It's Time for a Change in Marijuana Laws
The October 2009 issue of Texas Monthly proposed an unlikely policy for one of the most conservative states in the country; legalizing marijuana in Texas. It is an excellent, objective, and nearly exhaustive overview of the issues and rationale concerning legalization much of which I've included in my own analysis here.
In 2008 5,600 people were murdered in drug-related incidents in Mexico. The country has been besieged by a drug war in the truest sense of the word. With signs that the warfare might be creeping over the border into towns like El Paso, that city's Council voted unanimously to approve a motion that the federal government consider legalizing all narcotics in the United States.
While it may seem like surrender to some there are a growing number of people, including many experts on the subject, loaded with statistics who can defend the action as being in the best interests of not just El Pasoans but all Americans. In fact, it may be the only way to actually "win" the "war on drugs".
Attorney General Terry Goddard of Arizona is one of those people. But he urges debate about one drug in particular, marijuana. According to Goddard nearly seventy percent of the illegal drug trade coming from Mexico is in marijuana.
The reason for the fierce battles over drug territory is simple, money. In February former presidents of Mexico, Colombia, and Brazil called on the U.S. to change its prohibitionist policies. They see America's war on drugs as driving the creation of the multi-billion dollar industry that is the illegal drug trade. The American demand for these drugs fuels a massive transfer of wealth and guns from American citizens to drug cartels in Latin America who use that wealth and weaponry to create underworld empires which can exert enormous power over police and politicians who often covet the sizable payoffs they can receive for looking the other way. Add the implied, and in some cases very real, threat of physical harm that hangs over officials and you have a system that is firmly entrenched and even threatens the stability of several Latin American countries.
American public opinion is slowly shifting from the zero tolerance mentality begun with President Nixon's creation of the war on drugs to an environment where every election sees more and more states and municipalities easing their restrictions on marijuana use. We are as a nation beginning to realize that waging such a war is futile and creates as many problems as it is attempting to solve.
Thirteen states now allow possession of small amounts of marijuana or treat it as a minor violation that does not result in jail time. Ironically, ultra-conservative and former governor Sarah Palin's state of Alaska has the laxest laws in the land concerning small amounts of marijuana where possession of up to four ounces and up to 25 plants in your residence is legal.
Still, in some states penalties for minor possession or sale of the substance can land you in jail for a very long time or even get you the death penalty. As many as thirteen percent of drug-related prison inmates are in for minor marijuana possession charges. This costs the American taxpayer over $1 billion a year and the number is growing. In 2007 872,721 people were arrested for marijuana violations, the largest number ever, and 90 percent of those arrests were for possession only.
A commission under then President Nixon issued a report that stated that moderate use of cannabis was not toxic, did not cause physical dependency or psychosis, and did not lead to the use of harder drugs and recommended that use of small amounts be decriminalized. Nixon rejected the report.
Likewise, in Texas, a committee including then state senator Barbara Jordan declared that "the public interest would best be served by making marijuana available through legal channels with carefully controlled quality and heavy taxation" and treating it as "simply another recreational drug like alcohol."
However, over the decades, politicians at the national level have steered clear of scaling back the war on drugs to avoid appearing soft on crime which has become a "third rail" of sorts during heated political campaigns. Even President Obama chuckled at the idea of legalization during a press conference. Why? Those who disapprove of easing laws on moral grounds see making the behavior legal as de facto approval of the behavior and they see the behavior as immoral. Then there are those who oppose reform because they see it as threatening their livelihood. In either case these groups seem to have much sway on Capitol Hill.
During the Reagan administration the war on drugs was ramped up and the appointment of a national "drug czar" spearheaded renewed efforts to purge the nation of illegal drug use even stating that it had become their policy to create a "Drug-Free America by 1995". We all know how that went.
A British medical journal stated that "Sooner or later politicians will have to stop running scared and address the evidence: cannabis per se is not a hazard to society, but driving it further underground may well be."
Legalization can and does achieve the desired results. World Health Organization studies have shown that marijuana use and overall drug use in the Netherlands, where it is legal, is much lower than in the United States.
Americans seem to have a hard time learning the lessons of experience. We tried prohibition with alcohol and it didn't work; the government lost millions in taxes and organized crime became an established segment of society. After several years of enduring the negative effects of alcohol prohibition it was lifted even though alcohol use is known to cause violent behavior.