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Proposition 19: Will the Drug Warriors Win Again?

Proposition 19, California's initiative that would legalize marijuana, is opposed by the majority of the citizens, according to the latest polls, as reported in the Los Angeles Times.  Proposition 19 "Allows people 21 years old or older to possess, cultivate, or transport marijuana for personal use. Permits local governments to regulate and tax commercial production and sale of marijuana to people 21 years old or older. Prohibits people from possessing marijuana on school grounds, using it in public, smoking it while minors are present, or providing it to anyone under 21 years old. Maintains current prohibitions against driving while impaired."

Not surprisingly, the current "drug czar," Gil Kerlikowske, has come out strongly against the initiative. To his credit, Kerlikowske has emphasized that the drug war has failed and stresses the importance of increased prevention and treatment. But in response to the argument that children would find it more difficult to obtain pot if it were legalized and regulated, Kerlikowske dismissed, stating that "Why do we think that we can suddenly do it with marijuana, which can be grown in a backyard?"

 

What Kerlikowske apparently fails to realize is that, according to several studies, currently it is easier for those under 18 to obtain pot than it is to get alcohol.  As reported in USA Today the majority of those under 18 say it is easier to get marijuana -- and also get prescription drugs, such as OxyContin, Percocet, Vicodin and Ritalin because it is so readily available in their parents' medicine cabinets. To say that if something is legalized for those over a certain age means that those under that age will therefore be more apt to try to use it makes no sense.  They have been using it and will continue to do so as long as it is against the law.

 

The annual SAMSHA survey (Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration  of the US Department of Health and Human Services) found that in 2009 marijuana was the most commonly used illegal drug with 16.7 million users aged 12 and over.  Between 2002 and 2009 the percentage who used marijuana during the past month went from 6.2% to 6.6%.  The report also noted that "The rate of past month illicit drug use increased from 2008 to 2009 among youths aged 12 to 17 (from 9.3 to 10.0 percent) and young adults aged 18 to 25 (from 19.6 to 21.2 percent)."

 

Further, despite the efforts of the drug warriors to curtail drug use, the SAMSHA survey found that last year "an estimated 3.1 million persons aged 12 or older used an illicit drug for the first time within the past 12 months; this averages to about 8,500 initiates per day."  This to me is an astounding number: 8500 new users each day of the year!  For about 60% of these individuals, the first drug was marijuana and the average age of first use was 17.

One of the major arguments of the drug warriors has been the so-called "gateway theory" which holds that use of marijuana leads to use of even more dangerous drugs, such as heroin and cocaine.  Research does not support this. As reported in the prestigious Journal of the American Medical Association: "While covariates differed between equations, early regular use of tobacco and alcohol emerged as the 2 factors most consistently associated with later illicit drug use and abuse/dependence. While early regular alcohol use did not emerge as a significant independent predictor of alcohol dependence, this finding should be treated with considerable caution, as our study did not provide an optimal strategy for assessing the effects of early alcohol use."   We have been down this road before with alcohol and the lesson learned then -- but one that apparently escapes us now -- is that when something is in great demand, someone else will provide it, no matter what the penalties.  It is called the law of "supply and demand."  As long as drugs as demanded, someone will supply them. 

There has long been a strong argument in favor of legalizing drugs and treating them just like we do with alcohol and tobacco. A report from the Cato Institute (a libertarian think tank) summarizes the monetary argument, as it estimated that "drug legalization would yield tax revenue of $46.7 billion annually, assuming legal drugs were taxed at rates comparable to those on alcohol and tobacco. Approximately $8.7 billion of this revenue would result from legalization of marijuana and $38.0 billion from legalization of other drugs."   

In recent years we have spent about $50 million each year and arrested more than a half million for drugs each year.  The drug war is largely responsible for the swelling of the prison population and in the process creating what one critic has called the "New Jim Crow" as millions of minorities are arrested, sentenced to prison and thereby losing most of their rights forever.  As the Sentencing Project recently stated: "African Americans comprise 14% of regular drug users, but are 37% of those arrested for drug offenses and 56% of persons in state prison for drug offenses."  They also noted that "Drug offenders in prisons and jails have increased 1100% since 1980. Nearly a half-million (493,800) persons are in state or federal prison or local jail for a drug offense, compared to an estimated 41,100 in 1980." 

Our elected officials have been told about the racist nature of the drug war over and over again and yet do little about it. Proposition 19 is not a cure-all for all of our drug problems.  However, it is definitely a step in the right direction.   

Keywords: criminalization, marijuana, Proposition 19, Randall Shelden

Posted in Blog, Drug Policy

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