One of the most neglected issues in this year’s presidential elections is the Drug War, the longest running war in U.S. history. Let’s forget about the earlier antics of Harry Anslinger in the 1930’s (which included the creation of the ever-popular “Reefer Madness“). In 1971, Richard Nixon called drug abuse “Public Enemy #1,” and in 1973, he created the centralized Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) – known in the 21st century for its countless raids of medical marijuana dispensaries in California (not to mention its $1 billion budget for its occasionally dramatic operations outside the U.S. – from Central and South America, to Africa and Asia.)
This site is full of statistics on Drug War costs, and has a ticker that indicates ongoing dollars spent so far this year. In 2010, the Federal government spent about $15 billion, and on the state and local levels, another $35 billion was spent. These billions go to everything from law enforcement, to the court system, to the prison system. And a bit for education.
In the United States, marijuana is indisputably the kingpin of the War. In 2009, more than half of the 1,663,582 arrests for drug violations were for marijuana. But stoners are not the best advocates for lobbying against the Drug War, retired police are: Law Enforcement Against Prohibition (LEAP), was started in 2002 by 5 retired cops. It’s speakers’ bureau now includes over 150 police, judges, prosecutors, prison wardens, FBI and DEA agents. All of them believe, from their experience on the ground, that the drug war takes huge resources away from other more important areas, causes immense suffering, and is unwinnable.
In my current work on a documentary film, “RxCannabis – a Freedom Tale,” I spent several days with LEAP members, including Judge Jim Gray (Superior Court, Orange County). At one point, Judge Gray laughed and said, “You could make toasters illegal, and in 10 minutes you’d have a black market in toasters – nothing works better than regulation and control.”
Gray sums up the reason why in his eyes we make so much effort keeping marijuana illegal when othervery popular “mind-altering, sometimes addicting” drugs are sold behind the counter in every corner store: money. The statistics are a bit, uh, mind-altering:
Sales of alcoholic beverages in the U.S. in 2008, were $160 billion (almost $40 billion of that went to Anheuser Bush, who spent about $1.5 million on campaign contributions in that year). Meanwhile, the Center for Disease Control and Prevention reported that in 2001, 34,833 people died from cirrhosis of the liver, cancer and other diseases linked to drinking alcohol. Another 40,933 died from car crashes and other mishaps caused by excessive alcohol use.
The combined profits of the six leading U.S. tobacco companies in 2010 were $35.1 billion. The CDC reports that tobacco use is the nation’s number one cause of preventable death, killing each year more than 400,000 people (about 1 in 5 deaths), and costing $96 billion in health care bills each year.
This website links to many medical and scientific publications, to report that there has never been a death from marijuana overdose (compared to hundreds yearly for alcohol); alcohol is present frequently in violent episodes (and marijuana rarely); and when marijuana is present in the blood stream during auto accidents, there are almost always other drugs (especially alcohol) present as well.
Right now, the majority of marijuana sold in the United States is, shall we say, tax-free. In a country currently suffering from a recession, regulating marijuana could produce vast tax revenues. Each year, California already collects $50-100 million in sales tax from medical marijuana. According to the CA State Board of Equalization, legalizing and regulating it for all adults would bring in about $1.4 billion in tax.
With Obama apparently reneging on his campaign promises around medical marijuana, the impetus to end the Drug War is playing out mainly on the state level. Sixteen years after California legalized medical marijuana, in 1996, there are seventeen states (and District of Columbia) with medical marijuana laws on the books (complete resources on the last 16 years of marijuana legislation in the U.S. are here).
This November 6, voters in two states will vote to legalize and regulate marijuana for all adults. In Colorado, the struggle for Amendment 64 (the Campaign to Regulate Marijuana Like Alcohol) is heating up. Recently, another LEAP member, Lt. Tony Ryan, a 36-yr veteran of Denver police, after coming out in favor of the amendment, was called a “pro-pot rent-a-cop” by an anti-amendment group.
Colorado’s governer, John Hickenlooper, has said the amendment “sends the wrong message to kids” and “detracts from efforts to make Colorado the healthiest state.” But it should be noted that Hickenlooper founded Denver’s Wynkoop Brewing Company, the first brew-pub in the Rocky Mountain West area. In any case, in a recent Colorado poll, 61% of those polled are in favor of legalizing marijuana.
Meanwhile, in Washington state, where medical marijuana is already legal, I-502 would put a 25% sales tax on marijuana, with 40% of that going to the state general fund and local budgets, and the rest going to substance-abuse prevention and education. And a marijuana DUI standard would be established. A recent survey there found 55% will vote for it.
And in Southern California, Rudy Reyes, a well-known medical marijuana patient, is running for mayor of Santee, a suburb of San Diego. If he wins, he’ll be the first “out” medical marijuana patient in public office in the nation.
Attitudes seem to be changing: will this year bring a Drug War truce?
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