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Is The War on Drugs nearing the end?
Marijuana legalization efforts across the nation gather steam.
TWO MILLION DOLLARS.
That’s how much the Colorado Department of Revenue collected in tax revenue in January from the sale of legal marijuana, the first month the Rocky Mountain High state adjusted its focus from the Rocky Mountains to getting high.
Two million dollars. One month. One state. And there were only 59 businesses in the entire state that were certified to sell marijuana when it officially became legal at the beginning of the year.
Officials at the state revenue office basically throw their hands up when asked to predict what revenues will be from subsequent months, much less what the annual rate will be. But it has become clear that money-hungry states facing seemingly endless budget shortfalls are keeping a very close eye on what has quickly become the most laidback state in the country.
Five years ago I wrote a cover story for The Pulse that detailed how the “War on Drugs” was being lost in a flurry of cartel violence, overfilled prisons, and endless billions of dollars wasted on a losing fight to slake the nation’s nearly insatiable lust for narcotics.
Little did I know at the time that in less than half a decade, the marijuana legalization movement would emerge from the fringe and become a front-page issue.
A successful issue, at that.
From the federal standpoint, the Controlled Substances Act of 1970 still makes it illegal to possess, use, buy, sell, or cultivate marijuana, but many of the individual states have passed their own laws and have basically dared the federal government to go against them.
While Colorado is the only state to allow the commercial sale of marijuana, Washington is not far behind, having legalized personal possession (up to a reasonable amount). Several of the larger cities in the state, in response, passed initiatives basically directing their law enforcement agencies to turn a blind eye to pot users. Twenty other states have either legalized medical marijuana or decriminalized personal possession (and in the case of nine of them, both).
To call this a sea change in the “War on Weed” would be a complete understatement.
But wait, as they say on late night television, there’s more.
Just this past Thursday, lawmakers in Alabama unanimously passed a bill legalizing medical marijuana, which Gov. Robert Bentley has said he will sign. Granted, the bill only allows for the prescription of the nonintoxicating cannabidiol (CBD, for short), a medical grade extract that has a number of detractors claiming it is largely ineffective. But this action is still a major step forward in the ongoing medical marijuana movement.
After watching closely how Colorado has benefited from outright legalization, residents of six more states and the District of Columbia are likely to see either a bill in the state legislature, a ballot initiative, or an executive order from the governor to make medical marijuana (or even outright legalization) a reality.
Arizona, Alaska and the District of Columbia are all considering following Colorado’s lead and making recreational use of the wacky weed completely legal. The “Safer Arizona” group is pushing for a ballot initiative (with recent polling showing a majority of Arizonans in support). In Alaska, supporters turned in more than 45,000 signatures on a legalization petition. Only 30,169 were needed for the petition to make it onto the August ballot. Likewise, residents of the nation’s capital likely will get to vote this fall to make D.C. an even more popular tourist destination.
And while Tennessee is not on the “make it legal for everyone” bandwagon, back in January, Rep. Sherry Jones (D-Nashville) announced she would be filing a bill to allow the prescription sale of marijuana in the state. The “Koozer-Kuhn Medical Cannabis Act” (HB1385) is currently pending in the House Health Subcommittee.
“It’s just simply a matter of being rational and compassionate,” Rep. Jones told the Knoxville News-Sentinel, though she was quick to explain that her bill would be very limited and highly restrictive. “It would apply to only the most severely debilitated people,” which she categorized as severely epileptic children, cancer patients undergoing chemotherapy, sufferers of multiple sclerosis, or people “with a plethora of diseases.”
So how did we get here? And how did the “War on Drugs” get started in the first place?
When President Nixon announced the beginning of the “War on Drugs” in 1971, the stated goal was to reduce illegal drug trade and to diminish demand for substances deemed immoral, harmful, dangerous, or undesirable. During the Nixon era, the goal was not to incarcerate and punish drug users, but to stop the drug trade and begin programs to help Americans reduce their dependence on narcotics. It was the only time that more funding went towards treatment than law enforcement.
But, like many government programs that start with the best of intentions, the war became distorted by those seeking political gain by appearing “tough on crime”, and the anti-drug warriors turned their attention inwards. The end result has been the highest percentage of incarcerated Americans of any time in our history.
More than 2.2 million people are behind bars and another 4.8 million are on probation or parole, a quadrupling of our prison population, with well over 40 million arrests nationwide since 1971 on nonviolent drug charges. Worse yet, in the past three decades, the number of deaths related to drug overdoses has risen more than 540 percent.
The National Survey on Drug Use and Health, conducted annually by the federal government, is the most commonly cited set of statistics on the prevalence of drug use. According to the latest survey, an estimated 22.5 million Americans aged 12 or older have used some illegal drug in the last month. Not too surprisingly, marijuana was the most commonly used illicit drug, with just over 18 million current users.
But what about illicit drugs other than marijuana?
Of the most commonly used drugs in the United States, the top five are pharmaceuticals, marijuana, cocaine, methamphetamine and heroin. Regionally, use of each drug is quite different. Here in the Southeast, for example, cocaine is by far the illicit drug of choice, with slightly more than 50 percent of drug users imbibing some form of the narcotic. Meth is second in popularity, followed by pharmaceuticals and marijuana, with heroin a distant fifth.
The growth of methamphetamine use, at epidemic levels out West, has been making steady inroads in the South during the past decade. It’s regarded by medical professionals as one of the most dangerous drugs ever developed. It is nearly instantly addictive, and requires higher doses with each subsequent use in order to match the initial high. It also has been proved to destroy brain cells and irreparably impair the central nervous system, among many other harmful side effects.
Unlike marijuana, which has never been conclusively shown to be physically addictive, the other four drugs produce strong physical dependence. The grip of drug addiction leads directly to criminal acts, such as robbery and prostitution, in order to purchase more drugs. This is in addition to well-known criminal enterprises surrounding the production, transport and sale of the drugs by organized crime, foreign cartels, and local street gangs.
So the question continues to be asked: Would legalizing, or even de-criminalizing such harmful substances be in the best interest of the public welfare?
It’s a question that has long perplexed proponents of ending the War on Drugs. Many of the more extreme in the legalization movement point to the physical harms and addictions related to alcohol as an argument in favor of legalizing all drugs, noting that strong government regulation and control of alcohol have been able to combat the more egregious negative effects of drinking.
For many, though, that argument rings hollow, as they consider the thousands of deaths and hundreds of millions of dollars in damages and lost productivity caused by alcohol abuse each year.
Yet even some in the medical profession challenge the conventional wisdom that “harder” drugs are as dangerous and addictive as is widely believed. Dr. Benson Roe, professor emeritus and former chair of cardiothoracic surgery at the University of California at San Francisco, has directly called into question such beliefs.
“The widespread propaganda that illegal drugs are ‘deadly poisons’ is a hoax,” he claims. “There is little or no medical evidence of long-term ill effects from sustained, moderate consumption of uncontaminated marijuana, cocaine or heroin. If these substances—most of them have been consumed in large quantities for centuries—were responsible for any chronic, progressive or disabling diseases, they certainly would have shown up in clinical practice and/or on the autopsy table.”
He goes on to call out the media for our portrayal of drug users. “Media focus on the ‘junkie’ has generated a mistaken impression that all users of illegal drugs are devastated by their habit. Simple arithmetic demonstrates that the small population of visible addicts must constitute only a fraction of the $150 billion per year illegal drug market. This industry is so huge that it necessarily encompasses a very large portion of the ordinary population, who are typically employed, productive, responsible and not significantly impaired from leading conventional lives. These drug users are not addicts, just as the vast majority of alcohol users are not alcoholics.”
The final piece of the legalization puzzle is purely economic.
After seeing the state coffers getting fuller in Colorado, many lawmakers and tax-weary citizens are swayed by the promise of the large tax revenue legalization might generate, as well as the ever-increasing price tags associated with the War on Drugs.
Billions of dollars have been spent since Nixon launched the war, money that a growing number of people from all walks of life feel has been almost or completely wasted.
Is Colorado the first domino to fall in a line of 49 other dominoes leading to a nationwide acceptance of marijuana? Or is this just an isolated outlier? Five years ago, I would said it was an outlier. Today, who knows?
But don’t expect me to be all that surprised if in five years when I revisit this topic, I’ll be writing about the few holdout states instead.