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The Danger of Legalizing Marijuana without Comprehensive Reform

As strange as its sounds, American history repeatedly shows that legalization of certain drugs leads to expanded, not reduced, "wars on drugs":

  • In the late 1800s, the crisis of middle-Americans' addiction to new, legal patent medicines saturated with opiates, cocaine, and alcohol was buried under vicious official crusades vilifying the Chinese and opium and black men and cocaine.
  • After the repeal of Prohibition in 1933, the explosion in drunk driving and abuse of newly legalized alcohol by respectable Americans was buried under a wave of "anti-drug" hysteria demonizing Mexicans, ethnics, reefer, and "cocaine fiends."
  • In the 1960s, the epidemic of abuse of newly-legal barbiturates by middle-aged, mainstream Americans was obscured by President Nixon's declaration of a "war on drugs" targeting counterculture youth and urban minorities.

This grim history is crucial to understanding the potential impacts of Assembly Member Tom Ammiano's AB 390, proposing to legalize marijuana under similar regulations as are applied to alcohol. At first glance, AB 390 appears eminently sensible: in a state that collects high taxes by allowing a lethal, addictive hard drug (liquor) to be sold legally on every block, how can California justify forfeiting millions in vital tax revenues while arresting 70,000 people every year for milder drugs such as marijuana?

Unfortunately, AB 390 would extend the worst aspects of the current, antiquated system to another popular drug at a critical time when new thinking is desperately needed, as detailed in my first blog. The chief problem: California, like America, remains mired in what I will call "Stage 1" anti-drug policies dominated by politicians, ideologues, and interest groups.

A Stage 1 society typically legalizes certain drugs (i.e., alcohol) and criminalizes others (i.e., marijuana) based not on scientific criteria but the social status of the population depicted as favoring the drug. Stage 1 drug strategists then tie outlawed drugs, addiction, and crime to feared populations such as racial minorities, immigrants, and youth, pushing harshly moralistic "us versus them" rhetoric and demands for ever-tougher criminal punishments to protect polite society and "save our children" from "drugs" even as all sides ignore real drug dangers.

Stage 1 interests and reformers on all sides differ on which favored drugs should be legalized for privileged users, but all demonize disfavored populations and urge criminalization of their disfavored drug use. All concentrate on pointless moral measures such as surveys of drug use while dismissing genuine measures of drug abuse such as overdose deaths and hospitalizations. Because Stage 1 policies maximize the dangers of illicit drug use while excusing drug abuse by favored populations, they promote . California's legal-alcohol and illicit-drug abuse death and crime tolls both constitute horrific epidemics.

Equally troubling, when a Stage 1 society legalizes a favored drug, its "war on drugs" intensifies against disadvantaged populations. This dismal result is shown both by California and American history and the current example of San Francisco. The city has largely decriminalized marijuana possession, with an arrest rate just one-fourth the state average. However, San Francisco's drug war actually is more intense than found in other cities. The city's arrest rate for other drugs is double the state average, and (12% of the city's population). This rate is a shocking five times higher than the drug arrest rate for blacks elsewhere in California, the latter of which are already grossly disproportional. San Francisco's black women are arrested for drugs at rates a staggering 12 times higher than black women elsewhere in California.

San Francisco's liberal stance on marijuana possession is accompanied both by harshly excessive crackdowns on black populations and continuing indifference to gigantic racial disparities in drug arrests and by ignoring the true dimensions of the city's massive drug abuse crisis. The city's illegal-drug overdose death rate is triple the average for other cities, and drug deaths are heavily concentrated among whites and middle-agers, not youths and minorities--a reality that authorities seem unable to admit.

San Francisco's double disaster of massive, unadmitted drug abuse by mainstream populations and over-arrest of minority populations (similar to past patterns that occurred when alcohol Prohibition was repealed or pharmaceutical drugs were permitted) is typical of what happens when a Stage 1 society decriminalizes the use of certain favored drugs. Without genuine reforms that would move California toward Stage 2 and 3 strategies toward drugs, as has occurred in The Netherlands and a few other locales, legalizing marijuana the same as for alcohol is very likely to bring both more drug abuse, suppression of discussion of real drug problems to serve commercial and political interests, and intensified drug-war crackdowns on disadvantaged populations such as minorities and youth. Stage 2 and 3 drug strategies will be discussed in future blogs.

Note: These points are the views of senior researcher Mike Males. CJCJ is reviewing its position on AB 390.

Keywords: marijuana, Mike Males, racial disparities, state policy

Posted in Blog, Drug Policy

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