Making War on the Drug War6 min read

A half generation after California began the national swing to legalizing the medical use of marijuana, the Golden State is becoming the central front in the drive to legalize, regulate and tax recreational and all other adult uses of the drug.

Last week, Tom Ammiano, the San Francisco Democrat who chairs the Assembly Public Safety Committee, held hearings on his own bill, AB 390, that would treat the commercial sale of pot more or less like the state now treats alcohol or tobacco. At the same time, three initiatives which would accomplish more or less the same objective have been cleared for circulation.

The chances of any of them becoming law – and if so how that law would work — are uncertain at best. A Field Poll in April and a national Gallup Poll released two weeks ago indicate that that a majority of Californians – and growing percentage of all Americans tilt toward legalization. But the imponderables of the proposals are likely to make the predictably stiff opposition from the law enforcement lobby hard to overcome. And even if AB 390 passes, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger has more than one reason to veto it.

Nonetheless, the bills are already serving a useful purpose, intensifying the “open debate” that the governor said he’d welcome. It’s a debate that should make clearer than ever the idiocy of the nation’s – and California’s — current drug policies. That debate will almost certainly intensify in the months ahead.

At Ammiano’s hearing, Dan Macallair, executive director of the Center of Juvenile and Criminal Justice in San Francisco, pointed out that while arrests in California for other crimes – from rape and murder to all other drug crimes — declined significantly between 1990 and 2008, arrests for marijuana possession increased by 127 percent.

Some of those marijuana busts may, as the cops sometimes argue, be the most convenient way to send a parole violator back to prison, but it can’t account for the huge increase in California pot busts, now over 60,000 a year. Given all the other demands on the time and energy of police officers, those pot busts represent a huge waste of law enforcement resources.

Tellingly, Macallair also points out enormous differences in county arrest rates. Contra Costa County in 2008 had 42 arrests per100, 000 residents; Santa Barbara had 293. Humboldt County had one of the state’s highest arrest rates while adjacent Mendocino County, both places where pot growing is a major industry, had one of the lowest. Those differences can only be explained by law enforcement priorities, not by behavior.

But all the legalization proposals are nonetheless afflicted with imponderables. The Board of Equalization estimate quoted by legalization backers that a tax of $50 an ounce would generate $1.4 billion annually is a slippery guess at best. If the price plus the tax are too high, users will either go back to the illegal dealers or, more likely, grow their own. If it’s lowered, the tax won’t yield nearly what the reformers promise.

Nor can anyone be certain of how much additional consumption of marijuana would follow legalization, much less the medical and social effects.

Robert MacCoun, a professor of Public Policy at Berkeley and one of the nation’s leading experts on drug policy, estimates, on the basis of European drug law reforms, that legalization would increase use by between 25 and 50 percent. But because the new users would be people cautious enough not to have smoked while the drug was illegal, there would be no corresponding increase in driving under the influence and other dangerous behavior. But if testimony at Ammiano’s hearing last week was any indication, it wouldn’t keep opponents from exploiting those uncertainties.

What seems almost self-evident is that legalization would reduce law enforcement costs. Very likely, even a lower level of tax revenues would offset the additional costs in public health.

But in MacCoun’s estimate, the Ammiano bill – and probably any other form of legalization – would quickly bring the federal government down on California users. While U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder’s new policy not to prosecute either users or dispensaries of medical marijuana legally operating under state law has encouraged drug law reformers, it’s unlikely that similar exceptions would be made for state-sanctioned recreational use or commercial production and distribution.

MacCoun, a pragmatist-centrist in the drug policy debates, who was not invited to testify at Ammiano hearing, points out that the Dutch, who have drawn a lot of attention to their legalization and distribution of marijuana through “coffee houses”, are now under pressure from their European neighbors to change the law. Too many residents of Belgium, France and Germany, it appears, are bringing pot back to places whose residents are not as open minded. In response, the Dutch are beginning to reduce the number of coffee houses.

Richard Lee, a founder of Oakland’s “Oaksterdam University”, a cluster of medical marijuana dispensaries, “cafes”, and head shops in downtown Oakland, and a backer of one of the pot initiatives, told an MSNBC interviewer he wants “to professionalize the industry, and have it taken seriously just like beer and distilling hard liquor.”

And that’s one of the things that worry MacCoun, who has “misgivings about the commercialization of any vice.” Rather than any of the proposals now pending in California, he’d like to see a law that permits home cultivation of marijuana, not commercial production and sale. But that, of course, would undercut one of the arguments now being made for legalization – its potential in easing the state’s budget crisis.

But if the debate that Schwarzenegger says he welcomes moves the country closer to an understanding of the damage it’s doing to itself and to thousands of its citizens, the bills and ballot measures now pending, even if they never pass, will have achieved a great deal.

America is alone among modern nations in the heavy criminalization of drug use and its under-emphasis on treatment and other policies aimed at harm reduction. It has spent hundreds of billions on its “war on drugs”, both in this country and abroad, and has little to show for it other than nests of narco-terrorists abroad, prisons overstuffed with inmates many of whom could more profitably be treated than punished, and a huge and costly army of drug warriors both at home and abroad.

It’s not a moment too soon for the discussion to begin.

Peter Schrag, whose exclusive weekly column appears every Wednesday for the California Progress Report, is the former editorial page editor and columnist of the Sacramento Bee. He is the author of Paradise Lost: California’s Experience, America’s Future and California: America’s High Stakes Experiment. His new book, Not Fit for Our Society: Nativism, Eugenics, Immigration will be published early in 2010.