November 12, 2006

The war in Iraq loomed large last week as voters registered their disenchantment during the midterm elections. But lost in all the headlines and nightly news stories about the Republican loss of power were limited status reports on the other American conflict: the War on Weed. In Nevada, an initiative that would have legalized possession of up to an ounce of marijuana for anyone over 21 failed with only a 44 percent yes vote. Las Vegas -- where prostitution and gambling are legal and public intoxication common -- is not quite ready to end the prohibition of pot.
Nonetheless, what nearly happened in Vegas, should never stay in Vegas.

For at least two generations, smoking dope has become an American way of life. According to federal statistics, about 94 million Americans -- or 40 percent of 12-year-olds and up -- admit to having blown some weed; 15 million say they've had a joint within the last month. Eleven states have declared that the drug war has failed, passing laws that say, for adults, taking a toke is no longer a crime. In these states, from Oregon to Maine, from Alaska to Mississippi, holding a joint will no longer result in your sharing a cell with a murderer, rapist or larcenous CEO. Instead, you'll end up with something akin to a slap on the wrist or a ticket and a fine.

There are also 11 states that don't arrest those suffering from the side effects of chemotherapy or AIDS if they use marijuana to ease their pain. But not in Illinois. Despite more than 2-1 public support for medical marijuana legislation and endorsements from health groups, there was not enough support to pass Sen. John Cullerton's (D-Chicago) medical marijuana bill this month.

There is a huge body of evidence, argues Bruce Mirken, spokesman for the Marijuana Policy Project, that marijuana prohibition today is working about as well as alcohol prohibition did in the Roaring '20s. In February, no less an authority than the U.S. Justice Department reported in its 2006 Drug Threat Assessment that "marijuana availability is high and stable or increasing slightly.''

The feds have been fighting marijuana since classifying it as a narcotic in the 1930s. Jealous that FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover was getting more press, Harry J. Anslinger, the first commissioner of the Treasury Department's Federal Bureau of Narcotics, started his campaign on cannabis by singlehandedly giving weed a bad rep. Back then, marijuana was the drug of choice for black jazz musicians and Mexicans -- a fact Anslinger was careful to note, pointing out that "it makes the Negro feel as if he is as good as the white man'' and that "all Mexicans are crazy and this stuff makes them crazy.''

Cannabis has been demonized in the nation since, while the desire for it has risen. From the time Anslinger managed to get the drug banned in 1937, Mirken said, use has gone up 2,000 percent.

That has created what Mirken describes as the drug-war-industrial complex, an entire industry from bureaucrats to law enforcement agencies to penal systems that are making money by keeping marijuana illegal.

In the past year, the pot prohibition has produced record devil-weed arrests and a bumper crop of American POWs in our nation's prisons. In 2005, there 786,545 marijuana arrests -- 696,074 just for possession. About 34,000 state and 11,000 federal inmates are incarcerated for marijuana offenses. We're spending $1 billion a year to put them there and another $8 billion a year to keep them there.

We could regulate, license and tax marijuana. Instead we blow billions on busting and jailing peaceful citizens from whom we could collect millions in tax revenue -- much like we do with alcohol.

For our nation's lawmakers to not grasp such a commonsense approach, you've got to wonder what they've been smoking.