Antidote to Drug War Madness

Susan J. Douglas

So I was making dinner, and on NPR I hear, to my amazement, a report by Robert Siegel and Michele Norris marking April 20 as Marijuana Observance Day. We’re hearing more talk about legalizing marijuana,” noted Norris, and not just from those who are lighting up.”

If Republicans followed the lead of Buckley, Beck and Paul, this extravagant waste of human and financial resources could end.

I, myself, lit up –metaphorically – over this. Aside from the fact that this is a policy change that’s at least 30 years overdue, the story aired at the same time we were cringing over the long-suspected yet nonetheless horrific accounts of torture under the Bush regime. Once again, the right wing of the Republican Party comes off as addicted to all forms of cruelty, just as it did when it sanctioned extreme rendition.” But maybe if right-wing Republicans all smoked a little pot – the gateway drug to mellowness – the world would be a better place. Just a thought.

As many critics and commentators – and not just on the left – have noted, repeatedly, the so-called War on Drugs” is one of the single most ineffectual, expensive, dangerous, dumb-ass activities our government engages in, especially the part focused on marijuana. Let’s hear that radical socialist William F. Buckley on the subject in 2004, in what he calls an exercise in scrupulosity”: There are approximately 700,000 marijuana-related arrests made very year. Most of these – 87 percent – involve nothing more than mere possession of small amounts of marijuana…Professor Ethan Nadelmann of the Drug Policy Alliance…estimates at 100,000 the number of Americans currently behind bars for one or another marijuana offense.”

Buckley’s conclusion? Legalize it. Glenn Beck has jumped on the bandwagon. So has Ron Paul, who called the war on drugs a total disaster.”

President Obama recently received multiple questions at a town hall meeting asking if marijuana shouldn’t be legalized to help the economy, and Attorney General Eric Holder announced that the federal government, unlike under Bush, would no longer raid medical marijuana dispensaries. 

In the wake of this, John Burnett and Carl Kasell on NPR imagined a country in which pot had been legalized for two years. They cited Jeffrey Miron, a Harvard economist and expert on the economics of the marijuana market. What might the economic benefits of legalizing pot be? While not earth-shattering when compared to, say, never having invaded Iraq, from a benefit-cost analysis alone, legalization makes sense.

Miron figures state and federal taxes on cannabis sales adds up to $6.7 billion annually,” Burnett reported. And he calculates the savings from not having to enforce state and federal marijuana laws, in arrests, prosecution and incarceration, at $12.9 billion a year. Excluding additional expenses, such as the public health cost of marijuana, or the cost of administering the new law, Miron figures that legal pot creates almost a $20 billion bonus.”

This idea seems everywhere in the air this spring. Bruce Mirken, a spokesman for the Marijuana Policy Project, notes that government surveys indicate about 15 million Americans admit to having smoked pot in the previous month. California Assemblyman Tom Ammiano projected that marijuana is a $14 billion dollar industry in his state alone, which if taxed, could bring in $1.3 billion in revenues. So he introduced a bill to legalize it. D.L. Hughley did a piece on legalization on his CNN show. The Wall Street Journal (!) featured an editorial titled The War on Drugs is a Failure” by three former Latin American presidents who proposed decriminalization of pot for personal use.

Some of the new focus on this issue stems, of course, from the soaring drug-and-gun violence on the Mexican border. It is estimated that in the last year alone, more than 5,000 people in Mexico have died in drug-related violence. Some of the impetus is economic. Some is humanitarian: Since 1970, the government has arrested a staggering 38 million people for nonviolent drug offenses, and the percentage of such offenders in our prison-industrial complex has soared 2,557 percent during this time. Currently, nearly half a million people are in jail on drug charges. There were more arrests for drug violations than for any other offense in 2007. It is the war on drugs that makes the United States the world’s largest jailer.

Of course, it is politically impossible for the first African-American president to legalize pot, isn’t it? And he obviously has other crucial issues to tackle. But if Republicans, many of whom might benefit from passing the bong, followed the lead of Buckley, Beck and Paul, this extravagant waste of human and financial resources could end.

Susan J. Douglas is a professor of communications at the University of Michigan and a senior editor at In These Times. She is the author of In Our Prime: How Older Women Are Reinventing the Road Ahead.

Get 10 issues for $19.95

Subscribe to the print magazine.