Marijuana Initiative Challenges Costly, Bloody Drug War

medical marijuanaSupporting California Proposition 19, the Marijuana Legalization Initiative

I support the November ballot initiative because our country’s long drug war is a disaster and there is an alternative that is better for our health, safety and democratic process.

People are dying.

Nearly 30,000 people have been killed around our southern border since the Mexican government, with massive American support, escalated its wars against the cartels in 2006.

There were over 112,000 drug overdose deaths in the US between 1999 and 2005 alone.

And the drug consumption continues. It’s an unwinnable war.

California leads America and America leads the world in mass incarceration. Nearly 25 percent of the world’s inmates are locked up in American institutions, the largest percentage of them on drug-related offenses. In 1980, there were some 40,000 Americans in prison on drug charges, today there are an estimated 500,000 at any given time.

It’s an unaffordable war as well.

The first Nixon budget for the Drug War was $15 million in 1970. President Obama’s 2010 budget is $15 billion, two-thirds for enforcement. According to the AP, American taxpayers have shelled out one trillion in tax dollars over 40 years for the drug war.

Turning this unaffordable, unwinnable war around will not be easy. But it is possible, step by step, as successful medical marijuana campaigns and the rise in public support for drug treatment has shown.

The next step available to Californians is the marijuana initiative on the ballot this November. Some say it’s not the right time, but now is the time to put those reservations aside. This is an opportunity to debate the failed drug war with millions of undecided voters, and there is a chance to win.

The war is a permanent quagmire. I think we must shift from a military model to a medical one. My argument is as follows:

  • We can learn from the failure of Prohibition and the flaws in the legalization of alcohol which followed in the 1930s. One the one hand, Prohibition vastly increased violence in the streets as ethnic gangs fought over distribution with fists and tommy-guns, not unlike contemporary turf rivalries with even higher-powered weapons. With the end of Prohibition came a sharp reduction in gang violence. But legalization of alcohol also legitimized the habit. empowered and enriched a special interest lobby for liquor interests, deepened an addiction problem and causing more deaths and injuries due to alcoholism, traffic casualties, etc.
  • We now need to legalize and regulate the production and use of marijuana without promoting or glorifying the habit as we did with alcohol. We need to legalize and regulate simply in order to reduce street violence and wasteful incarceration, saving hundreds of lives and billions in tax dollars.
  • Legalization will reduce the incentive drawing so many people, especially our young people, into committing crimes simply to make a living. Ending or radically shrinking the “black market” will make transactions safer, and regulation will lessen the distribution of unsafe products.
  • Legalization will foster a marketplace where Californians can produce, distribute and market a California-based product, assuring many thousands of jobs.
  • Taxing the production and distribution of marijuana will generate hundreds of millions, perhaps billions, in tax revenue for state and local governments.
  • Most of that revenue should be earmarked for two purposes: drug treatment and anti-drug media campaigns aimed at prevention. We have a model in the tobacco tax initiative which passed here in the 1980s, generating billions for health care and effective tobacco-use reduction among young Californians.
  • If legally possible, campaign contributions from the new marijuana industry should be banned. So should print, radio and television commercials promoting marijuana use.

If these reforms were adopted, we in California would be on our way to lessening tragic street violent and incarceration, but also promoting a safe and sustainable new industry while minimizing its adverse side effects. Having tested such a model in California could encourage other states and eventually the federal government to adopt the same policy.

From there we could engage in the global debate over how to reverse the nightmare of the global war on drugs. A national initiative could empower a Commission to Rethink the Drug War. The urgent question to be explored is whether there are non-military approaches that are less costly in human lives, tax dollars and public health.

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We also need to consider carefully why the drug crisis is embedded in US military campaigns – from the Golden Triangle in the Vietnam War era, to cocaine and the Colombia counterinsurgency, and now to the current Afghanistan war, where 10,000 Europeans over-dosed on Afghan heroin during last year alone. Each of us must draw our own conclusions. It’s impossible to argue that our militarized approach has diminished global drug trafficking.

Those are weighty challenges, requiring much thought ahead. But in the meantime, the California marijuana initiative is a forum where rational voices need to be heard.

Tom Hayden

Tom Hayden is the author of 17 books, a former California state senator and a longtime peace activist.

Republished with the author’s permission.

Published by the LA Progressive on September 2, 2010
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About Tom Hayden

Tom Hayden is a former state senator and leader of Sixties peace, justice and environmental movements. He currently teaches at Pitzer College in Los Angeles. His books include The Port Huron Statement [new edition], Street Wars and The Zapatista Reader.