The Drug War

“It’s easier for children to get marijuana than alcohol. Why? Because alcohol is controlled by the government, and marijuana is controlled by illegal drug dealers who don’t ask for ID. We’ve got this huge, colossal bureaucracy to fight the War on Drugs – to keep drugs away from our children – and it is absolutely having the opposite effect.” said Jim Gray, retired Republican-appointed judge from conservative Orange County (Dickinson).

Since Richard Nixon started the “War on Drugs” in 1971, there’s been much policy debate on how to handle drug punishment, treatment, prevention, decriminlization (which allows just for fines to be imposed), and legalization. While harsher penalties were invoked over the years, so was government spending of incarceration of these individuals, with no decrease in drug usage through the population (regarding every illicit drug) over the past forty years.

The United States is now best known as the world’s largest market for drugs despite their prohibition-based drug control policy. Much of the cocaine and heroin that flows through the United States comes from foreign sources, but amphetamines along with LSD and Ecstasy is produced in the United States, and while some seem to think the nations “marijuana problem” is due to the cartels in Mexico, at least a third of it that’s consumed is grown within the United States. With crackdowns on foreign suppliers through the years, U.S. production soared. Specifically speaking of marijuana, California and Hawaii took advantage of the foreign drug policy and produced many farms. Once their operations were forced to be taken down, growers just began moving production to scattered areas and indoors.

As a cash crop, marijuana has a greater value to farmers than tobacco, what, or cotton, in many states being the largest revenue-producing crop. Only corn, soybeans, and hay rank as more profitable cash crops as marijuana growers get an estimated $15.1 billion with the wholesale market. Moving from the wholesale level, drug dealing is one of the very few kinds of well-paid employment available with the young in poor urban areas. Whats less well reported is that most of the nations drug production is among the nations poorest areas. Through parts of Kentucky, Tennessee, and West Virginia, marijuana has “become a substantial component of the local economy, surpassing even tobacco as the largest cast crop” says U.S. officials because “in this tri-state area financial development is limited, poverty is rampant, and jobs are few.” This can be shown through the unemployment rate through the area, as rates are usually 2-6% percent higher than either California or the United States (Profile).

If drug reform is indeed needed, how far do we need to go with it? While illicit drugs have been tossed into debate in the past (such as MDMA) the marijuana issue has been the one drug that the nation has been (recently) pushing for policy reform. The debate no longer revolves around the harms of marijuana, as it has in the past. Stephen Kisely cites that cannabis produces “acute effects include accidents with motor vehicles or machinery, and adverse reactions. In the longer-term, cannabis has been associated with cognitive impairment and psychosis, although not consistently, and direct causality is more difficult to establish than for acute effects.” The Runciman Report, which is commissioned by the Police Federation in the United Kingdom, concluded that both alcohol and tobacco were more harmful than cannabis, yet there has been no push for controlling those uses.

One argument many opponents bring up for the justification of prohibition of marijuana has been the increase in potency through the years and the idea of it being a “gateway drug”. Studies through the years (such as one held at The Science and Technology Committee of the United Kingdom House of Commons) have found no evidence to support this theory, even noting that most marijuana users never move on to more harmful drugs. Alcohol and Tobacco was even noted as having stronger evidence to being gateway drugs by the TSTC. Regarding the potency issue, this would probably be due to the drug’s illegal status. As bootleggers would increase the potency and amount of alcohol in their beer and “spirits” during the prohibition of alcohol, much can be said of marijuana’s growing and selling in today’s age.

So what options are on the table for dealing with this issue of the “War on Drugs” (which was uncoined by the new drug czar) and specifically dealing with marijuana prohibition. Health education has pretty much proved to be a dud, as the past forty years a number of commercials, ads, and general announcements have been made of the dangers of drugs. Through all this usage has just continued to rise. Through a comparison study of the United States, Australia, Canada, and 3 European countries showed that marijuana consumption isn’t affected by expenditure on law enforcement. With so much being invested on incarceration of marijuana users, money is essentially being taken away for treatment, research, and prevention for users. While punishment may seem like the easiest method, economically speaking it leaves a big dent in government expenditures for help programs.

Looking abroad towards the Netherlands, where marijuana was decriminalized 25 years ago, usage is well below the United States. Liberalization of the law on marijuana in the UK led to a reduction in arrests for cannabis possession by one-third the next year, saving 199,000 police hours without any increase in cannabis use. Public policy seems to have little affect on consumption at all actually. Liberal countries have low usage rates while countries with prohibition had high usage rates (Kisely).

The cost of this “war” goes beyond financial aspects. Careers are ruined and incomes are lost. Imprisoning what would be otherwise law-abiding citizens for marijuana use can criminalize and have harsh consequences, financially and mentally. With many being around the poverty level, criminal penalties can be very difficult to deal with.

Tobacco smoking is falling in high-income countries. Using Canada as an example, anti-smoking strategies have concentrated on demand rather than supply, interventions favoured for marijuana users, tax increases, health education, restriction on smoking in work and public places, advertising bans, and better access to treatment. Yet when the supply initiative is directed towards tobacco, limiting production has had little success, and prohibition of tobacco isn’t even an option.

The best approaches that can be taken with marijuana should be similar to those for tobacco and alcohol. If it was decriminalized money could be used to target education and treatment, while if it was legalized legislation should tighten around operating vehicles or machinery, such as is done with alcohol. Where these options could lead could be like the coffee-shop models that generate income in the Netherlands, or home cultivation of small quantities. Undoubtedbly more research is needed regarding the issue, but it can be assessed that a change is certainly needed (Kisely).

The beginning of the Obama era has seen a rapid turn toward rationality. With the administration no longer raiding medical marijuana clinics in California (as much was done with the Bush administration) the new appointed drug czar Gil Kerlikowske declared in May that he had “ended the War on Drugs.” Senator Jim Webb and Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger have already begun discussing the merits of legalizing and taxing marijuana (as its giving California the much needed boost to its economy). Governor David Paterson of New York has showed the need for change has he repealed the Rockefeller drug laws (which were passed in 1973 following a surgence of property crime during the New York heroin epidemic) saying “We put a stop to 35 years of bad policy”. These laws changed the issue from public health to punishment, mandating sentences for possession of small quantities of drugs that rivaled those for second-degree murder: 15 years to life. Under Paterson’s new reforms, judges now have leeway to steer repeat offenders towards rehab rather than prison. The state now also uses federal-stimulus money to establish a system of drug court and treatment programs. New York authorities believe it will save the state $250 million dollar a year with incarceration costs. “We’re replacing incarceration with treatment,” says Gov. Paterson (Dickinson).

For Jim Webb (D Virginia) it seems to be an issue of incarceration. “Incarcerated drug offenders have soared 1200 percent since 1980,” he says, “yet the illegal-drug industry and the flow of drugs have remained undiminished.” For Schwarzenegger it has become a crisis of cost. With California’s economy being as rough as its been the past several years, there’s a bill being pushed through California legislature that would legalize and tax cannabis, which would provide more than $1 billion dollars annually. This would help balance the state’s budget. For Terry Goddard (attorney general of Arizona) its an issue of violence. With all the death and bloodshed raging through Tijuana and other towns bordering, he believes legalization would deprive Mexican cartels of as much as 65 percent of their illegal income. “Much of the carnage in Mexico is financed because of profits from marijuana,” he told reporters in April. In May of this year, a Zogby poll showed that, for the first time ever with all three rationales presented, 52 percent of Americans say they support decriminaling marijuana (Dickinson).

Many reform advocates cheered at the appointment of Gil Kerlikowske as drug czar. As Seattle police chief, he honored a city law that called for marijuana possession to be lowest priority for law enforcement, even permitting partygoers to attend the city’s annual “Hempfest” to smoke with impunity.

Kerlikowske has been clear on one thing though: any discussion of legalization of marijuana is off the table. “It’s not in the president’s agenda under any circumstances.” He goes on to say “It’s certainly not in mine.” When asked regarding his statement of ending the drug war, he explains it’s just him referring to the rhetoric, stating that using the term “war” limits his tools to deal with the issue. His plan, he says, is to incorporate cost-effective programs for prevention and treatment of drug abuse to create a balanced, scientifically rigorous, economically sane approach to reducing American drug consumption and global drug traffic.

While it certainly seems some change is taking place, looking at the president’s budget for 2010 reveals that he more than doubles funding for drug courts that divert nonviolent offenders from prison into treatment, and provides $30 million to treat drug addicted offenders who have returned to their communities. Put together though this account for one half of one percent of ONDCP’s $15 Billion budget.

Obama’s current drug control budget looks like the previous Bush budget. It seems that cuts score a bigger boost in funding than treatment does, but educational funding and outreach programs designed to prevent drug usage actually decreases. An example of this can be seen through his campaign promise of allowing federal funding for needle-exchange programs to prevent HIV transmission among heroin addicts, which his budget continues to bar.

What is interesting to note though is whom the drug czar reports too. Under the Bush administration, he reported straight to the President. Under the Obama administration though, he reports straight to Joe Biden. As a top Democrat on the Senate Judiciary Committee in the 1980s, Biden helped pass laws requiring “mandatory minimum” prison sentences for drug crimes, including wide margin of sentencing for crimes dealing with crack and powdered cocaine. Possessing 5 grams of crack, at a street value of $350, would get a minimum sentence of five years, the same penalty that applies to anyone with a half-kilo of powdered cocaine valued at $37,000 (Dickinson).

While there are many things going for and against the decriminalization or legalization of marijuana, it has become apparent to the nation that change is needed. Governor Schwarzenegger continues to encourage active debate on the proposal, calling for a major study to examine all benefits of legalization. He conceded that the issue will likely be decided at the ballot box. With the progress of rational thought that our nation seems to be heading for that might just be the push the administration needs to get more research involved and find a solution to the issue.

Works Cited

1. Kisely, S.. “The Case for Policy Reform in Cannabis Control. ” Canadian Journal of Psychiatry 53.12 (2008): 795-797. Health Module, ProQuest. Web. 14 Nov 2009.

2. Kisely, S.. “Applying the Lessons of Tobacco and Alcohol Control to Cannabis. ” Canadian Journal of Psychiatry 53.12 (2008): 799-799. Health Module, ProQuest. Web. 14 Nov. 2009.

3. Dickinson, T.. “A Drug War Truce? ” Rolling Stone 25 Jun 2009: Research Library Core, ProQuest. Web. 14 Nov. 2009.

4. “Profile: United States. ” NACLA Report on the Americas 36.2 (2002): 17-17. International Module, ProQuest. Web. 14 Nov. 2009


The Drug War
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