WASHINGTON — In 2000, Hollywood released a critically-acclaimed and (I thought) important movie, “Traffic,” about the futility of the so-called war on drugs. I was naïve enough to believe it would spark a national conversation about the stupidity of our generations-long policy of drug prohibition.
It didn’t. We continued as we had since the 1960s — locking up drug offenders, spending countless billions on police and prisons and abetting the devastating violence that attends the market in illegal narcotics. The United States, with about five percent of the world’s population, accounts for nearly 25 percent of its prisoners — largely as a consequence of draconian drug laws.
But in Tuesday’s mid-term elections, Californians have an opportunity to finally give the country a shove in the right direction. If they approve Proposition 19, which would make it legal to possess and grow small quantities of marijuana for personal use, they will start to wind down the war on drugs.
Nationwide, marijuana, the most widely-used illicit drug, accounts for around 45 percent of drug arrests. If Californians decide to legalize pot, other states will surely follow suit — a development which would free police to pursue more serious offenders, open up prison space and spur the de-criminalization of other narcotics. It might also lead to a new revenue source for cash-strapped cities and states.
None of that would happen immediately. State and local authorities in California would still have to sort out countless details, including whether to allow the sale of marijuana and collect taxes. U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder has added to the uncertainty by insisting he will continue to enforce federal drug laws. But in a time of tight budgets and redirected priorities, Holder’s reactionary stance may prove short-lived.
Counting federal, state and local funds, the United States spends about $45 billion a year to enforce drug prohibition. That’s money that we could have spent on education and bridges and bullet trains and research to cure dread diseases.
Meanwhile, Americans continue to demand mind-altering substances. (Among others, the Mexican government complains that it cannot stop drug cartels unless Americans stop purchasing their drugs.) In 1979, according to government statistics, about 25 million Americans over the age of 12 used an illicit narcotic. By 2009 — with hundreds of billions spent and hundreds of thousands incarcerated — 22 million Americans over the age of 12 used an illicit narcotic.
This losing war has a high casualty rate, especially in communities of color. Though black Americans and Latinos are less likely to use drugs than whites, countless studies have shown that they are much more likely than whites to be arrested and prosecuted. The high incarceration rate for black men helps to explain much of the dysfunction in poor black neighborhoods: imprisoned black men make poor fathers, husbands and providers.
The Drug Policy Alliance, which favors legalization, recently released a study of marijuana arrests in various California municipalities. While Latinos were three times as likely to be arrested as whites, blacks were subject to rates of arrest anywhere from four to 12 times higher than whites, depending on the city. That’s why the California chapter of the NAACP, the National Black Police Association and the National Latino Officers Association have all endorsed Proposition 19.
Given the violence associated with the drug trade, especially in poor urban neighborhoods, you might be surprised that any police groups would favor legalizing a narcotic. But the violence is a consequence of the black market. The Eighteenth Amendment created criminal enterprises and a wave of well-known gangsters like Al Capone. Laws prohibiting narcotics have had a similar outcome.
Wouldn’t legalizing marijuana just lead to more usage? Yes, it probably would. But scientific studies have shown that marijuana use is, generally speaking, no more detrimental than alcohol use. The predictable consequences of increased consumption can be handled by a law enforcement establishment already well-trained in handling alcohol intoxication.
Here’s hoping California ends its modern-day reefer madness by legalizing marijuana.