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
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
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
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
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,
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.