By Paul Armentano
The New York Times columnist and two-time Pulitzer Prize winner Nicholas Kristof has an excellent column on the NYT’s opinion page calling to ‘end the war on pot.’
End the War on Pot
via The New York Times
Our nearly century-long experiment in banning marijuana has failed as abysmally as Prohibition did, and California may now be pioneering a saner approach. Sure, there are risks if California legalizes pot. But our present drug policy has three catastrophic consequences.
First, it squanders billions of dollars that might be better used for education.
Each year, some 750,000 Americans are arrested for possession of small amounts of marijuana. Is that really the optimal use of our police force?
In contrast, legalizing and taxing marijuana would bring in substantial sums that could be used to pay for schools, libraries or early childhood education. A Harvard economist, Jeffrey A. Miron, calculates that marijuana could generate $8.7 billion in tax revenue each year if legalized nationally, while legalization would also save the same sum annually in enforcement costs.
That’s a $17 billion swing in the nation’s finances — enough to send every 3- and 4-year-old in a poor family to a high-quality preschool. And that’s an investment that would improve education outcomes and reduce crime and drug use in the future — with enough left over to pay for an extensive nationwide campaign to discourage drug use.
The second big problem with the drug war is that it has exacerbated poverty and devastated the family structure of African-Americans. Partly that’s because drug laws are enforced inequitably. Black and Latino men are much more likely than whites to be stopped and searched and, when drugs are found, prosecuted.
Here in Los Angeles, blacks are arrested for marijuana possession at seven times the rate whites are, according to a study by the Drug Policy Alliance, which favors legalization. Yet surveys consistently find that young whites use marijuana at higher rates than young blacks.
The third problem with our drug policy is that it creates crime and empowers gangs. “The only groups that benefit from continuing to keep marijuana illegal are the violent gangs and cartels that control its distribution and reap immense profits from it through the black market,” a group of current and former police officers, judges and prosecutors wrote last month in an open letter to voters in California.
I have no illusions about drugs. One of my childhood friends in Yamhill, Ore., pretty much squandered his life by dabbling with marijuana in ninth grade and then moving on to stronger stuff. And yes, there’s some risk that legalization would make such dabbling more common. But that hasn’t been a significant problem in Portugal, which decriminalized drug use in 2001.
One advantage of our federal system is that when we have a failed policy, we can grope for improvements by experimenting at the state level. I hope California will lead the way on Tuesday by legalizing marijuana.
Win or lose, there can be little doubt that Prop. 19 has elevated marijuana legalization to a national, and rational, discussion at the highest and most respected levels of public discourse — as these recent pro-reform editorials from heavy-hitters like The Washington Post, Chicago Tribune, and Financial Times (just to name a few) illustrate.
For too long, proponents of the status quo — criminal prohibition — have argued that marijuana law reform should be a national issue, not a state issue. Well, if prohibitionists’ want a national debate, it’s clear that we now have one.