As I launch what I intend to be a continuing series of updates from the front lines of the battle to change our nation’s marijuana laws, I want to take a moment to thank Alternet for inviting me to participate on the SpeakEasy platform. I am excited to be part of the stable of contributors and have high hopes for the blog.
Just to give you a little background about myself, I am currently the director of state campaigns for the Marijuana Policy Project, the nation’s largest organization (more than three dozen full-time employees) dedicated to reforming marijuana laws. In this role, I coordinate the organization’s ballot initiative work. Previously, from 2002-2005, I lobbied Congress for MPP. I am also a co-founder of the organization Safer Alternative for Enjoyable Recreation (SAFER) and the co-author of Marijuana is Safer: So why are we driving people to drink? (Chelsea Green, 2009).
With that housekeeping out of the way, let’s get to meat of the first “On Marijuana” column. What I would like to do with these columns is give you a real look inside the marijuana policy reform movement. Instead of merely reporting on important developments, I will put them in context and help you see the big picture and the strategy behind the moves of reformers.
You may be thinking, “Hold on! You can’t let your opponents know your strategy!” Well, here is the good news. It doesn’t matter if our opponents know our strategy. They are not only full of crap, but they are also incapable of actually fighting back intelligently against us. We have far more to gain by sharing our strategy and getting millions of new people – like you – on message, than we have to lose by letting our opponents in on our “secrets.” This column itself serves as an example.
Today, we are going to talk about law enforcement. For too long, the media and elected officials have stood firmly behind members of law enforcement, from police officers to district attorneys, as they claimed that they were making our communities safer by arresting and prosecuting individuals for using marijuana. “It’s a gateway drug,” they assert. (Bull-pucky, according to every legitimate study of the matter.) It would send the wrong message to children, they whine. (After which they head home and ask their kids to bring them a beer.)
The truth is that law enforcement officials know the use of marijuana is not a major source of societal problems. Oh, sure, some people might use marijuana too much and this might be considered a social problem – similar to the overuse of video games. But it is not even in the same league as alcohol, which, by the federal government’s own figures, is linked to 25-30 percent of all violent crimes in the U.S. and is a factor in two-thirds of acts of violence between intimates. (The relative harms of marijuana and alcohol on the streets — and in homes — is the theme of former Seattle Police Chief Norm Stamper’s foreword in Marijuana is Safer.)
Law enforcement officials know this, yet far too many of them continuously and consistently argue that we need to punish adults who use marijuana instead of alcohol. Let me emphasize those last two points. They know that individuals are more likely to be violent if they drink alcohol instead of using marijuana, but they do everything in their power to make sure the only legal option for adults is alcohol. So they clearly don’t care about public safety. What on earth could their motivation be?
Plain and simple. They are motivated by self-interest. Their very jobs depend on a steady stream of arrests and prosecutions. And marijuana users are their cash cow, with arrests totaling a staggering 847,863 in 2008. As long as the marijuana arrests keep coming, so do their paychecks. Keep this in mind the next time you hear a law enforcement official explaining why we need to “protect our streets” from this “dangerous drug.”
Fortunately, the marijuana policy reform movement is starting to fight back. Two weeks ago, SAFER launched a campaign targeting members of the Colorado Drug Investigators Association, who had been lobbying the Colorado state legislature to effectively shut down medical marijuana dispensaries in the state. [I have provided a link to their Web site, but only to prove that it has been disabled due to SAFER’s efforts.] Labeling CDIA a shameless member of the “Arrest and Prosecution Industry,” SAFER sent out an alert slamming them for trying to make patients suffer in order to protect their own jobs. SAFER also called for a boycott of Starbucks, which was listed as a sponsor on the CDIA site. This led to the site, which also included promotional items showing how “cool” the war on drugs is, being pulled down.
One week later, MPP joined in the fun, releasing a television ad mocking District Attorney Richard Gammick in Washoe County, Nevada and accusing him of not caring about public safety. The ad mentioned the association between alcohol and violence, made the point that marijuana use is not associated with violence, and asked the district attorney why he thinks it is appropriate to punish adults who choose to use the safer substance.
This is only the beginning. From now on, members of law enforcement — check that, I mean the Arrest and Prosecution Industry — need to be ready during their television appearances to explain how it is making our communities safer to steer adults away from marijuana and toward alcohol. And you can do your part, too. If you find yourself in a conversation with a representative from the Arrest and Prosecution Industry, ask the same question. They can only lie for so long.
February 4, 2010
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On Marijuana: The Arrest and Prosecution Industry