Editors Note: In the spring of 2003, Canada continued its long descent into pragmatic paganism by decriminalizing marijuana for personal use, while also recognizing gay marriage. In contrast, my home state of Connecticut rejected the medical use of marijuana, while also refusing to even consider giving gays the same rights as heterosexuals. The U.S. government, which has had little success (and even less interest) in controlling our border with Mexico — even in the face of the terrorist threat —  will now have to divert additional manpower north ... to prevent married-gay, stoner couples from crossing the Canadian border to rend the social fabric of America.


Will We Ever Face Reality on Pot?

 

After years in the shadows, marijuana is back in the spotlight, both locally and internationally. In May 2003, state legislators rejected HB5100, Connecticut’s Medical Marijuana bill, while Canada is rapidly moving toward decriminalizing quantities below 15 grams.

The Canadian initiative has re-ignited the debate on legalization here at home. Despite proponents as prominent as former Reagan Secretary of State George Schultz, ex-mayor of Baltimore Kurt Schmoke, billionaire investor George Soros and Republican icon William F. Buckley, with all three branches of government in the hands of social conservatives, the prospects for this sensible course of action look dim.

The libertarian argument that what happens in the privacy of one’s home is none of the government’s business generates little enthusiasm on the right wing. Conservative rhetoric about “getting government off our backs” has never extended to any pursuits deemed “sinful. Marijuana may be only slightly more hazardous to one’s health than Pepsi or junk food, but it smacks of 1960s-style libertinism and liberalism, both of which are decidedly out of favor in our current political climate.

Pious arbiters of virtue such as William Bennett decry all vices, including those practiced by consenting adults behind closed doors (unless, of course, those doors are on a high-roller’s Las Vegas hotel suite that also houses a slot machine). Meanwhile, bluenoses such as homophobic Sen. Rick Santorum (R.-PA) see the home as an appropriate venue for government oversight of victimless crimes.

No politician wants to be labeled “soft on drugs” these days, so things would be no different with the Democrats in charge. In 1972, Richard Nixon was the only American leader able to open diplomatic relations with China, because any Democrat who’d suggested it would have been smeared as a “closet communist” — by Nixon. Likewise, had candidate Gore suggested decriminalization in 2000, he’d have been pilloried as a “60s liberal” by every Republican from Patrick Buchanan to Nancy Reagan.

The public health benefits of medical marijuana are unlikely to move the debate toward liberalization either. Although cannabis is far less addictive than such drugs as OxyContin, pharmaceutical companies can’t be expected to support the medical use of an “herb” that grows freely in nature, and cancer patients lack the lobbyists, political muscle and bankrolls of a Pfizer or Purdue Pharmaceutical.

Meanwhile, the argument that marijuana is less dangerous than such legal recreational drugs as alcohol or tobacco has little traction. Brewers, distillers and cigarette companies have well-funded lobbies, while small-time drug dealers have no such clout. And, realistically, the wealthy drug lords have common cause with the prohibitionists, because it’s the laws against their wares that are making them so rich.

Just as Prohibition abetted the rise of organized crime, drug illegality has given birth to vicious criminal cartels. Prohibition failed in the 1920s, but that was a long time ago, and we Americans have short memories. We’d rather invest our taxes in the criminal justice system and create another generation of criminals to fill our prisons than admit that, while we can put a man on the Moon, we can’t keep ourselves from smoking dope.

The law of supply and demand guarantees that aggressive interdiction will drive up prices and increase profit margins. However, the Economics 101 argument that drug laws have the paradoxical effect of bolstering the cartels’ bottom lines lacks the emotional appeal of seeing bales of marijuana seized by the Drug Enforcement Administration on the evening news. We enjoy the illusion that the narcs are actually accomplishing something.

I, for one, would prefer to see drug prices fall to a level that reflects the costs of producing them. That way, users wouldn’t need to steal my car or my stereo to pay for their habits. But that’s a minority view — most Americans prefer spending billions to keep prices high and billions more to incarcerate even the occasional user. We’ll risk being mugged for our spare cash or catching a stray bullet during a shootout between rival drug gangs for the chance to say, “We’re doing something about the drug problem.”

Nonetheless, there could be an armistice in the War on Drugs, if the taxpayers realized how little return they’re getting on their investment and how truly hopeless the battle has become.

I like to think of issues like this in personal terms: I’m a middle-aged, middle-class guy whose only drug connection these days is at the CVS, where I pick up my cholesterol medicine. With my blood pressure, I have as much interest in cocaine, for example, as I do in an all-you-can-eat sausage-and-bacon buffet. However, if, for some reason, I had to have a gram of coke by nightfall, I could get it with just a few phone calls.

Scanned from a blurry and faded
Polaroid from the 1970s, this
picture captures mom, in her youth,
on the one occasion she broke the law
and smoked an illegal substance.
Had she been caught, she would have
been sent to live in a cell
at the Danbury State prison.
(Don
t tell her this picture is
up on the Web.)

My mother is 74 years old and has even less interest in cocaine than I do. Still, if it were necessary, mom could acquire it easily too … because she knows me. Now, if a white-haired, Republican senior citizen, who wouldn’t know cocaine from shredded coconut, can have it anytime she wants, imagine how easily a high school senior can locate a few nuggets of marijuana at a Radiohead concert.

De Jure vs. De Facto Reality

The question we should be asking is, “With all the money spent on interdiction, is anyone actually being denied access to drugs?” If you believe the DEA is keeping teenagers from smoking dope, you probably also believe The Fox News Channel is “Fair and Balanced.”

Our current situation combines hugely expensive de jure prohibition with total de facto availability. Marijuana is now one of California’s largest cash crops; it’s imported by the truckload from Mexico, and Canada, with its far longer and less-controlled border, is now decriminalizing it. We’ll need to double the DEA’s budget … or eliminate it entirely.

And we can’t expect much help from our neighbors, because we haven’t exactly earned their cooperation. Why should Mexico spend its scarce pesos to fight drug trafficking, when it’s our insatiable demand that fuels their criminal enterprises and corrupts their police? For that matter, why should any foreign country care about our drug problems, when America is the world’s largest exporter of tobacco, by far the most-murderous drug on earth?

In May — as a thank-you to the cigarette companies that own at least half of our major political parties — the U.S. government rejected an international agreement proposed by the World Health Organization and signed by 171 nations. Designed to reduce the 4.9 million deaths caused annually by tobacco products worldwide, it included restrictions on marketing cigarettes to children, which opponents claimed would have limited corporate free speech. If you believe the real issue here is the First Amendment, you probably also believe “The O’Reilly Factor” is “The No-Spin Zone.”

Until human beings lose the urge for intoxication, which hasn’t happened since the Sumerians invented beer 6,000 years ago, industrious entrepreneurs will continue to supply them with the means. Sometimes you just have to face reality: There are certain things — prostitutes, tequila shots and marijuana come to mind — that people will always want. And no armies of politicians, preachers, police and prosecutors, no matter how well-funded, will alter that reality.

No government agency, including the Department of Defense, will ever have a budget big enough to enforce the DEA’s impossible mandate. But, sadly, that won’t prevent us from trying.


Click here to return to the Mark Drought home page.