Commentary

Reefer Madness in Washington, DC

This article appeared in Copley News Service.

The federal government has been fighting the drug war for decades. The result? Adolescent drug use is rising. In 1995, more than one-third of high school seniors said they had used pot the previous year, up from 22 percent in 1992.

What is Washington going to do ? Escalate the drug war.

For instance, Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Jesse Helms is threatening to block the nomination of Massachusetts Gov. William Weld as ambassador to Mexico because the latter favors allowing the medicinal use of marijuana. The Clinton administration is appalled but, then, it continues its attempt to thwart the will of Arizona and California voters who last November legalized the use of marijuana for medical purposes. Only a recent court injunction has prevented the Drug Enforcement Agency from implementing its plan to prosecute doctors who recommend pot and strip them of their right to prescribe pharmaceuticals, irrespective of how ill their patients may be.

More broadly, Eric Holder, the U.S. attorney for Washington, D.C., advocates tougher penalties for marijuana offenses.

“Marijuana violence is increasing. We need to nip it in the bud,” claims Holder.

Unfortunately, new enforcement initiatives will only worsen the drug problem. The crime surrounding marijuana that Holder complains of results not so much from the drug trade, but from drug prohibition. No one argues that pot is crimogenic. People don’t smoke marijuana and then commit crimes.

Rather, killings and robberies inevitably accompany illegal markets. Dealers fight over turf; sellers and customers rob one another. This was evident during Prohibition—the ban on alcohol could not have been better designed to benefit organized crime. Similarly, marijuana and opium have been legal in America for more years than they have been prohibited; only after government forbid their sale earlier this century did crime envelop them.

A different argument is made by the DEA’s Peter Gruden. The marijuana being sold today, he warns, is far more potent than that available a decade or two ago. In fact, the THC content of marijuana today is as much as six times that of pot consumed during the 1960s.


Marijuana and opium have been legal in America for more years than they have been prohibited; only after government forbid their sale earlier this century did crime envelop them.


However, this, too, is a result of drug prohibition. It has always been easier to find and confiscate marijuana, a bulkier substance, than drugs such as cocaine and heroin. Thus, dealers have had a continuing incentive to produce a more compact, easily concealable version of the drug. This incentive was intensified by the government’s enforcement program, which increasingly interdicted shipments from Mexico and uncovered outdoor plots in America. Production shifted indoors to hydroponic (water-based) cultivation, which yields more concentrated marijuana.

Finally, Gruden complains that kids increasingly deal pot, with lookouts as young as 11. This has nothing to do with marijuana as such, however: In the 1980s, Washington, D.C., for instance, found itself not only arresting a far higher number of juveniles for drug offenses, but arresting a far higher percentage for trafficking. This is also a result of drugs being illegal: drugs are marketed by criminals, who have no compunction, about involving kids, who, in turn, know that they will receive lesser penalties if they are caught.

Notably, children don’t wear beepers around school selling cigarettes and beer. The drug laws are as dangerous as drugs to kids.

Upping the penalties for marijuana of tenses and imposing minimum sentences for nonviolent offenders would only increase the incentive to rely on kids. And it wouldn’t end drug abuse. Nationally, there were nearly 600,000 arrests in 1995 for marijuana, over 80 percent of them—an incredible half million —for possession alone.

Pot arrests are up 50 percent over the Bush years, and someone is arrested for a marijuana offense every 54 seconds in America.

Turning drug use, at base a moral and spiritual problem, into a criminal crusade hasn’t worked. Despite 10.5 million arrests for pot offenses between 1965 and 1995, more than 60 million Americans have used marijuana. As the police have collared even more people during the l990s, drug use by children has risen. Arresting and jailing even more people won’t yield any better results.

It’s time to change course. Instead of reinforcing the failed policies of the past, the federal government should fold low states like Arizona and California—and especially Ohio, which has reduced penalties for small-time growers—in de-escalating the war on marijuana.

Doug Bandow is a senior fellow at the Cato Institute.