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Smoked Out

The 'war on drugs' has evolved into a war on weed. Billions of dollars spent, tens of thousands incarcerated, and marijuana is still as popular as ever.
 
 
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In a November 2002 letter to the nation's prosecutors, the White House's Office of National Drug Control Policy (ONDCP) didn't bother beating around the proverbial bush. "No drug matches the threat posed by marijuana," began the letter from Scott Burns, deputy director for state and local affairs.

The truth of the matter, as reiterated throughout that letter in terse language, was that marijuana was an addictive and dangerous drug linked to violent behavior on the part of users. To make matters worse, a subtle but powerful threat was identified as exacerbating the problem: well-financed and deceptive campaigns to normalize and ultimately legalize the use of marijuana.

Prosecutors were instructed to keep in mind the crucial importance of their role in fighting this threat of normalization in going after traffickers and dealers, and to tell the truth about marijuana to their communities: "The truth is that marijuana legalization would be a nightmare in America."

Yet these truths about marijuana hearken back to the absurdity of the Reefer Madness era of the 1930s, when marijuana use was linked to sexual promiscuity and violence, to say nothing of the imagined hordes of Mexicans and Blacks waiting to lure white women into pot-induced sinful acts.

Marijuana has been classified as a Schedule I drug since 1970, which means that for 35 long years, pot has been viewed by the federal government as a substance with no medicinal value and a high potential for abuse, more so than cocaine, for instance, which is a Schedule II drug. In many ways, modern-day government hysteria about the dangers of marijuana is far more distorted and far-fetched than the scare tactics that were employed under Harry J. Anslinger's reign at the Federal Bureau of Narcotics.

That's because we know a great deal more about marijuana today than we did in the '30s, particularly in the form of medical studies about the very real existence of cannabinoid receptors in human brains and the benefits of THC to chronic pain sufferers, as well as the fact that urban decriminalization results in neither more common nor more chronic use of marijuana. *

As far as we've been able to trace it back, cannabis has been used by humans for at least 4,500 years. There has never been a single documented overdose from any form of consumption of the plant. (It's actually not technically possible for a human being to die from smoking marijuana, as Eric Schlosser points out in his book, Reefer Madness : a user would have to smoke 100 pounds a minute for 15 minutes to take a fatal dose.) On the other hand, people can and do die from drinking too much, smoking too much crack, shooting up unexpectedly pure heroin, and snorting or popping too much OxyContin.

With all of this knowledge available to the federal government, the extremist position of the ONDCP isn't just nonsensical, it actually sounds more and more like the product of truly paranoid, delusional thinking.

Whatever the reasons behind this kind of thinking, we do know that the ONDCP and successive presidential administrations since Nixon's reign have been deadly serious about supporting this agenda, leaving no room for debate, much less any form of dissent. The extreme extent to which pot (and pot smokers) have been criminalized over the last few decades has had the effect of skewing what marijuana really is and isn't capable of doing to a person.

That's something that any of the roughly 30,000 prisoners doing time for marijuana-related charges can surely attest to, as documented by the report, Efficacy and Impact: The Criminal Justice Response to Marijuana Policy in the U.S. , released last month from the Justice Policy Institute. Thirty thousand may not seem like a hell of a lot when we've got 2.1 million folks behind bars from coast to coast, but that's 10,000 more people than the far more pot-friendly Netherlands has in its entire prison system.

According to that report, the U.S. drug control budget grew from $65 million in 1969 to nearly $19.2 billion in 2003, and we are now spending nearly 300 times more on drug control than just 35 years ago. Much of that money has been poured into law enforcement and incarceration, but a significant chunk of the ONDCP's funding has also gone toward media advertising, to the tune of $4.2 billion since 1997. According to research cited in the JPI report, most of those advertising dollars went toward anti-marijuana advertisements.

Marijuana, it would seem, is simply one of the greatest threats facing our nation.

Not so, says an increasingly vocal movement of marijuana and drug law reformists hailing from all over the political spectrum. Although there will always be the kinds of pot-worshipers who maintain that the Green Goddess can do no wrong, the message of this movement isn't that smoking cannabis is entirely without potential health risks. Moderate to heavy smokers do, in fact, run the risk of lung cancer or aggravating existing problems with depression or anxiety, among other potential problems. And absolutely no one is saying that marijuana is good for kids. Most parents would rather that their children stayed free and clear of (legal and illegal) drugs in general.

The thing is that the marijuana war doesn't seem to be doing a thing for keeping kids from smoking pot. In their Efficacy and Impact report, the JPI cites the Monitoring the Future Survey, an annual survey of 50,000 students from grades 8, 10 and 12. The recent survey actually found a 90 percent increase in the number of 8th graders who had tried pot, a 66 percent increase for 10th graders, and a 44 percent increase for seniors in high school. Thirteen years of increased marijuana arrests actually correspond to increased pot smoking by kids.

In other words, thousands of pot arrests and scare tactic messaging isn't doing anything to keep these kids from trying marijuana. It can be argued, on the contrary, that this drug war strategy is having an entirely detrimental effect.

Several research studies published in recent months have highlighted this and the many other highly flawed aspects of the war on marijuana. One of these, released in May 2005 by The Sentencing Project, is about the 1990s transformation of the drug war into a war on marijuana.

Pointing to the fact that marijuana-related arrests added up to nearly half of 1.5 million drug-related arrests annually, the authors of this report noted that marijuana arrests actually increased by 113 percent between 1990 and 2002, while overall arrests in the nation decreased by 3 percent.

By way of spin control, the ONDCP has gone out of its way to say that the people being locked up are the real criminals: the money-making dealers and traffickers who operate in one of the nation's biggest and most lucrative underground economies.

The Sentencing Project's research refuted this easily. Of the marijuana arrests in 2002, nearly 9 in 10 were for possession, not dealing or trafficking. In addition, traffickers and dealers were actually getting shorter prison terms than those sentenced on possession charges: People sentenced for trafficking received a median of 9 months in prison, while those sentenced for possession received a median of 16 months in prison.

How's that for a head-scratcher?

From a fiscal standpoint, the bottom line has long since ceased making sense, as highlighted in Harvard economist Jeffrey Miron's academic paper in June 2005, Budgetary Implications of Marijuana Prohibition .

Through his research, Miron concluded that the annual cost of marijuana criminalization came in at a shocking $5.1 billion in 2000. Replacing the current criminalization model with one of taxation and regulation (not unlike that used for alcohol), he projected, would produce combined savings and tax revenues of $10-14 billion per year. The report, in turn, led more than 500 economists (led by Nobel prize winner Milton Friedman) to sign their names to an open letter to President Bush calling for "an open and honest debate about marijuana prohibition that, would likely end up favoring a system where marijuana is legal but taxed and regulated like other goods."

Studies like Miron's aren't romanticizing or glamorizing cannabis consumption, and they're certainly not spurred on by hemp-and-pot-loving hippies pushing for world peace through THC.

Miron, Friedman and the other 500 economists were not taking a stand for pot, but rather against criminalization. This is a wholly different and more informed kind of public opposition than we've seen in recent decades. According to these studies, the War on Marijuana amounts to nothing more than an escalation of the fiscally irresponsible War on Drugs that bleeds state and federal coffers dry while ruining the lives of individuals and families in the process.

But this isn't the kind of truth that the ONDCP is interested in hearing -- it''s both inconvenient and embarrassing. Better just to ignore it altogether, right?

Vancouver Mayor Larry Campbell, a Royal Canadian Mounted Police constable, drug squad officer and chief British Columbia coroner who witnessed the height of mid-1990s drug overdose deaths (from heroin in particular), has himself become a proponent of both the decriminalization and eventual legalization of marijuana. Campbell resides across the border from one the U.S. counties that has seen the greatest increase in pot-related arrests. (King County, which includes the Greater Seattle Area, experienced a 418 percent growth rate in marijuana arrests from 1990 to 2002.)

In an interview with Seattle Post-Intelligencer columnist Joel Connelly, Mayor Campbell put it as matter-of-frankly as possible: Drug czars are the most ill-informed people in government ... [John Walters] is pushing an agenda that doesn't fit in the real world. He's in denial."

He's right, and the U.S. war on marijuana (and on illicit substances in general) is an abject failure. The emperor is wearing no clothes whatsoever; we should be willing to call his bluff.

* In May 2004, the first rigorous study comparing pot use in the Netherlands and the U.S. was published in the American Journal of Public Health. The study, funded by the U.S. National Institute on Drug Abuse and the Dutch Ministry of Health, compared San Francisco and Amsterdam to find that about 75% of the respective populations had used cannabis less than once per week or not at all in the year before their interviews with researchers. The study further revealed no indication that the decriminalization of marijuana in the Netherlands led to earlier use or more consumption. There was also no evidence in either city to back the common refrain that marijuana serves as a gateway drug. Other Dutch studies have shown that the percentage of people who regularly use either cannabis or other drugs is actually lower in the Netherlands than in most other EU countries. In Amsterdam alone, the Center for Drug Research found that 55% of people who admitted to having tried marijuana ended up only using it a few dozen times or less.

Silja J.A. Talvi is a senior editor at In These Times. Her work appears in the anthology, "Prison Nation" (Routledge, 2003).