Drug Warriors Make Millions Off Marijuana

December 20, 2004

Froma Harrop (Columnist), Providence Journal

THE MONEY IN illicit drugs doesn't all go to bad guys carrying AK- 47s and driving BMWs. About $69 billion of it last year went to police, federal agents, judges, jailers and other drug-law enforcers across the United States. These are the good guys, but most are not so good that they will admit that the war on drugs is a waste of money and lives. The war is how they make a living.

Supreme Court Justice Stephen Breyer wasn't thinking about the billions when he played the innocent during the recent arguments on medical marijuana. Breyer conceded that he didn't really know whether marijuana helped cancer patients in ways that pills do not. But it puzzled him, he said, that the patients' lawyers didn't just go to the federal Food and Drug Administration and insist, "You must take it off the list [of banned drugs] if it has an accepted medical use and it isn't lacking in safety."

Sounds like common sense: Make a scientific evaluation of medical marijuana, and then decide whether or not it belongs in the people's medicine cabinets.

But that's not going to happen. A week later, the federal Drug Enforcement Administration told Prof. Lyle Craker, a horticulturist at the University of Massachusetts, that he couldn't grow marijuana for the purpose of making such an evaluation.

Craker is an expert on medicinal plants. (Over 25 percent of all prescription medicines are plant-based.) He wanted to grow the type of marijuana needed for secondary clinical trials -- which are run by DEA-licensed medical professionals.

Observe how DEA bureaucrats draw a perfect circle of frustration. They say that researchers should instead use marijuana grown at a University of Mississippi lab. But the marijuana there is low- quality and worthless to the scientists.

Then they tell Craker that there's no need for his improved marijuana, because no one is doing secondary trials, anyway. But people aren't doing secondary trials because they can't get the plant material to do them with. "It's kind of silly here," Craker concludes.

DEA officials are not biologists and have no idea what distinguishes one type of marijuana from another. But that's not the point of the exercise. The point is to stop any activity that might eventually hurt business.

Do the math: The DEA has nearly 11,000 employees and a $2 billion budget. America last year arrested 1.6 million people for nonviolent drug offenses. Half were for marijuana (with 80 percent for possession). The number of marijuana arrests, 734,000, nearly equaled the population of South Dakota. Imagine what legalizing marijuana would do to the DEA's cash flow.

Marijuana has yet to kill anyone, yet anti-drug advocacy groups like the Partnership for a Drug-Free America portray it as a scourge. And why not? Condemning marijuana helps score $20 million in annual revenues for the Manhattan-based nonprofit. Its president makes a quarter of a million, and the next five highest-paid employees rake in close to $200,000 apiece.

There's far less money in opposing the war on drugs. Just ask Jack Cole, a former undercover narcotics agent who helped found a group called Law Enforcement Against Prohibition. The members are mostly cops, judges, corrections officers and former DEA agents who think that the "war" amounts to throwing $69 billion down the rat hole.

In his 26 years with the New Jersey State Police, Cole saw the drug problem getting worse, as spending on the war mushroomed. The prohibition on drugs has created "obscene profits" for criminals, he notes. For example, the value of heroin increases 17,000 percent from the time it leaves the farmer in Afghanistan to when it sells on American streets.

"When I arrested someone for robbery or rape, I was taking someone dangerous off the streets," Cole says. "When I arrested someone for selling drugs, I was creating a job opening."

Cole's group offers a simple plan: Legalize all drugs. The federal government could give addicts the drugs they crave, then treat them.

"Medical marijuana would be Drug Policy Reform 101," Cole says. "This is the very least anybody can do for anyone."

But the smallest retreat is billions in lost revenues for the warriors. And that's why the bureaucrats and every player in this war will fight against legalizing medical marijuana, for as long as it takes.

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Froma Harrop is a Journal editorial writer and syndicated columnist. She may be reached by e-mail at: fharrop@projo.com.



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