As an inexperienced writer, I frequently find it difficult to produce a topic. The inspiration usually comes with an event or headline that provokes thought. Examples could be: “NASA Chief says space exploration is a waste of money,” or “Grover Norquist backs new tax for deficit reduction.”
My interest was recently peaked with the headline, “Rev. Pat Robertson advocates decriminalizing marijuana.” His exact words were, “I really believe we should treat marijuana the way we treat beverage alcohol,” Robertson was further quoted by the media as saying. “If people can go into a liquor store and buy a bottle of alcohol and drink it at home legally.” His comments were made in the context that our prisons are overcrowded with juvenile offenders due to penalties of up to 10 years for possession, and he said “It makes no sense at all.”
He also made a cognitive shift by stating that overpopulated jails are due in a large part to a liberal mindset to have an all-encompassing government. The reverend didn’t explain how this contention was bolstered by President Nixon initiating the “War on Drugs,” in 1971, or by President Reagan deciding that mass incarceration was the best way to win that war.
But Robertson’s observations, and his courage to state it publicly, are noteworthy. As we consider the length and costs of the current war in Afghanistan, it is probably fitting to recognize that our war on substances is about to enter its forty-second year.
In 1971, about 110 people per 100,000 in the population were incarcerated. In 1994, it was reported that the “War on Drugs” resulted in the incarceration of one million Americans each year. Today, we have 2.3 million prisoners or 760 people per 100,000 in the population. The U.S. has 5% of the world’s population, and 25% of its prisoners. Our country currently imprisons more people than any other nation on the planet, including China. It is stated that there are more people now being jailed in the U.S. than were confined in the Gulag Archipelago under Joseph Stalin at its height.
Despite federal and state expenditures of many billions of dollars per year, severe punishments, and questionably legal raids on private homes, the War on Drugs has been a failure. The number of drug users in the U.S. has continued to grow rather than shrink, and the rate of drug usage has grown along with the profits of drug cartels.
Last year, a global commission representing the U.S., Brazil, Mexico and Peru, recognized the failure of criminalization and repressive measures, and issued a recommendation to “encourage experimentation by governments with models of legal regulation of drugs to undermine the power of organized crime and safeguard the health and security of their citizens.”
We have ignored the lessons of the Prohibition Era, when the criminalization of alcohol drove distillers underground, but did not eliminate alcohol from the private market. Ironically, in the years before Prohibition, most federal revenue was generated by taxes on liquor. The political groundswell during the early twentieth century to nationally ban the “devil’s drink” was stymied by the potential revenue loss that a proposed amendment would bring. This problem was solved by enacting the sixteenth amendment for federal income tax in 1913, which more than substituted for the liquor tax revenue to be lost by the Volstead Act of 1919, and the implementation of prohibition in 1920.
Despite the continuing social and economic problems continually attributable to legal alcohol, Americans should have learned a difficult lesson many years ago about criminalizing a substance that many people regularly use.
Today, the futility of substance criminalization can be seen in relative comparisons. The money spent by states on prisons has been six times the amount spent on higher education over the past two decades. Since 1980, California has built one college campus and twenty-one prisons. While a college student costs the state $8,667 each year, a prisoner costs $45,006.
Although many assume that the popularity of more potent stimulants like crack and crystal meth caused the drug war crackdowns, some research suggests that they are actually a result of the war on drugs. When law enforcement targets the drug supply, the most powerful and highly concentrated forms of substances become more popular among users.
Most people recognize that individuals who use illegal (or legal) drugs are going to get high - no matter what. Is it preferable that they acquire them in stores that check IDs and pay taxes? Conceding the lucrative drug market to ruthless criminals, foreign terrorists and corrupt law enforcement officials is seriously compromising our future.
The Reverend’s comments did not set well with all conservatives. Pundit and former Education Secretary William J. Bennett commented, “Evangelical patriarch Rev. Pat Robertson has long been a leader in the conservative movement advocating for a better civil and moral society. But his recent support of marijuana legalization couldn’t be more wrongheaded.”
Maybe so, but we must admit that the drug situation today is a bipartisan product since both sides like to sound tough on crime. We also must recognize the potential effects that decriminalization would have on the flow of government money to private interests. Many state prisons are run by private interests with powerful lobbyists in state capitals. They have created jobs at locations where steady employment is rare, and created conduits of cash from public treasuries to outlying areas.
Decriminalization would also limit the size, scope, budget and prerogatives of the federal government. Could this be a reason why many politicians and bureaucrats oppose drug legalization? Perhaps they don’t want to see the government and its prerogatives reduced, because they are addicted to it. Could an addiction to governing be more dangerous than an addiction to drugs? It is questionable that they are really concerned whether the American people live healthy lifestyles or not (and many may argue, it’s none of their business).
Are taxpayers’ dollars and limited police resources being wasted to arrest people who may have harmed themselves but haven’t harmed anyone else; rather than to be used chasing truly dangerous criminals?
Pat Robertson’s statements on marijuana decriminalization are good food for thought regardless of your political beliefs. Our last three Presidents all have admitted to using the substance and its prohibition doesn’t seem to work any better than banning a certain fruit in the Garden of Eden.
It has been said that manners make law and when manners change, the law must also. It is also obvious that marijuana is now an almost universally accepted drug in America: it is not only used casually (which has been true for decades) but also talked about casually on television and in the movies (which is more recent). Scriptural teachings lean toward advocating moderation with warnings of the consequences of overindulgence rather than enforced abstinence. Does doing the right thing for the wrong reason always beat doing the wrong thing for the right reason?
If Rev. Robertson is broad-minded enough to admit that he was wrong, can we expect the same from political and law enforcement leaders?
Jim Surber is the Darke County Engineer and the president of the Darke County Democratic Party. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Viewpoints expressed in these opinion pieces are the work of the author. The Daily Advocate does not endorse these viewpoints or the independent activities of the author.