Marijuana Prohibition Doesn't Work
In an age when so many politicians pander to popular opinion, why is it impossible to imagine Washington restoring so much as an ounce of sanity to the so-called war on drugs?
A Zogby poll in 2002 found that 61 percent of Americans oppose arresting and jailing nonviolent marijuana smokers. Yet there isn't a major politician in America who would support decriminalizing or legalizing marijuana. Many may have used it -- some even inhaled -- and still they want marijuana to be illegal.
The folks from NORML (National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws), which commissioned the Zogby poll, met at the Holiday Inn on Van Ness Avenue in San Francisco last week in their quixotic bid to legalize marijuana. There were the expected male ponytails and counterculture clothing, but no contraband wafted through the lobby.
Marijuana activists can't smoke even cigarettes in California hotels. NORML Executive Director Allen St. Pierre archly noted, "You (Californians) are great at ostracizing the tobacco user." Implicit is his message: Let social sanction, not the heavy arm of the law, deal with marijuana abuse. Not that St. Pierre equates marijuana use with abuse.
St. Pierre is a 40-year-old Republican who readily acknowledges the "bipolar" nature of his constituency -- Green Party members and Libertarians who think "drug reform is a big deal." Alas, they are up against heavyweight Democrats and Republicans -- "people who couldn't be in a room together" on other issues, says St. Pierre -- who are united in the cause of outlawing a substance tried by 40 percent of Americans.
As St. Pierre sees it, few pols talk about legalizing marijuana because they don't want to cross parents who naturally want to protect their children from marijuana -- who don't want to see the kids' education suffer or for them to fall in with the wrong crowd. Legalize marijuana, many fear, and its use will increase.
"Use will go up," St. Pierre says. At the same time, the government won't be turning hundreds of thousands of users into criminals. (In 2004, 684,319 people were arrested in America for marijuana possession alone, according to the U.S. Department of Justice.) Legalize pot, and there will be economic savings in the criminal-justice sector, as well as less wasted human potential.
How do you protect your children from marijuana? To answer, St. Pierre asks, "How do you protect your children from tobacco?" Teen smoking in America has seen a big decline, even though tobacco is legal, thanks to high taxes, nonsmoking rules and social ostracism. And yet not one person has gone to jail for smoking a cigarette.
So what will it take to change Washington? As St. Pierre sees it, politicians won't reassess the drug war until law enforcement challenges drug laws. That's where Norm Stamper, former Seattle police chief and NORML's new advisory board member, and LEAP (Law Enforcement Against Prohibition) come in.
In his book, "Breaking Rank: A Top Cop's Expose of the Dark Side of American Policing," Stamper lays out a case for decriminalizing drugs. That's the wrong choice of words, he told me Thursday: America should legalize, tax and regulate marijuana and other drugs.
In sum: "Prohibition doesn't work," he says. Legalize drugs, and there will be fewer overdoses, as government regulations would make dosages uniform and safer, said Stamper. Users would be less marginalized, and hence more likely to find productive jobs. Most important, police would be able to focus on violent crime, not petty crimes that hurt the abuser more than society.
Stamper recognizes there are addicts leading miserable, chaotic lives. He believes -- although he can't prove it -- that addicts might seek help sooner if there were no legal sanction. While I would not jump onto the legalize-everything-now bandwagon, decriminalizing marijuana and not incarcerating users -- unless they break other laws -- seems like a sensible start in reassessing what works. It's time for Washington leaders to admit that if prohibition isn't reducing abuse significantly, then drug laws are not compassionate.
LEAP argues that after spending more than a trillion dollars, and arresting millions of users, "drugs are cheaper, easier to get and far more potent than they were when we started this war (on drugs) in 1970."
Or, as Stamper said of prohibition, "It's not working because it can't."
By Debra Saunders