Froma Harrop: 'Demon drug' propaganda doesn't cut it anymore
America's war on drugs is actually a Raid on Taxpayers. The war costs an estimated $70 billion a year to prosecute, and the drugs keep pouring in. But while the War on Drugs may have failed its official mission, it is a great success as a job-creation program. Thousands of drug agents, police, detectives, prosecutors, judges, anti-drug activists, prison guards and their support staffs can thank the program for their daily bread and health benefits.
The American people are clearly not ready to decriminalize cocaine, heroine or other hard drugs, but they're well on their way to easing up on marijuana. A Zogby poll found that nearly half of Americans now want pot legal and regulated, like alcohol. Few buy into the "demon drug" propaganda anymore, and for a simple reason: Several countries have decriminalized marijuana with little effect on public health.
Americans could save a ton of money doing the same. The taxpayers spend almost $8 billion a year enforcing the ban on marijuana, according to a report by visiting Harvard economist Jeffrey A. Miron. State and local governments consume about $5 billion of the total.
The war on pot fills our jails. America arrests 755,000 people every year for marijuana infractions -- the vast majority for possession, not dealing. An estimated 80,000 people now sit behind bars on marijuana offenses.
The Bush administration stoutly supports the campaign against marijuana, which others think is crazy. Compare the Canadian and American approach to medical marijuana: The Canadian Postal Service delivers it right into the mailboxes of Canadian cancer patients. The U.S. Justice Department invades the patients' backyards and rips out cannabis plants, even those grown with a state's blessing.
The Bush administration isn't going to last forever, nor is the patience of Americans paying for and suffering under the ludicrous war on marijuana. Surely letting sick people smoke marijuana to ease their discomfort -- 11 states have approved such, including Rhode Island -- would be a good start for a more enlightened drug policy.
For the drug warriors, however, this toe in the water seems a foot in the door for eventual decriminalization of pot. That's understandable. Relaxing the rules on marijuana would greatly reduce the need for their services.
Remember the Supreme Court case two years ago, when Justice Stephen Breyer innocently suggested that the federal Food and Drug Administration be asked to rule on whether marijuana had an accepted medical use? Well, the FDA has just ruled. In a total lie, the FDA said that no scientific studies back the use of marijuana for medical purposes. Actually, the prestigious Institute of Medicine issued its findings in 1999 that marijuana helped patients for pain and for the relief of nausea and vomiting caused by chemotherapy.
The federal government "loves to ignore our report," John Benson, a professor of medicine at the University of Nebraska and co-chairman of the committee that wrote the Institute of Medicine" study, said after the FDA issued its "advisory."
The Drug Enforcement Administration, which feeds off the drug war, plays a big part in stopping this and all future efforts to reach educated opinions on marijuana. Lyle Craker, a University of Massachusetts authority on medicinal plants, wanted to grow marijuana for the purpose of evaluating its possible medical uses. The DEA said no, insisting that he use marijuana from a University of Mississippi lab. The DEA knows full well that the UMiss pot is low-quality and therefore useless for study.
The drug warriors' incentive to keep the game going is pretty obvious. But what's in it for taxpayers?
Miron's Harvard study looked beyond what the public pays to enforce the marijuana laws. It also investigated how much money would roll in if marijuana were legal and taxed like alcohol. The answer was over $6 billion in annual tax revenues. Do the math: If government stopped outlawing marijuana and started taxing it, its coffers would be $14 billion richer every year.
We could use that money. For example, $14 billion could pay for all the anti-terrorism port-security measures required in the Maritime Transportation Security Act of 2002.
More than 500 economists of every political stripe have endorsed the Miron study. Growing numbers of Americans are beginning to agree with them: The war against marijuana is an expensive failure -- and pointless, too.