Ask a law enforcement official how having marijuana sold by criminals rather than by regulated businesses is making our communities safer.
September 2, 2011
For decades, the United States has been embroiled in a debate over whether marijuana should be legalized. The battle has been waged on the state level, where 16 states and the District of Columbia have authorized the use of medical marijuana by qualifying patients. And it has been fought on the national level, with the federal government investing more than a billion dollars over the past decade on a media campaign designed to demonize marijuana.
These political conflicts have one thing in common. They are centered on whether it should be legal for citizens to use marijuana. Supporters of reform argue that patients – or, in some cases, all adults – should not be sent to jail or punished in any other manner for using the substance. On the other side, individuals who believe we should maintain marijuana prohibition claim that marijuana is dangerous and allowing any individual to use it legally will send the wrong message to teens, resulting in increased use.
Over the course of this year, we have seen the beginnings of a long overdue shift in the debate over marijuana policy. With discussion about the pros and cons of using the plant fading to the background, citizens and members of the media are being forced to consider a new question and one that is really quite simple to answer: Who should sell marijuana?
This evolution in conversation, which has at its foundation an acceptance that it is essentially impossible to stop or even reduce significantly marijuana use, stems in large part from the rhetoric put forth by current and former world leaders. Vicente Fox, the former president of Mexico, directly addressed the issue of sales in a Time magazine interview in January. “We have to take all the production chain out of the hands of criminals,” he said, “and into the hands of producers so there are farmers that produce marijuana and manufacturers that process it and distributors that distribute it, and shops that sell it.”
Fox’s successor, Felipe Calderon, was less direct in a March Washington Post interview, but alluded to the possibility of a similar end result. After decrying the widespread use of marijuana in the U.S., Calderon said that if our leaders were not going to crack down on use, they needed to have the “courage to legalize.”
While Calderon did not endorse one option over the other, his point was that absent one of these two paths, illegal marijuana sales in the U.S. would continue generating huge profits for drug cartels in Mexico, leading to more deadly weapons on the streets and increasing levels of violence. In this context, the “courage to legalize” phrase was his way of conveying that it would be preferable to have marijuana cultivated and sold by regulated business in the U.S. rather than by criminal enterprises in Mexico and the U.S.
Three months later, 19 world leaders, including former presidents of Mexico, Columbia and Brazil, former Secretary General of the United Nations Kofi Annan, and former U.S. Secretary of State George Shultz, released a report under the banner of the “Global Commission on Drug Policy.” The members of the commission more directly addressed the potential benefits of shifting the sales of marijuana from the criminal market to a regulated market:
“It is unhelpful to ignore those who argue for a taxed and regulated market for currently illicit drugs. This is a policy option that should be explored with the same rigor as any other. If national governments or local administrations feel that … the creation of a regulated market may reduce the power of organized crime and improve the security of their citizens, then the international community should support and facilitate such policy experiments and learn from their application.”
Fast forward to August 25, when 52 people were killed at a casino in Mexico in an attack apparently carried out by members of a drug cartel. In the immediate wake of this tragedy, which is just the latest act of horror in a drug war that has claimed as many as 40,000 lives in that country, President Calderon seemed to abandon his previously asserted notion that there are two possible paths to slowing the marijuana trade – cracking down on users or “legalizing.”
Calling the desire for marijuana and other drugs in this country “insatiable” – which certainly undercuts the argument that prosecuting users can have any effect on demand – he declared: “If [the Americans] are determined and resigned to consume drugs, then they should seek market alternatives in order to cancel the criminals' stratospheric profits, or establish clear points of access [to drugs]. But this situation can't go on.”
“Market alternatives,” he said. This is the new debate in a nutshell. Criminal market vs. regulated market. Is this a hard choice?
We all know that marijuana is an extremely popular drug. (And for good reason, since it is objectively less harmful than alcohol.) Tens of millions of Americans use it regularly and millions of marijuana possession arrests and billions of dollars worth anti-marijuana propaganda has done nothing to change that fact. It is not possible to stop use, but it is possible to steer buyers toward retail outlets that sell regulated products and pay federal, state and local taxes like any other business. Doing so is a no-brainer.
And it is not just that regulated businesses pay their taxes. If we regulate the cultivation and sale of marijuana, we will also have quality control to ensure against contaminates, labeling so that consumers know the potency of what they are buying, and stores that check ID’s so that young people cannot purchase marijuana as easily as they do today.
So why is there not widespread support for this kind of market shift? The primary reason is that the law enforcement community is more concerned about their own bottom line than in seeing a safer, more controlled distribution system. Between being paid overtime for marijuana arrests, receiving federal funding based in part on the number of these arrests made, using civil forfeiture to seize money and assets, helping to coordinate eradication efforts that do nothing to affect the street price of marijuana, and many other financial incentives, they make a great living off of marijuana prohibition. Simply put, they do not want marijuana prohibition to end – and it has nothing to do with public health or safety.
If members of the law enforcement community were really concerned about public safety, they would spend their time discouraging alcohol use, not marijuana use. They know firsthand which of the two substances is a threat to domestic and public tranquility. Their rabid anti-marijuana appearances on television are so flagrantly self-serving it is an embarrassment to their profession.
Let’s drop the charade. It is time to encourage members of the media to ask law enforcement officials how having marijuana sold by cartels and gangs rather than regulated businesses is making our communities safer. And it is time for all of us to raise the issue in our own communities. Whether you are talking to family members at dinner or an elected official at a town hall, start asking the question:
Who should sell marijuana?
Steve Fox is the director of government relations at the Marijuana Policy Project, the director of public affairs at the National Cannabis Industry Association, and the author of Marijuana is Safer: So why are we driving people to drink?
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