The raging incongruity of US efforts to control the use of marijuana is no longer irrational, it is insane. The complexity of the overlapping controls by local communities, states, the judicial system, the criminal system, and the federal government has left me flabbergasted. However, I have yet to come across an American who believes that it serves such dubious purposes as keeping young male blacks in jail, maintaining employment in the “prison industry,” keeping the Mafia in business or subsidizing the ever growing numbers dealing with the surrounding legal issues. All these interests, opposed to the decriminalization of marijuana, have contributed to political gridlock on the issue in Washington.
The US now has experienced almost 80 years of prohibition on Marijuana which, after alcohol and tobacco, is the third most popular natural substance consumed nationally. It is important to compare this with the prohibition of alcohol which lasted only 14 years from 1919 to 1933. It took the 21st Amendment to the Constitution to repeal the prohibition on alcohol. Is it not high time to end the folly of the ineffectual prohibition on marijuana with an amendment to the Constitution which would decriminalize production, transportation, sale and consumption of this “drug?”
The patchwork of prejudice, fear, ignorance and phony medical expertise stitched together by a range of politicians stretching over generations is truly awesome. The origins of such folly seem quite beyond the fantasy of even the best of Hollywood script writers. During the depression of the mid-1930’s when a number of Americans were wondering what could fill the vacuum created by the end of prohibition, one rather bizarre administrator, Harry Anslinger, the first head of the Federal Bureau of Narcotics detested jazz to such an extent that he wondered how to stop such degenerate sounds from further undermining the sensibilities of young Americans. Investigating the background of those playing jazz, he noted correctly that most of the gifted musicians smoked marijuana. Blocking the drug could stop the music! And so the campaign of fear focused on “reefer madness” was launched to frighten the American electorate into gradually banning marijuana. The propaganda of the 1930’s portrayed cannabis as the killer weed which could turn average American youths into a homicidal, suicidal and crazed maniacs. So by the mid-1930s cannabis was declared a drug in every state.
And so where are we 75 years later? The US is spending well over $50 billion a year in its war on drugs. In the thriving black market, more than 750,000 Americans are arrested by the police every year in connection with the use of marijuana. One in six of Americans serving time in one of the over-crowded federal prisons is there for having violated the laws regarding cannabis. An even larger number is held in state and local prisons.
The first ray of good news on this issue in a long time is that since January 1st recreational use is permitted in Colorado and the state of Washington and that 20 states and the District of Columbia now allow some form of medical marijuana to be used. Any resident of Colorado over the age of 21 can now buy up to an ounce of cannabis at one of the 40 stores (“dispensaries”) open to retail customers. A rolled joint costs $10 (£7). Out of state visitors can buy just a quarter of an ounce but must use it within the state as carrying “pot” across state lines remains a federal offense.
There is big money to be made in cannabis and the prospect of an open market in cannabis may serve to drive much needed reforms. Investors are watching whether the legal sales of cannabis in Colorado and Washington will match the optimistic predictions of a windfall for the state budgets? Those behind the reforms in these states are motivated by the need to have more money flowing in from the taxes, but also from the money to be made by the growers and distributors who will no longer have to pay the Mafia, the police and the lawyers in order to stay out of jail.
The war on marijuana, like any war, results not only in casualties but also deeply affects all those involved in fighting it. Under current drug laws, some criminals escape long prison sentences by informing and also earn up to 25% of the assets that are forfeited by those convicted of growing, buying, selling, or using marijuana. So a substantial number of professional informers have developed a direct interest in lying for profit.
Few marijuana cases commence without an initial tip from an informant. Some power company employees, who may be allowed to trespass in order to read meters or repair equipment, have made informing a second (and more profitable) career. Employees of various shipping companies, such as UPS and FedX also can earn extra cash by informing on anything suspicious. Such activities by informers tend to undermine the social fabric of any society.
There is growing public recognition in the US “that prohibition (of marijuana) has been a fiasco that has led to needless imprisonment and fiscal waste.”1 As the Financial Times concluded editorially “Blanket prohibition has failed and cannot be sustained. There is growing public recognition in the US that prohibition has been a fiasco.”
Oregon, Arizona, Alaska and California (all Western states) are the most likely to have a change following ballot box voting over the next two years but what these states will be doing is to contravene the Controlled Substances Act of 1970, adding to the massive confusion as to what is legal and what is not.
The evangelist Pat Robertson recently joined the ranks of those speaking out on the issue by suggesting that “We should treat marijuana the way we treat beverage alcohol.” Prof. Mark Kleiman, one of the most patient and rational of experts on the confusion and contradictions whirling around this issue, says that a big riddle is whether marijuana might indeed become a substitute for alcohol. Kleiman would be pleased if there could be a decline in consumption, “Alcohol use has far more detrimental social costs than marijuana, by critically any measure: addiction, accidents, violence, illness, death”2 he said, pointing to the fact that alcoholics used to be viewed as wicked, sinful and evil but are now are regarded as suffering from fallibilities which demand medical attention.
Under the current laws of fifteen states you can get a life sentence for a nonviolent marijuana offense. The distinguished reporter Eric Schlosser came across the case of a man getting life without parole for a single joint! He asked: “How does society come to punish a person more harshly for selling marijuana than for killing somebody with a gun?”3
In California the average prison sentence for a convicted killer is 3.3 years, but in Montana you can get a life sentence for a first offense for growing one marijuana plant. Schlosser suggests “given that an estimated 300,000 die from tobacco and over 100,000 from alcohol, it clearly seemed to me that a concern for public health was not behind those strict punishments for marijuana.” The war on marijuana has been much more a war on the sort of people who smoke it, be they Mexicans or blacks or jazz musicians or beatniks or hippies or hip-hop artists. Racial prejudice and bigotry play a huge role in the interpretation of the many laws. Blacks are currently three times more likely than whites to be arrested for a marijuana violation.4
The large swings between tolerance and intolerance in the US regarding cannabis reflect much larger social trends. The Reagan era of the 1980s was a period in which intolerance was symbolized by the slogan “Zero Tolerance.” Schlosser wrote “There was an upswing in anti-immigrant sentiment and a backlash against women and unions and minorities and I really think you have to see the war on marijuana in that context.” When Reagan launched his War on Drugs in 1982, 88% of American high school seniors said it was easy for them to obtain marijuana. A dozen years later, 85% of such seniors re-affirmed it was still easy. In the intervening dozen years half a trillion dollars had been spent on attempts to eradicate the evil weed and more than a quarter of a million Americans had been sent to jail.
A fifth of the American 50 states have basically decriminalized marijuana and those arrested for possessing small amounts are fined much as they would be for parking violations. That has been a step forward, but nearly all of the former slave states in the south, from Alabama to Oklahoma, have failed to take the more liberal stance.
It seems obvious to me that approaching cannabis should not be through the criminal justice system but through public health efforts. Decriminalizing marijuana is a necessity. When will this finally happen? Passing a Constitutional amendment usually takes a number of years. Pardoning all those who have been jailed for using small amounts of marijuana could be a positive move towards decriminalization when President Obama leaves office in 2017. America’s hopes depend on radical change to end this tired folly called “reefer madness.”
1Shannon Bond, “Colorado enjoys relaxation of the marijuana legislation,” The Financial Times, January 4, 2014; “Drugs policy enters a brave new world,” Editorial in the same issue of The Financial Times.
2Patrick Radden Keefe, “Buzzkill,” The New Yorker, November 18, 2013, p. 50
3Interviews: Eric Schlosser/Busted-America’s War on Marijuana/Frontline/PBS.
4op.cit. Keefe, p.40
FYI: Outside the United States, Uruguay decriminalized marijuana in 2013 and there also have been moves in Canada to do so. In the UK the Police Foundation (a non for profit group presided over by Prince Charles) issued a report which stated that: “Our conclusion is that the present law on cannabis produces more harm than it prevents. It is very expensive of the time and resources of the criminal justice system and especially of the police. It inevitably bears more heavily on young people in the streets of inner cities, who are also more likely to be from minority ethnic communities, and as such is inimical to police-community relations. It criminalizes large numbers of otherwise law-abiding, mainly young, people to the detriment of their futures. It has become a proxy for the control of public order; and it inhibits accurate education about the relative risks of different drugs including the risks of cannabis itself.” Police Foundation of the United Kingdom, “Drugs and the Law: Report of the Independent Inquiry into the Misuse of Drugs Act of 1971.