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March 9, 2009

More calls for an end to the drug war and legalization of marijuana

The number of voices calling for and end to the drug war and/or the legalization of marijuana continues to grow.  For example, this cover story in The Economist this week is titled "Failed states and failed policies; How to stop the drug wars: Prohibition has failed; legalisation is the least bad solution."  Here is a snippet:

Next week ministers from around the world gather in Vienna to set international drug policy for the next decade. Like first-world-war generals, many will claim that all that is needed is more of the same.  In fact the war on drugs has been a disaster, creating failed states in the developing world even as addiction has flourished in the rich world.  By any sensible measure, this 100-year struggle has been illiberal, murderous and pointless.  That is why The Economist continues to believe that the least bad policy is to legalise drugs.

“Least bad” does not mean good. Legalisation, though clearly better for producer countries, would bring (different) risks to consumer countries. As we outline below, many vulnerable drug-takers would suffer. But in our view, more would gain.

Similarly, consider this local op-ed out of California, titled "California can lead the Nation out of this Depression by legalizing Marijuana."  Here are excerpts:

Californians, and the other states that allow medical marijuana, have received some good news. Assemblyman Tom Ammiano's landmark bill (AB 390) to tax and regulate marijuana just like alcohol and tobacco is being considered by state lawmakers....

According to NORML, Californians consume $1-$2 billion worth of medical marijuana per year, enough to generate some $100 million in sales tax.  According to a state analysis the tax would net $1.3 billion a year if this legislation passes.

There's no way to tell how many California residents smoke pot, but according to the Zogby Poll “Fifty-eight percent of respondents residing on the West Coast agree that cannabis should be taxed and legally regulated like alcohol and cigarettes.”

One might very well hope and want to believe that the traditional poltical left and political right ought to be able to come together on ending excessive government control/spending on (failed) efforts to thwart the inevitable (and now black) market for marijuana.  At the very least, one might hope and want to believe that the labratory of the states might give state-wide legalization (for persons over 21) a real try and see what happens.  I am not holding my breath, but tough economic times certainly make this a better possibility now than probably any other time is my lifetime.

Some recent related posts:

March 9, 2009 at 12:27 PM | Permalink


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Alcohol and tobacco -- with commercial sellers spending vast sums to encourage consumption of their various brands -- are hardly models to follow.

A better approach would be for the state itself to be the sole retailer and spend the profits -- at least a large chunk of them -- on advertising discouraging consumption.

(This comment is only my personal opinion. My organization has taken no position on the issue.)

Posted by: Kent Scheidegger | Mar 9, 2009 12:47:37 PM

While I understand all the real problems that the criminalization of this drug has caused, I think that it's way too easy to underestimate the problems that legalization will cause. As Ken points out, the history of alcohol or tobacco is not encouraging. I personally have seen the devastating effect that marijuana can have on susceptible people.

In truth, I am on the fence. I don't think that the current war on drugs has been either successful or productive from a public policy point of view. But I don't think that legalization is going to be any better, it's just going to shift the problems around.

Posted by: Daniel | Mar 9, 2009 1:20:35 PM

Ending prohibition did not pull us out of the Depression. Legalizing marijuana will do nothing to help plug a $40B (and climbing) deficit in California. Our prisons are not bursting at the seams with "non violent drug offenders" (i.e., marijuana users).

This debate should proceed on the science alone, rather than the pedestrian, human rights approach taken by NORML.

Posted by: Large County Prosecutor | Mar 9, 2009 1:50:04 PM

I think the last person we should be listening to here is "Large County Prosecutor". This individual thrives on getting individuals placed behind bars, and as such, doesn't have an opinion that's worth considering from an epistemic point of view. Listening to LCP opine on this issue would be like listening to Big Tobacco opine on whether or not tobacco should be legalized. Please. Thanks for the honesty, but you cut yourself out of meaningfully contributing to this debate when you applied for your job. Finally, the term "non-violent drug offender" does not apply to ONLY marijuana users. It applies to ANY drug offender who didn't commit a violent crime.

Posted by: Grad Student | Mar 9, 2009 2:15:46 PM

I share Daniel's concern that it my be "way too easy to underestimate the problems that legalization will cause." But how will we know unless we give this a try?

Moreover, I always prefer self-imposed harms to government-imposed harms. Many of the harms of the drug war are now government imposed (at least indirectly); with legalization, most of the harms will become self-imposed. Thus, in my view, even if total harms remain about equal, I think the harms from legalization are better than the harms of prohibition.

Posted by: Doug B. | Mar 9, 2009 2:28:00 PM

No, Grad Student, the last person we should be listening to when debating a democratically enacted policy, law, or change in the law is someone who thinks he or she should be able to bound the debate to only those individuals he or she thinks may provide "meaningful contributions." Please. Thanks for the honesty though.

And in the interests of full disclosure, I am positive that Large County Prosecutor's opinion on this matter is quite different than my own.

Posted by: Ben | Mar 9, 2009 3:15:38 PM

See how much our Cities, States, Country and households could save on taxes if Marijuana were decriminalized, then sign the petition:

MarijuanaLobby.org: Change we can engage in...

Posted by: Tparker | Mar 9, 2009 3:28:51 PM


Do you think it would be foolish of you to take seriously Marlboro's report on what should be done about tobacco legislation?

Posted by: Grad Student | Mar 9, 2009 4:04:29 PM

So, Grad Student, applying the same logic, do you think all studies produced by organizations with an agenda (Sentencing Project, Urban Institute, Death Penalty Information Center, Constitution Project, et al.) should be tossed directly into the trash unread?

All points of view should be considered, but we should maintain some skepticism and consider the source. Your statement that LCP's viewpoint should simply be ignored says more about you than it does about him.

Posted by: Kent Scheidegger | Mar 9, 2009 4:29:23 PM

Grad Student: that is a silly question but the answer is "no".

Although their position would certainly go towards the weight I would give such a hypothetical report in evaluating it, it should be rebutted based on superior facts and/or arguments - the same goes for Large County Prosecutor's position - and not based on some invidious attempt to bound the debate to those positions that any one individual finds palatable.

Interestingly, I noticed you did not make such a blanket marginalizing decision regarding Tparker's position...

Posted by: Ben | Mar 9, 2009 4:35:21 PM

The Drug War has failed. There are many constituents of this failed drug policy and they will all attempt to maintain the status quo. We are wasting time money and human resources. It is time to legalize, regulate and tax.

Of course there are problems with legalization, but the current War on Drugs has done immeasurable harm to our relationship with other countries, law enforcement, communities, and families. It is over.

Posted by: beth | Mar 9, 2009 4:47:35 PM

Dear Grad Student,

Which one of these "non-violent drug offenders" do you think we should keep out of prison:

1. Any drug dealer or mule;

2. Any drug user who serially burglarizes residences to support his/her habit [NB: most meth addicts need to steal $1K per day to support their habit];

3. Any drug user who steals a car to satisfy a drug debt;

4. Any drug user who commits multiple acts of identity theft, check forgery, and commercial burglary to pay off a drug debt;

5. Any drug user who helps cook a batch of meth to support his habit and/or satisfy a drug debt;

6. Any drug user who exposes himself to schoolyard kids in the midst of an amphetamine high;

7. Any drug user who forges a prescription for dozens of medical-grade opiates, which he will then sell?

Since the original post conerns California, keep in mind that the CA Penal Code mandates treatment for the actual "non-violent drug offenders" (i.e., those convicted of possession crimes), and the recidivism rate in these programs hovers around 66%.

Now, if you think we should not lock up any or all of hypothetical offenders 1-7, then which one of them would you like living next door to you? If the answer to that question is "none of them," then why do you support a policy that would put these offenders in communities with people who do not share your "enlightened" point of view?

Posted by: Large County Prosecutor | Mar 9, 2009 4:59:26 PM


There are about 15 million to 30 million persons in the US that use marijuana so the chances are that most of us already live near someone that uses marijuana. If we live in a crime hotspot we almost certainly will be living near people that exhibit the type of behavior you listed.

So why will legalization make things worse?

Posted by: John Neff | Mar 9, 2009 5:25:24 PM

Burglary, theft and forgery are crimes we all can agree on, Your examples are only drug crimes because drugs are illegal.

1. Someone selling or transporting alcohol

2. An alcoholic burglarizing a home to support his/her habit.

3. An alcoholic stealing a car for money

4. An alcoholic committing acts of identity theft, check forgery and commercial burglary to buy

5. An alcoholic brewing moon shine

6. An alcoholic exposing himself to schoolyard kids while drunk

7. Of course alcoholics do not need to forge prescriptions.

Alcohol is an affordable drug because it is legal, regulated and taxed. Many offenses considered "drug crimes" are only crimes because the substance is illegal.

We could increase our prison population and the scope of our criminal justice system simply by criminalizing alcohol, then, all crimes committed by someone who is drunk, or wants to acquire alcohol would be considered drug crimes.

Posted by: beth | Mar 9, 2009 5:33:54 PM

The drug war is over and we lost. Sure we may still win some battles but the war is lost and has been for some time now. I have not read any posts from someone on this blog or any other blog who thinks we can win this so called war. I am not in favor of legalizing all drugs but do favor legalizing marijuana. It is now the time to re-think our out dated marijuana laws.

Posted by: Tarheel | Mar 9, 2009 5:55:07 PM

To John Neff:

I am not saying legalization of marijuana will make things better or worse. I am just pointing out the blatant intellectual dishonesty of those who put forward legalization as the pathway to fiscal solvency. Projected tax revenues of marijuana will not close any budget gaps (have you heard of any reports coming out of either Holland or Canada that proclaim budget neutrality or surplusage becuase of their marijuana policies?), or fund vital public health programs (it hasn't happened for cigarettes, so it most likely will not happen for marijuana).

These are the same folk who believe that our prisons are bursting at the seams with so-called "non violent drug offenders." As for Beth's statement that my hypothetical offenders are "drug criminals" solely because "drugs are illegal," well, I'll just go by the numbers:

1. Selling or transporting alcohol without a license can be illegal (and no, I do not include buying a 6-pack at 7-Eleven, putting it in your car, and then driving to meet friends at the lake) if you do not have the proper business licenses;

2-6. are all criminal acts

7. You are correct, alcoholics do not need a prescription for alcohol.

The public policy debate over marijuana legalization should be an open process and should absolutely proceed without hesitation. This debate, however, should focus on the scientific validity of marijuana's continued classification as a narcotic with no redeeming medical use. It seems a bit odd to vilify this plant, while amphetamine, opiates, and barbituates remain available through prescription. Marijuana legalization is not a human rights issue. It is a public safety and a public health issue.

Posted by: Large County Prosecutor | Mar 9, 2009 7:38:27 PM

Large County Prosecutor, I would respectfully submit that it is also a freedom issue, as is access to alcohol and cigarettes. I would, of course, not go so far as to posit that it is a human rights issue, as that would diminish human rights.

Posted by: Ben | Mar 9, 2009 7:49:52 PM

Ben, our governments curtail our freedoms through legislation. Ideally, legislation should be the expression of sound public policy. My point, therefore, is to fully, fairly, and publicly examine whether legalizing marijuana is sound public policy. We can do this without resorting to blatant lies (e.g., nonexistent tax benefits and alleged prison overcrowding due to NVDOs ("non-violent drug offenders"), yet using sound science.

Posted by: Large County Prosecutor | Mar 9, 2009 7:57:37 PM


When someone tells me the prisons are full of nonviolent drug offenders I ask them for the data that supports that statement. They can't provide the data because it does not exist. OTOH if they say the jails are full of nonviolent drug offenders there is data that supports that statement. Many people do not understand the difference between a jail and a prison and the reporters use the terms as synonyms (that unfortunately is technically correct). We need to use the same terms if we are to reach agreement on a rational drug policy.

As far as the cost argument is concerned incarceration costs range from about $45 to $75 per inmate-day depending on where you live and how rigorous the jail/prison standards are. It used to be that it cost $1 million per year to incarcerate 40 people and there are a lot of folks that think saving a million dollars a year is a big deal. In other words I think "intellectual dishonesty" is over the top.

Posted by: John Neff | Mar 9, 2009 8:15:33 PM

LCP, I'm aware that our freedoms are curtailed through legislation. However, any curtailment of a freedom should not merely be the result of sound public policy but a policy whose existence is justified by an exhaustive cost/benefit analysis.

I'm on record in this blog stating that I am against the regulation of and taxation of marijuana for the purpose of funding stupid public policy programs. While I am more than willing to withhold final judgment until the ramifications are more fully known, my inclination is that a pure decriminalization of the possession of marijuana is the best way to go. As a conservative, this sates my discomfort with overly aggressive taxation, particularly with pernicious sin taxes. And this also sates my libertarian streak in terms of allowing people to do with themselves that which they choose. Of course, there are lines to be drawn to stop the decisions of individual from impacting others. Where those specific lines are to be drawn will, I believe, not become clear until we begin traveling down such a path.

And while I would not claim that our prisons are over crowded with what you refer to as NVDOs, I have seen a few of my own clients go to jail for base possession of single digit grams or less of marijuana. This is just silly and is a practice not worthy of my tax dollars being spent it.

Posted by: Ben | Mar 9, 2009 10:00:46 PM

>>I am just pointing out the blatant intellectual dishonesty of those who put forward legalization as the pathway to fiscal solvency.

LCP hasn't even considered the amount of money that would be saved were we not to incarcerate non-violent offenders. Locking people up in jail (which is what LCP does for a living) is an incredibly expensive business. No doubt LCP is quite happy with that business, since it lets him feed his family. If our government didn't lock as many people up as it does, LCP might find himself/herself jobless. Poor thing.

Posted by: Grad Student | Mar 10, 2009 4:20:12 AM

Grad Student, I don't think its proper to say that if one law was changed, it would make a big difference in LCP's workload or threaten his job. Maybe if the entire drug war was ended and all drugs were legalized it would make a difference, but anyone who has worked on either side in criminal law knows that if all the marijuana cases were removed from the docket, it wouldn't make a huge dent.

Comparing LCP's views on marijuana to Philip Morris's views on tobacco is silly - Philip Morris USA gets 100% of their revenues from tobacco (although, note that their parent company, Altria gets more revenue from food than tobacco). I don't know LCP's case load, but I'd be very surprised if more than 1-2% of his cases are marijuana cases.

Posted by: Zack | Mar 10, 2009 11:56:24 AM

In the interest of full disclosure, let me start by saying that I am a prosecutor. That being said, I have to ask you, Grad Student, do you really believe what you are spewing forth? Do you even understand the criminal justice system in this country? I have to wonder considering your belief that a prosecutor's job is to lock people up in jail. That statement is as much a mischaracterization as saying that a criminal defense attorney's job is to make sure guilty, dangerous criminals are set free to roam the streets and commit further crimes.
A prosecutor's job is to take the facts from a given case, apply his jurisdiction's criminal law, and seek a just result. Obviously, in most cases that means he/she will seek a conviction for the crimes, and if the law and the facts call for it, a jail or prison sentence. The defense attorney's job is to protect his client's rights and defend against the charges to his best ability. Sometimes that means going to trial and sometimes it means working out the best plea deal he can for his client.
While the explanation I've given you is simplistic, I hope it helps you to actually understand what a prosecutor does.
Oh, I almost forget. Even assuming that there was a policy decision to not imprison as many non-violent offenders, prosecutors would still be needed to handle the cases that resulted in probationary or other alternative sentences. So how exactly would prosecutors be out of a job? If you mean that there would be fewer crimes committed, then just let me say that I've never met a prosecutor who would think it a bad thing that crime had decreased to the point where fewer prosecutors were needed.

Posted by: Keith B. | Mar 10, 2009 12:00:49 PM

Several posters have made comments here that make a point that is disingenuous. It's true that we cannot know the precise and detailed costs or affects of legalizing marijuana. But I think it's bogus to say that we don't have *any* idea of what those costs will be until we go down that road. We only have to look at the long run affects of the legalization of alcohol do give us *some* idea of what we are looking at. We can learn from history.

One of the things that bothers me about the whole legalization mantra is that it seems to be driven more by philosophical debates than practical ones. When I see a full fledged and realistic assessment of the additional burden legalization will put on the public safety and health care infrastructure of this country I would be happier. I reject the notion that such a assessment can only be done post-hoc.

Posted by: Daniel | Mar 10, 2009 1:06:54 PM

Keith B.,

I should start by saying that I think the honorable prosecutor is a necessary bulwark of the system, and I have no reason to think you are not one.

But, in defense of Grad Student, and unfortunately for you (because you have to deal with the collateral consequences in terms of lack of trust/respect for the system), there are far too many prosecutors out there who give every appearance of seeming to think their job is simply "to lock people up in jail." The most extreme/high-profile examples may be those who fight tooth and nail even against established DNA exonerations (for example, the new senator from Illinois, who did so even after his own subordinate resigned in protest). But there are also plenty of accounts of prosecutors who pressure forensics experts, hire bozos like the bite-mark duo from Mississippi, withhold evidence, present clearly testilying police evidence about searches and seizures, violate Batson, make improper, emotional appeals in closing arguments, etc. Mike Nifong is an obvious touch point, but that is merely a high profile example.

If you and/or your office do none of these things, consistently strike hard but fair blows, feel that you win your case whenever justice is done in the courts, etc., then I commend you, and I am truly glad to know it. But I think it is a bit high-handed to treat Grad Student like he is deluded for failing to adhere to what is essentially the formal/Platonic/structural conception of the prosecutor's role. That theoretical role may correspond to reality from where you sit, but there is enough real-world evidence to the contrary that, from various other seats, other viewers might credibly question whether it is you who fails to "understand the criminal justice system in this country."

Posted by: Anon | Mar 10, 2009 3:18:08 PM

In my community the persons that are taken to the ER for an alcohol/drug overdose are either habitual offenders primarily 25 and older and naive youngsters with no prior experience with the use of alcohol/drugs. Alcohol is legal so I would not expect much difference in the number of alcohol overdose calls for the habitual offenders and youngsters. If drugs were legal I would not expect much change in the behavior of the habitual drug offenders and my best guess is there would be a temporary increase in the number of drug overdose calls involving youngsters.

In my community drug/alcohol overdose trips to the ER account for about a third of the alcohol/drug related public safety costs (about $4 per county resident per year).

Posted by: John Neff | Mar 10, 2009 3:37:33 PM

>>So, Grad Student, applying the same logic, do you think all studies produced by organizations with an agenda (Sentencing Project, Urban Institute, Death Penalty Information Center, Constitution Project, et al.) should be tossed directly into the trash unread? -Ben

There is a big difference between being an "organization with an agenda" and making money directly off the agenda you claim needs to be promoted. LCP is doing the latter. As such, his/her opinion is barely credible.

>>Which one of these "non-violent drug offenders" do you think we should keep out of prison: -LCP

I think (1), (5) and (7) clearly do not warrant prison. I'm not sure what point you think you're trying to make by asking me whether I think people who expose themselves to children should go to prison. I can't see any relevant point in the vicinity.

>>Now, if you think we should not lock up any or all of hypothetical offenders 1-7, then which one of them would you like living next door to you? If the answer to that question is "none of them," then why do you support a policy that would put these offenders in communities with people who do not share your "enlightened" point of view? -LCP

This is myopic. Since when where the two options I had to pick between either (i) not wanting to live next to one of these people, or (ii) locking them up? I submit that only a quack would think (ii) follows from (i), but I take it that you're trying to get me to believe it does? You have to be blind to justice to think that merely NOT WANTING to live next to someone entitles you to seek their IMPRISONMENT. I have concerns about your moral sensibilities, LCP.

>>Maybe if the entire drug war was ended and all drugs were legalized it would make a difference -Zack

This is what I had in mind, and yes, I suspect it would make a big difference. But marijuana alone would not. Perhaps I moved off the topic of the post, but I did so because LCP mentioned "non-violent offenders" and implied that the class of non-violent offenders was identical with the class of persons convicted under anti-marijuana laws.

>>I have to wonder considering your belief that a prosecutor's job is to lock people up in jail. That statement is as much a mischaracterization as saying that a criminal defense attorney's job is to make sure guilty, dangerous criminals are set free to roam the streets and commit further crimes. -Keith

Well, I'm not sure that this is a mischaracterization at all. As Anon noted, one reads stories in the news at least weekly about blood-thirsty prosecutors desperate to keep clearly innocent people in jail. And prosecutors are elected, which means their motivations are obviously tainted by the opportunity for re-election. It would be the remarkable prosecutor indeed who managed to stay motivated only by justice. I'd like to see one. But that's not my main point. We have an adversarial system that cannot, by any reasonable person, be claimed to be designed to get at the truth. The truth matters barely a wit when it comes to copping pleas or trying cases or admitting evidence, etc... There are many reasons for this, not the least of which is safeguarding privacy rights, but the fact is that, from an epistemic point of view, it would be lunacy for anyone to argue that the system is designed to convict only those that are guilty and release only those who are innocent. So the roles of the prosecutor and the defense attorney, in this system which is barely guided by the truth, fall much closer to "trying to convict (free) whether innocent (guilty) or not".

>>A prosecutor's job is to take the facts from a given case, apply his jurisdiction's criminal law, and seek a just result. -Keith B

This glorifies the job of a prosecutor. Since the end result is often far from "just", I'd prefer you find another word to use. Prosecutors in districts with unjust criminal laws are constantly seeking unjust, not just, results. In so far as it's morally unjust to convict someone for possession of marijuana, a prosecutor who brings that case (and ought to know or is in a position to know that it's unjust) is a moral pervert, whether he's egged on by his constituents or not.

Posted by: Grad Student | Mar 10, 2009 4:57:33 PM

Testing for postsucking internet voids or moderation. It seems a series of replies to commentors above got lost in the void. I'll rewrite soon if the void got it.

Posted by: Grad Student | Mar 10, 2009 7:06:35 PM

Some prosecutors I met as a reporter and editor struck me as hyper-ambitious authoritarians who valued winning and its rewards above the objective pursuit of truth and justice...not because they were bad people but because they were deluded by ambition and punitive inclinations.

They were hammers; Citizens accused of crimes looked like nails.

Of course none of that would matter much if prosecutors hadn't grown so breathtakingly powerful in the "get tough" era.

It would matter even less if rights of the accused and other protections (exclusionary rules and other curbs on rogue cops) hadn't withered.

Society needs strong prosecutors. But citizens accused of crimes shouldn't be as vulnerable to rogue cops and prosecutors as they've become.

Posted by: John K | May 16, 2009 12:52:09 PM

The War on Drugs is the prohibition campaign being undertaken by the United States government, with the assistance of participating countries, intended to both define and reduce the illegal drug trade. But even though the legalization of Marijuana remained a controversy to it.
Nice sharing and keep posting

Posted by: Addiction Treatment | Jan 20, 2010 5:52:15 AM

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