In an October 16, 2010 article in the San Francisco Chronicle (“State pot measure won’t fly with feds”), the Obama administration, as spearheaded by Attorney General Eric Holder, claims that even if California passes Prop. 19 and legalizes marijuana use, they will “vigorously enforce” the federal ban on possessing, growing or selling marijuana. They call the proposition an “ill-considered scheme” because it would allegedly add to health problems and traffic deaths, and interfere with federal efforts to stop drug trafficers.
While the federal government can certainly overpower state rights these days, the reasoning of the feds to call Prop. 19 “ill-considered” is specious at best, and selfish at worst. These are the same arguments that were used many years ago to bring in the era of alcohol prohibition, which was eventually abolished for the same reasons that we should legalize marijuana.
Are both alcohol and marijuana bad for a person’s health? Of course they are; never mind the “medicinal” uses of marijuana. Does excessive usage followed by driving cause many accidents? Yes, it does. But there are no statistics that tell us how many people avoid marijuana usage now simply because it’s illegal, although reason suggests that most people are prone to avoid or to abuse alcohol and marijuana based on their personalities rather than legalities. Like alcohol during prohibition, not controlling marijuana production undoubtedly leads to even worse health problems as the quality and additives used can include poisons. As to driving, the laws regarding DUI are getting stronger every year, and rightfully so. History has proven that certain people will abuse drugs no matter what, and society must protect itself against those who harm other people because of that abuse.
The statement that the feds may be “selfish” in keeping marijuana legalized are much more contentious. The obvious reason is that the federal government is worried about its success in combating more serious drug trafficers, which they claim are generally associated with those selling pot. Well, wouldn’t legalizing pot alleviate a huge part of that problem? Even more importantly, however, the situation in California is far greater than in most of the country in general due to two factors: the proximity of Mexico, and the wonderful natural environment in this state to grow cannabis. Let’s examine some of the national issues first, and then come back to the state.
On the national level, there are many attorneys, academics, and even police officials who believe that legalizing marijuana would solve many more problems than it would create. For example, the blogsite of attorney Erik Johnson has a link to a speech by Jeffrey Miron, Prof. of Economics at Harvard University, explaining why he believes certain drugs should be legalized. Most importantly, it would reduce crime, especially related to guns and other violence associated with drug dealers. There would also be less incentive for other types of crime, such as theft, prostitution, etc., if marijuana were cheaper-which it would be if it were legal. Professor Miron believes there would be an enhanced respect for all laws as opposed to deliberately violating “stupid” laws. From an economics standpoint, all economists agree that it would shrink the deficit by taxing income on the drug market as opposed to spending hundreds of millions chasing and prosecuting minor drug cases and dealers.
What about law enforcement officials? In an article from SFWeekly.com, former San Jose Police Chief Joseph McNamara explains his reasoning for legalizing marijuana from both a police and an academic standpoint. Half a century ago, McNamara was a rookie cop busting drug users in Harlem. In 1969, he was sent by NYPD to earn advanced degrees at Harvard, where he wrote his doctoral dissertation on “the history of criminalizing drugs and its impact on the police”. When he returned, he was assigned to do research regarding “the cost-effectiveness of the New York Police Department drug-enforcement strategy.” Please note that McNamara holds a Ph.D. from Harvard University and has been a research fellow at Stanford’s Hoover Institution since 1991, so he is not some “dumb, renegade cop”.
“We actually lost four to five patrol days handling the evidence and processing the prisoner and going through the court system and so on for every arrest (in Harlem),” says McNamara. “All of us felt the same way about minor arrests for drugs. It was counterproductive in terms of [lowering] crime and even of drug-use itself. …Those arrests stripped the police from the streets of the city. It inundated the courts, and corrections. …That’s the point with the marijuana situation in California, and, in fact, nationally.” McNamara points out that marijuana laws criminalize 10 percent or more of the population, while most related crimes are from users seeking money for the expensive illegal drugs, not from usage itself.
Former Chief McNamara believes many high-ranking police officers feel the same way, but are afraid to say anything because they are sworn to uphold existing laws, not rock the boat. That is certainly an altruistic viewpoint; however, it is only half right. This is the other half of my statement about the controversial “selfish” aspect of not legalizing marijuana. Statistics compiled by the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) from 1993-1997 estimated that half of all police corruption cases were drug related. Locally, I’ve read about cases in Oakland, San Francisco and other cities where police officers were involved in drug rings, mostly simply taking bribes to look the other way. While there are no FBI statistics on how many government officials take bribes to keep voting for marijuana to be illegal, there can be no doubt that many of them do. Unlike all of the sexual or business favoritism cases that crop up in the media due to whistle-blowers and investigations, bribery related to drugs would be very difficult to discover unless someone involved in the drug business leaked the news.
Most specifically to California, the so-called “Mexican Mafia” is a very serious issue besides the related police corruption. Most importantly, there is a lot of violent crime that is gang related, whether actually caused by the Mexican drug cartels or by local gangs fighting “turf wars” over pot sales in particular. This is a major issue in California, as mentioned above, because the terrain and the climate are particularly conducive to growing large quantities with great ease. In addition to the cartels using some of their lesser members to do the deed, there have been documented cases where the Mexican Mafia kidnaps family members of men, forces the men to come to the U.S. and either grow the weed or transport it. Therefore, kidnapping, murder and extortion are all ancillary crimes associated with marijuana growing in California.
How large is the problem in this state? It’s impossible to really know, but stories about raids in remote areas-and some not so remote-by both state police and state Fish and Game wardens are common. The National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws (NORML) has been putting out statistics on the subject for many years, and estimates that more than 60 percent of all marijuana sold in the U.S. is grown in California, and amounts to more than $25 billion dollars annually. Even if legal marijuana sold for one quarter of the illegal rates, the profits for the state would be huge. Because this is such a lucrative business, countless individuals and small groups have gone into the business, not just the major drug cartels. If marijuana were legalized and sales were controlled, just like alcohol, almost all of those illegal growers, along with the associated violence, would gradually disappear.
Finally, all of this illegal activity is helping to destroy our environment. The California Department of Fish and Game (DFG) has been fighting this battle for decades, and only sees the problem getting worse. In 2006, in Almaden County alone, “Last year, deputies seized more than half a billion dollars’ worth of illegally grown marijuana, eradicating 130,000 plants, a 60 percent increase from 2005”, said department spokesman Serg Palanov. “Not too many years ago, the New River area of northern California’s Shasta and Trinity National Forests was described a the state’s most lawless rural area. Shootings, arson, and physical violence were commonplace.”
“The environmental damage is phenomenal,” said Lt. Don Kelly, a Northern California supervisor for the DFG. “They use streams as a conveyor belt for their trash.” Fertilizers, pesticides and poisons are often used to tend the crops, and they end up in nearby streams. Growers often dam up streams for their crop’s water source, causing drought and unnatural diversion, Kelly added. The damage is rarely repaired.
When President Obama and his representatives call Proposition 19 “ill-considered,” they are speaking from Washington, D.C., and show either a great ignorance or a disregard for the reality of California. This issue goes far beyond legalizing pot so recreational users can have free rein to smoke to their heart’s content. This is about major crime, about the environment, and about economics-both what is being wasted on enforcing stupid laws as well as on what could be reaped in revenues. President Obama might be well advised to stick to issues that are directly impacting the entire nation, such as military intervention in foreign countries and an economy that has figuratively gone to pot, as opposed to interfering in state policies that are based on an understanding of needs particular to our own back yard.