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June 5, 2000 (9:47AM) The Drug War

The reasons to legalize marijuana fall under one general heading: The harm to society caused by prohibition far outweighs the harm to society caused by marijuana use. This is not merely an opinion. This is the conclusion of the 1972 Nixon/Shafer commission and numerous other in- depth, government-sponsored studies of the problem over the last 100 years. Between 1969 and 1977, government-appointed commissions in Canada, England, Australia, and the Netherlands issued reports agreeing with the 1972 Nixon/ Shafer Commission. All found that marijuana’s dangers had been greatly exaggerated. All urged lawmakers to drastically reduce penalties for marijuana possession or eliminate them altogether.

This is also the conclusion of the Michigan Supreme Court. Anyone who considers marijuana to be a danger to the public should review their findings in the case of People v Sinclair , 387 Mich 91 (1972) Here are a few typical excerpts:

“…there is not even a rational basis for treating marijuana as a more dangerous drug than alcohol.”

“…the ‘stepping stone argument’ that marijuana use leads to use of ‘hard narcotics’ has no scientific basis.

We can no longer allow the residuals of … early misinformation to continue choking off rational evaluation of marijuana dangers. That a large and increasing number of Americans recognize the truth about marijuana’s relative harmlessness can scarcely be doubted.

All the usual canards that are rolled out by prohibitionists are also updated and dealt with in the book Marijuana Myth / Marijuana Fact by Zimmer and Morgan, 1997 Lindesmith Center. This resource offers a compendium of cites organized to address all of the thoroughly debunked bromides: “Marijuana is a gateway drug; Marijuana is addictive; marijuana rots your brain; marijuana is now more potent than it was 20 years ago, ad nauseum”. I’m not going to refute those tired arguments here. The scientific evidence is overwhelming and readily available.

Let’s turn to the more interesting question of how is society harmed by prohibition.

First, the taxpayer must support the incarceration bureaucracy that has mushroomed into the most bloated in the western world almost entirely due to the “war on drugs”. For example, in Michigan the prison population has tripled since the “war” began, and we are incarcerating (and paying for) a record number of prison inmates, a significant percentage of whom have been convicted of relatively minor drug crimes.

The cost to the taxpayers? In Michigan the prison population has risen from 18,000 to over 43,000 in the last 10 years. Somewhere between $22,000 – 35,000 a year is spent to house and feed each inmate – almost what it would cost to send them to Harvard. Further, resources devoted to housing them are resources that can’t be devoted to addressing real crime, violent and otherwise.

Nationally the story is just as expensive. The Los Angeles Times reports that “in the first months of the new millenium, the U.S. prison and jail population will surpass 2 million men and women. We are No. 1 in the world for mass incarceration. No democracy has ever allowed anything like this to happen.” “The financial costs are staggering. Operating prisons this year will cost about $40 billion. States now spend more on prisons than on universities.”

And there is an additional lamentable twist. Michael Tonry documents in his book MALIGN NEGLECT that “The War on Drugs foreseeably and unnecessarily blighted the lives of hundreds of thousands of young disadvantaged black Americans and undermined decades of effort to improve the life chances of the urban black underclass.” He documents the disproportionate effect drug laws have on minorities and the poor, who have been incarcerated at a disgraceful rate as part of the campaign. A democracy with a gulag. What a novel idea.

Another significant harm to individuals in a democratic society is the loss of freedoms and personal liberties that have been diminished if not wiped out by the War on Drugs. A host of rights formerly guaranteed by the 4th, 5th and 6th Amendments – our Bill of Rights – have been adjudicated or legislated out of existence because of zealous prosecutorial strategies and a sympathetic, politicized judiciary. For one small example, it is now legally possible for the government to put a tracking device on your car by which they can monitor your movements – and possibly your conversations – by satellite and cell phone – without a search warrant. Hard to believe? Come to court with me next week.

The government rationale uses the logic of the Inquisition; they can’t investigate and prosecute the war on drugs like conventional crime because there are no victims. The “victim/user” is also the criminal and unlikely to report the crime.  Therefore the only way to effectively pursue drug lawbreakers is through a web of informants and secret police euphemistically described and acronymically titled as drug squads. For example, in E. Lansing we have the PACT. (Pro Active Crime Team) One of their standard policies when nabbing someone violating a drug law is to offer the accused a chance to make his legal problem go away by ratting out his supplier or anyone else he knows doing or dealing drugs. The standard offer is three for one – you can work off each offense you are accused of by creating three more drug transactions that the PACT team can prosecute. And so it goes, giving new meaning to the term Pro Active Crime Team!

This type of investigation, in fact prohibition in general, is fundamentally at odds with a democratic society. Attempts to legitimize these investigative practices inevitably erode individual freedoms and traditional constitutional protections. Not to mention the moral fabric of society in general. How badly do we need secret police, neighbor spying on neighbor, children setting up parents and friends? Here are two more quotes from Michigan Supreme Court Justices in a more civilized age:

“Decoying, or conniving with persons suspected of criminal designs, for the purpose of arresting them in the commission of the offense, is denounced by the Supreme Court”

“The encouragement of criminals to induce them to commit crimes in order to get up a prosecution against them, is scandalous and reprehensible.”

First propounded by Justices Cooley and Campbell in 1878 these principles were updated and affirmed by the Supreme Court in the Sinclair decision in 1972. Who would say that our society is better off now that our current judiciary, hypnotized by the zealotry of the drug war, views such sentiments as passe?

Other victims? Here’s a quote from Canadian jurist Hon John L. Kane Jr.

“I want to make note of the “other victims” of the so called War On Drugs. The “other victims” are those people and businesses who can’t get into court to have their cases heard. They are the victims of traditional crimes such as burglary, rape and robbery who can’t get justice because the police are tied up with drug cases. They are the merchants going bankrupt because the police no longer have time to investigate or prosecute bad check cases. They are the battered spouses whose abusers are not sent to jail because there’s only room there for pot smokers. They are the physicians and other medical care providers who cannot treat their patients according to conscience and the discipline of their profession. They are the sick and dying who endure unnecessary pain. They are the children whose parents are taken from them. They are the police who have given up honorable and challenging work investigating and detecting crime because they have become addicted to and dependent upon an informant based system reminiscent of Lenin’s dreaded Cheka. They are the families forced to select one member to plead guilty lest the entire family be charged. They are the prosecutors and defense attorneys who have turned the temples of justice into plea bargaining bazaars.. They are, most painful to me, the judges who let this happen and don’t say a word. Let us continue our opposition to this infamous War on behalf of all its victims.”

But enough of such depressing news. Lets turn to those who benefit from prohibition. First on this list would have to be big time drug dealers. Since most controlled substances, especially marijuana, can be created for pennies, prohibition has created an artificial market and price structure that wildly benefits big time drug dealers – the ones who are almost never caught. And of course they are the ones who use their staggering profits to corrupt everything from banks to bowling alleys with money laundering scams.

Other beneficiaries? The incarceration bureaucracy – soon to be privatized because there appear to be serious profits on the horizon. And let’s not forget advocates of big government who want the power to micromanage what citizens do with their free time. Would they be liberals or conservatives? It’s hard to tell these days.

And so, to review and summarize, who benefits most from prohibition? Big time drug dealers, the incarceration bureaucracy, advocates of big government. And don’t forget moralists who want unsupervised intrusion into your private life and personal behavior. And who suffers most from prohibition? The average taxpayer. So its no wonder that the general public, consistently smarter than politicians and more sophisticated than the media, have historically favored decriminalization by a 2 to 1 margin. One would think that in a great democracy like the USA, they should get the chance to vote on it.