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.

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.


  1. Leonard Krivitsky, MD says

    Passage of the CA Proposition 19 will deal a serious blow to the Mexican drug cartels and to the “drug war” in general. It will also restore sanity to the California State budget by collecting sizable Cannabis revenues and eliminating the wasteful spending on the so-called anti-Cannabis “enforcement”. It is established by the science of addiction medicine that the so-called “gateway drug” theory, advanced by the opponents of the measure is a complete fantasy, as is the assertion that Cannabis is “physically addictive”. Cannabis is NOT physically addictive, as there is no clearly definable and reproducible PHYSICAL withdrawal syndrome, associated with its use, as opposed to truly physically addictive substances such as opiates or alcohol. In fact, the latest addiction medicine research reveals that Cannabis may serve as an “exit” substance with the potential of helping former alcoholics or hard drug users to abstain from alcohol, hard drugs, or even dangerous and physically addictive prescription drugs! It is also being established that Cannabis use may help prevent such serious illnesses as cancer and Alzheimer’s disease! Cannabis use also suppresses violent urges and behaviors. Let’s not be intimidated by the scare-tactics of the “opponents”, but be motivated instead by science, reason and understanding of these issues, and this means voting YES on California Proposition 19 on November 2!

  2. Charlene says

    Hello Tom! Thank you for writing this! Prop 19 needs all the support it can get! Thank you and I hope to work with you in some capacity on this issue!! I am already heavily involved in Los Angeles. You should come visit our Prop19 office in Atwater Village!

  3. Jillian Galloway says

    $113 billion is spent on marijuana every year in the U.S., and because of the federal prohibition *every* dollar of it goes straight into the hands of criminals. Far from preventing people from using marijuana, the prohibition instead creates zero legal supply amid massive and unrelenting demand.

    According to the ONDCP, at least sixty percent of Mexican drug cartel money comes from selling marijuana in the U.S., they protect this revenue by brutally torturing, murdering and dismembering countless innocent people.

    If we can STOP people using marijuana then we need to do so NOW, but if we can’t then we need to legalize the production and sale of marijuana to adults with after-tax prices set too low for the cartels to match. One way or the other, we have to force the cartels out of the marijuana market and eliminate their highly lucrative marijuana incomes – no business can withstand the loss of sixty percent of its revenue!

    To date, the cartels have amassed more than 100,000 “foot soldiers” and operate in 230 U.S. cities, and Arizona police are now conceding that parts of their state are under cartel control. The longer the cartels are allowed to exploit the prohibition the more powerful they’re going to get and the more our own personal security will be put in jeopardy.

  4. says

    I cried the day you left the California senate and years later, I still feel your absence every single day. There never was and never has been anyone who fought for human rights and prisoners in elected office the way that you did. I do my very best to teach people about voter registration and getting behind progressives, posting beneath news articles and raising funds.

    We need to bring back civics in the schools because too many people don’t understand their role in bringing about change. They think that merely talking to their friends on Facebook or Myspace is activism. We need to prevent the punishers from getting elected in the first place and put up funds behind our own candidates. All we have to choose from are those who have taken money from law enforcement labor unions for the most part.

    You will always be heroic to me. We now have 15 DINO’s that we allowed to get elected, the handful of progressives can’t get anything substantial passed because we voters allowed too many Republicans to get elected to office. And they all approved a no-bid contract deal with CCA for $700 million of our health and human services dollars. There is no regard for the families, they allow themselves to be treated like livestock. Last week they shot seven inmates with real guns. I remember how hard you and I worked to stop that from happening.

    Can you do some op-eds to teach the MJ people that their refusal to do voter registration and put their own people into office is the reason for their oppression. I have a number of journalists and leaders of the MJ movement on Facebook. I know how horribly busy you are, but even one training session would help. Maybe you can visit me there and we can explain government 101 so that the apathetic can take the right actions and we can get this thing passed.

    I miss you and your very capable staff being in the Senate and hope that you and your family are well. I do my best to carry on the struggle with limited funds and the Union member have won a few wrongful death lawsuits with more in the courts.


    B. Cayenne Bird (that is my facebook ID too, would love to have you visit us)

  5. Don Duitz says

    I don’t use. But in fact I’ve worked as a counselor in a rehab for late adolescents. I agree that we should use our resources for helping people who want or must have help. Must have because they infringe on others rights or their lives are untenable.
    It’s curious that those that want the government to control our bedrooms and mind altering drugs claim to want laws that put people in jail for exercising these choices, as poor as they may be. It’s time that we empty our prisons.


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