Wakeup Call: Are You Prepared for Post-Prohibition America?

Will California lead the nation in legalizing pot?   A few years ago, this question would have seemed absurd, even unthinkable.

As recently as 2007, federal agents in full body armor and automatic weapons raided Hollywood pot dispensaries.  This action took place within the context of chronic Orange Level Terror Alerts, so the population was already conditioned to endure a certain amount of heavy-handed government intrusion under the rubric of national security.  The incident passed without much comment.

What a difference a few years can make.  Today, with the election one month away, Proposition 19 now has more voter support than any candidate running for any statewide office. The ballot measure, which would legalize the sale of marijuana to adults, is performing better in polls than Senator Barbara Boxer or her opponent Carly Fiorina, and it has consistently garnered more voter support than either  Gubernatorial candidate Jerry Brown or his rival Meg Whitman.

Already, California has led the nation by decriminalizing possession. Governor Schwarzenegger has downgraded possession to the level of a traffic ticket.  And today pot is widely available via medical marijuana dispensaries throughout the state.  At one point last year, there were more medical marijuana shops in Los Angeles than Starbucks coffee shops.  (Eventually even the ineffective Los Angeles city council woke up to that fact and closed a few pot shops).  Fourteen other states have followed in California’s footsteps, enacting legislation to legalize medical marijuana despite opposition from the Federal government.

Now there are even professional pot critics for newspapers.  No kidding.  Watch this clip.  Ten years ago this clip would have appeared on Saturday Night Live as comedy, not on CNN as news.

Legalization is the next logical step.  And it looks like voters are prepared to take it.  Of course, that won’t be the end of the story:  if the ballot measure is passed, it will pit the State of California against the Federal government.  But, on the other hand, it will also set a trend that several other states are sure to follow.

I’m no advocate for pot.  I don’t care one way or the other about this particular item.  But I am in favor of common sense.  Prohibition has been a complete failure and a colossal waste of taxpayer money.

So Proposition 19 is really a referendum on common sense.  Are we ready to stop wasting money to preserve the illusion of control?    Are Americans ready to discard unproven myths about “gateway drugs” and reefer madness?It’s no longer controversial to assert that the war on drugs has accomplished nothing. Drugs are more easily accessible than any time in modern history, and at far greater potency than ever before. For teenagers, it is easier to purchase illegal drugs of any sort today than alcohol.  Prohibition has done nothing to limit access to drugs.

And as well all know, prohibition is a boon for organized crime.  The beneficiaries of the current prohibition have been: mafias, drug smugglers, private for-profit prison operators, unionized prison guards and small rural towns with a booming local prison business.The victims of prohibition have been American citizens. No, I don’t mean pot smokers. I refer to all of us. The war on drugs has led to an increase in government interference, a rollback of civil liberties, a massive increase in urban violence and government-sanctioned violence, and misguided laws like “three strikes” mandatory sentencing requirements that reduce the scope of judges to exercise independent judgment in their own courtrooms.

The recent growth in the US prison population has been fueled by the campaign on drugs.  Convictions for drug-related offenses have increased 550% during the past 20 years.  The US has the largest prison population in the world. One quarter of the prison population is behind bars for drug-related offenses, and most of those are small scale infractions. One-eighth of the prison population is behind bars for pot-related offenses (and it costs more than $1 billion each year to keep them there).  These burdens fall disproportionately on minority and lower-income citizens.   And prisoners convicted of non violent crimes get immersed in a culture of professional criminal practices.   Prison has become graduate school for violent professional criminals.  This outcome is a perversion of the reform principle.

The damage doesn’t stop at our borders.  After 40 years of the so-called “war on drugs” to choke supply at the source, Latin American countries today are more capable than ever of producing high potency drugs for export.   The US government has poured hundreds of millions of dollars into drug policing without making any lasting or discernable impact.   And the toll has been dreadful:  decades of violence in Columbia, endemic corruption throughout the region.  Recent modest gains in Columbia have been offset by the downward spiral in Mexico, where beheadings and execution-style murders provide vivid evidence of the power of drug traffickers who operate with impunity.  Don’t take my word for it — read this item from the former presidents of Brazil, Mexico and Columbia in the Wall Street Journal (not your typical weed-smoking leftists!)

Worse, massive spending on the “war on drugs” has diverted government money away from other projects, such as rehabilitation, treatment, job training, infrastructure, education.   Yet there is nothing to show for four decades of spending.   The money has gone up in smoke.

This is no longer an issue that divides right and left.  The ultra-rightwing Cato Institute recently issued a report that estimates that government would save $41 billion annually on drug-enforcement expenditure, and would gain an additional $8.7 billion if marijuana were taxed at levels comparable to the legal drug tobacco.

Besides, there is a gigantic discrepancy in our drug policy.  We forbid consumption of drugs, except those produced by major pharmaceutical companies, breweries, wineries, distilleries and tobacco farms.   If pot could be manufactured in a factory, you’d better believe that there would be a huge pro-cannabis lobbying effort.

Finally, the current prohibition has done nothing to stop the real criminals. Kingpins rarely get sentenced. Small fry take the fall.

The war on drugs is hyperbole in service of hypocrisy.  Fancy words and a ton of money to shore up an illusion.

If you find it impossible to believe that a nation can spend endless amounts to preserve an illusion, consider the following anecdote:

Twenty-five years ago, I lived in West Berlin.  The half-city was an island in the middle of Communist East Germany.   Every day, when I went for my afternoon jog from my apartment in the district known as Wedding, I would run along the Berlin Wall, past the watchtowers, tank traps and dog runs.   It was the best place to jog because there was no traffic.   Just the silent gaze of East German border guards watching me through binoculars from their perch on the opposite side of the wall.
It was surrealistic. On one side of the Wall, soldiers with sniper scopes in jackboots and great coats.  On the other side, no one but me, jogging in my track suit and my Nike trainers.

The Wall made no sense at all.  It was an absurdity.  A modern city in 20th century Europe divided right down the middle, cutting through major avenues, parks, churchyards, and even all the way underground into the subway system.   The insane byproduct of a demented policy.

But the East Germans were determined to preserve the status quo at all costs.  They were prepared to shoot to death any citizen who attempted to scale the Wall.   Arrests were made routinely.  Shooting occurred.  The entire state security apparatus was geared up to preserve the illusion that East Germans weren’t interested in escaping to the West.

Their conviction was impressive.  The illusion was contagious.  My American friends asked me when the Wall would come down.  At the time, I was convinced that the East Germans were willing to keep the Wall indefinitely.   I couldn’t imagine that the East Germans would ever dismantle their facade.

It’s impossible for me to convey to you today the sheer amount of effort, manpower and cash that was devoted to maintaining that fiction.   Impossible because it seems utterly absurd in retrospect.

But in 1985, it was a killing matter.  The East Germans were deadly serious.

And the sheer willpower required to maintain a national illusion siphoned so much resource from the nation that it ultimately sapped its power.  The dream drained the country of the resources necessary to construct the reality.   They sacrificed their national well being in service of a fiction.
Eventually the whole edifice collapsed.   So much energy and resource had been diverted to maintaining the fictional world that the actual real world system fell apart.  And one day, soldiers simply refused to continue killing and incarcerating their fellow citizens in the service of a lie.   That’s when the Wall fell.
We are approaching that point in the USA.   Our state governments have always responded faster than the federal government when the time has come to shed the piety and fiction of a political narrative that had passed its sell-by date.  We’re on the brink of waking up from a long dream.  I welcome a new government policy that separates fact from fiction.   The billions of dollars squandered in the vain effort to preserve an illusion can be put to much better use in our communities, in our schools and in treatment centers.   Controlled access via government license will improve health, regulate access to drugs and destroy the financial incentives for criminals.

Posted via email from Think Twice