When President Obama was asked in March whether he thought legalizing marijuana could help solve the nation's financial problems, his answer was unequivocal. "No, I don't think that is a good strategy to grow our economy," he said. But his response is unlikely to quell debate on an issue that polarizes Americans. Even academic studies that purport to be unbiased arrive at very different conclusions. Here are three viewpoints on why the country should or should not decriminalize the drug.
In 1986 and 1987, I was one of the "masterminds" behind the importation and sale of about 75 tons of pot from Southeast Asia in the United States. It was the culmination of a 20-year career as a drug smuggler, a deal that netted more than $180 million wholesale.
All that government saw, of course, was the sales tax when we spent our illegally gotten gains. Oh sure, there were some forfeitures once our organization was finally rounded up some years later. But had rational minds prevailed over the last 70-plus years, government would have reaped huge benefits -- in direct sales taxes -- from groups such as ours. Rather than accept the fact that an estimated 30 million pot-smoking Americans cannot possibly be criminals, our society has seen fit to waste almost $1 trillion on its "war on drugs." Not only has that approach not worked, the entire situation has been exacerbated by it.
A cascade of bad outcomes follows a policy of prohibition. The worst may be the dangerous, bloody criminal activity it promotes. In my day, guns weren't automatically part of the picture, but they are now. The illegal drug trade is the currency that funds and inspires a vast, violent and well-armed gangster class.
You've heard the news from Mexico. Since the government there has tried to rein in the drug cartels, 10,000 people have been killed. Last month in the state of Michoacan, Mexican security forces arrested 27 elected officials who are under investigation for their ties to narco-trafficking. In Toronto -- where I live some months out of the year -- police in April arrested 125 people in a sweep that netted AK-47s, sawed-off shotguns, 34 handguns and large quantities of cocaine, marijuana and Ecstasy.
In April in Los Angeles County, 400 law enforcement personnel conducted a "gang sweep" that officials said "dismantled" a dangerous gang that sold methamphetamine, Vicodin, marijuana and cocaine. It took a year of law enforcement's time to put the cast together, and the gang was responsible for at least one killing over the last year.
Take away the currency of illegal drugs and you take away the guns, the violence and the associated corruption.
Columnist Steve Lopez wrote about a judge in this newspaper: "I'm sitting in Costa Mesa with a silver-haired gent who once ran for Congress as a Republican and used to lock up drug dealers as a federal prosecutor, a man who served as an Orange County judge for 25 years. And what are we talking about? He's begging me to tell you we need to legalize drugs in America."
Another Republican, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, said in early May that he was willing to at least begin a debate on our policies about marijuana. Assemblyman Tom Ammiano (D-San Francisco) calculates that taxing marijuana use alone would bring in $1 billion a year in cash-strapped California.
Former Seattle Police Chief Norm Stamper, in whose jurisdiction I was sentenced to 10 years in prison, supports legalizing marijuana and other illicit drugs. "It's time to accept drug use as a right of adult Americans, treat drug abuse as a public health problem and end the madness of an unwinnable war," he wrote in these pages in 2005.
Stamper is an advisory board member of LEAP -- Law Enforcement Against Prohibition.
According to LEAP, "After nearly four decades of fueling the U.S. policy of a war on drugs with over a trillion tax dollars and 37 million arrests for nonviolent drug offenses, our confined population has quadrupled, making building prisons the fastest-growing industry in the United States." More than 2.2 million of our citizens are incarcerated on drug charges, and every year we arrest 1.9 million more, guaranteeing those prisons will be busting at their seams. Every year, the war on drugs cost U.S. taxpayers $69 billion.
It is time we stopped treating drug addiction, a medical condition, with law enforcement. It's time to repatriate the vast quantities of money that are being hidden, removed from the country and going untaxed, and it's time we keep those same vast sums from funding violent crime. It's time to end modern prohibition. It didn't work for alcohol; it isn't working for drugs.