The Pot Issue
End the war
Criminalizing marijuana use is (still) a losing proposition
Published: November 3, 2010
Fear of minorities was still a driving force, but by this time it had expanded beyond Mexican-Americans. A quote widely attributed to Anslinger offers a clear picture of the ugliness behind the policy:
"There are 100,000 total marijuana smokers in the U.S., and most are Negroes, Hispanics, Filipinos and entertainers. Their Satanic music, jazz and swing, result from marijuana use. This marijuana causes white women to seek sexual relations with Negroes, entertainers, and any others."
Throughout the '40s and '50s and early 1960s, marijuana remained outside the margins of mainstream white America.
Then the war in Vietnam began to escalate, and the young people being drafted to go and fight it began to resist. A counterculture emerged, and the hippies who populated it — mostly white and middle-class — embraced marijuana in a big way. Meanwhile a significant number of troops in Vietnam were toking up in the war zone itself.
By the time Nixon moved into the White House in 1969, a culture war was in full swing, and Nixon, filled with a venomous paranoia, saw marijuana as being a key feature of the side that wore its hair long and had no respect for the authority he desperately clung to.
And so he went to war against the youth that had risen up to protest the death and destruction occurring in Vietnam.
Nixon was a man who needed enemies, and drugs soon became what he declared to be "public enemy No. 1."
A new war was declared, even though the people he handpicked to advise him on exactly how to attack the problem told him that ratcheting up the criminal consequences was the wrong way to fight it.
Known officially as the National Commission on Marihuana and Drug Abuse, the group empanelled to analyze the problem and develop a response was presided over by Raymond Shafer, former Republican governor of Pennsylvania and former prosecutor who had earned a reputation as a true anti-drug crusader. Others on the panel were similarly inclined.
But they took their task seriously, and performed a diligent examination of the issue. As one writer noted: "They launched 50 research projects, polled the public and members of the criminal justice community, and took thousands of pages of testimony. Their work is still the most comprehensive review of marijuana ever conducted by the federal government."
Tapes from the Nixon White House publicly released in 2002 reveal the extent to which the administration attempted to strong-arm Shafer to keep his "commission in line" so that they didn't come off sounding like a "bunch of do-gooders."
Despite that pressure, the report's authors announced their findings that an "extensive degree of misinformation about marihuana" existed, and that it was their duty to "demythologize" it.
Among the commission's findings:
• "No significant physical, biochemical or mental abnormalities could be attributed solely to ... marihuana smoking."
• "No verification is found of a causal relationship between marihuana use and subsequent heroin use."
• "Most users, young and old, demonstrate an average or above average degree of social functioning, academic achievement and job performance."
• "In short, marihuana is not generally viewed by participants in the criminal justice community as a major contributing influence in the commission of delinquent or criminal acts."
• "Neither the marihuana user nor the drug itself an be said to constitute a danger to public safety."
• "Marihuana's relative potential for harm to the vast majority of individual users and its actual impact on society does not justify a social policy designed to seek out and firmly punish these who use it."
The commission's bottom line recommendation: No criminal penalties for simple possession.
Nixon completely ignored the commission's findings, and made taking a tough stand on drug use one of the central planks of his 1972 re-election campaign.
The war in Vietnam would soon be over, and Nixon, of course, was driven from office because of his own hidden contempt for the rule of law he so praised in public.
But the war he declared on us has continued to expand.
In 1971, about 225,000 people were arrested for marijuana-related offenses. Last year, that number topped 858,000 — the most ever.
Each of those arrests carries with it an untold personal cost to the person nabbed.
The annual cost to the federal and state governments for fighting this war: More than $40 billion.
As for the young people this war is supposed to be protecting, well, you might say they are the collateral damage of a failed approach. Marijuana use among U.S. 12th-graders, according to the group Monitoring the Future, has increased, jumping from 27 percent in 1990 to 32 percent in 2008.
As a result of skyrocketing costs and the ongoing failure to make great strides in reducing use overall, new approaches are being explored.
Giving up & gaining
The idea is extreme, and the estimates are, admittedly, of the "ballpark" type. But with the nation facing its highest levels of debt since World War II, and states and local units of government wading through their own seas of red ink, a pair of economists have produced an eye-popping study that attempts to calculate how much money could be save — and how much revenue could be generated — if America hoisted the white flag and declared unconditional surrender in the War on Drugs.
The bottom line numbers: More than $41.3 billion a year in savings if the United States gives up on prohibition completely and makes all drugs legal. And if those same drugs were to be taxed at rates similar to alcohol and tobacco, the income generated would be somewhere in the neighborhood of $46.7 billion.
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