December 28, 2005
EDITORIAL, San Francisco Chronicle
AMERICAN LAW enforcement has a proud tradition of courageous souls standing up against corrupt and dangerous criminal elements. Think Eliot Ness, the federal agent who prosecuted Al Capone, or Frank Serpico, the New York cop who at great personal risk exposed dirty cops within his department.
Then think about the new focus of American law enforcement -- marijuana -- and ask yourself if the expense of arresting, prosecuting and jailing offenders makes sense.
The Marijuana Policy Project crunched U.S. Justice Department statistics for arrests in 2004 and found that there were more arrests for marijuana possession -- 684,319 -- than for all violent crimes combined. The Washington Post reported in May that the Sentencing Project, another think tank, "found that the proportion of heroin and cocaine cases plummeted from 55 percent of all drug arrests in 1992 to less than 30 percent 10 years later." While Americans might think law enforcement has mobilized to fight dangerous drugs that can lead to fatal overdoses and kill users, the study found that marijuana arrests rose to 45 percent of drug arrests.
Here in California, federal agents have raided a string of medical-marijuana clubs, including a South of Market club in San Francisco, and seized plants grown to supply the clubs. No doubt some of the raided clubs have catered to users who just want to get high. They also serve sick people.
Members of the Santa Cruz Wo/Men's Alliance for Medical Marijuana -- raided by the feds in 2003 -- have argued that marijuana enables them to use fewer high-powered narcotics like Oxycontin. California voters approved a medical-marijuana initiative in 1996 precisely because Californians don't want their tax dollars to pay for the arrest and prosecution of people who use marijuana to control their pain, increase their appetite or address other symptoms.
Estimates as to the cost of the war on drugs vary, with the Washington Post figuring the cost to be some $35 billion a year. Are taxpayers getting their money's worth? No.
In a report commissioned by Taxpayers for Common Sense, Boston University economist Jeffrey A. Miron estimated that the federal government spent a cumulative total of $257 billion (in 2003 dollars) over three decades on anti-drug efforts, and some $3.67 billion in 2004 on programs designed to reduce marijuana use. Still, Miron wrote, "Marijuana-use rates are little different now than in 1975."
Republicans in Congress have been scrambling to cut federal spending to reduce a record deficit. Their 2006 Deficit Reduction Act would cut a paltry $40 billion over five years. If they want to find more savings, they should look to dubious spending on the dubious war on drugs -- to the high cost of incarcerating first-time nonviolent drug offenders, of mandating longer sentences for crack cocaine than powder cocaine and of using federal clout to raid medical-marijuana clubs, prosecute offenders and house them in prison. Cut these programs and Washington could move this country closer to what President H. W. Bush announced as his goal, "a kinder, gentler" America.