery workers. Granted, more people use alcohol than marijuana, but it’s still a drug enjoyed by over 20 million Americans.
The reality is that no one knows the exact amount that marijuana prohibition costs us. Beyond the obvious things that I’ve already mentioned, it’s difficult to measure how much it affects us when police officers across the country bust into homes with guns blazing in the name of stopping the “evil weed”. It’s difficult to measure the impact it has when thousands upon thousands of promising young college students are arrested and forced to carry a criminal record that makes it impossible for them to get further along in their studies – or to step into certain jobs. It’s difficult to measure how much safer we’d all be if police officers dedicated to marijuana law enforcement were focused on far more threatening things like identity theft or child pornography. It’s difficult to measure the damage being done to the environment by having marijuana supplies grown clandestinely in national forests. And it’s difficult to measure how much the prohibition-fueled crisis in Mexico impacts the willingness of those living there to buck our immigration laws and cross the border seeking out work.
One of the most ingrained myths of our nearly 75 year war on marijuana (it was made illegal at the federal level in 1937) is that keeping it illegal for adults is the most effective way to keep it away from children. Anyone arguing in favor of removing the criminal penalties for marijuana will inevitably be accused to putting our young people at risk. And for years, that emotional argument often trumped any attempt at reason. Having been a child in the “Just Say No” era, however, it’s hard to put into words how incredibly flawed that belief is. Not only did marijuana prohibition make it easier for young people to get their hands on marijuana, but the overwrought hysteria over the dangers of marijuana actually reduced the credibility of those warning us about far more dangerous drugs.
Today, I find myself with a child of my own, and with as strong a desire as any parent to keep my child from being exposed to potentially addictive substances (whether its alcohol or pot) before he’s old enough to understand the responsibility of being an adult. But unlike my parents’ generation, I have no illusions about what’s the most effective method for doing so. The “Just Say No” era believed that government-mandated abstinence by adults was the most effective way. Instead, that merely handed over the distribution to people who had minimal interest in the welfare of young people. It had the opposite of its intended effect, moving sales of marijuana away from a regulated environment where a young person could be prevented from buying it to locations where they couldn’t – and where young people themselves often became part of the distribution chain. If there’s one purely selfish reason I have for my advocacy on this issue, it’s precisely that. I don’t want the schoolyard to still be the local drug store when my son goes to school.
Finally, we often toss around the words “freedom” and “liberty” as we discuss politics and demand things be done accordingly. People clearly have their own notions of what those two words mean, but I find it very difficult to define them in any way that doesn’t boil down to a belief that government should not exist to protect us – as adults – from our own moral choices. Marijuana prohibition has long been premised on the idea that it’s necessary for our own well-being, the well-being of our children, and the well-being of our nation as a whole, to do exactly that. And after all of these years, it should be painfully obvious that this premise is tragically flawed. No one’s well-being is served by this policy. It has left in its wake an enormous path of misery, failure, and destruction, and the only sane response at this point is to speak up and demand that it ends.
UPDATE: Philip Smith writes about the monumental waste of resources that has become a yearly ritual in California.