Krissy Oechslin is assistant director of communications for the Marijuana Policy Project.
Too often in discussions of drug policy, marijuana policy reformers are put on the defensive, while the ongoing failure of marijuana prohibition is given a free pass. Drug war hawks claim that "legal" marijuana would lead to all manner of social ills, but conveniently overlooked is the fact that those same social ills -- teen drug use, drugged driving, mental illness -- are already happening under marijuana prohibition, and that marijuana prohibition itself produces as much or more harm to society than marijuana ever could.
It's time to put the drug war on the defensive. A report released last week by the Sentencing Project provides dozens of astonishing statistics that should help focus the debate on the failures of prohibition. Available online at www.sentencingproject.org/media/waronmarijuana.pdf, "The War on Marijuana: The Transformation of the War on Drugs in the 1990s" reveals some disturbing trends during the 1990s:
* "Marijuana arrests increased by 113% between 1990 and 2002, while overall arrests decreased by 3%." During the same period, non-marijuana drug arrests rose by 10% and arrests for violent crimes dropped 24%.
* "African Americans are disproportionately affected by marijuana arrests, representing 14% of marijuana users in the general population, but 30% of arrests."
* "Marijuana arrests now constitute nearly half (45%) of the 1.5 million drug arrests annually." Marijuana possession -- not cultivation or trafficking -- accounts for 88% of all marijuana arrests, or 40% of all drug arrests.
* "Few marijuana arrests are for serious offending: of the 734,000 marijuana arrests in 2000, only 41,000 (6%) resulted in a felony conviction." However, 51% of all marijuana possession convictions led to incarceration. That's nearly 21,000 people who are living proof that the drug czar is lying when he says that marijuana users aren't being thrown in prison.
* The percentage of high-school seniors reporting that it is "fairly easy" or "very easy" to get marijuana increased, from 84.4% to 87.2%. Daily marijuana use by high-school seniors also rose, from 2.2% to 6%. Prohibition has clearly failed to protect children from the "devil weed."
The Sentencing Project's report estimates the annual cost of the war on marijuana at $4 billion. That's billion with a "b" -- and that's about as much as the Bush administration has proposed spending on veterans' benefits ($1.5 billion) and HIV/AIDS research ($2.6 billion) in 2005, according to the federal Office of Management and Budget.
These are some disturbing numbers. In light of this report and the others that are sure to follow, it's going to be increasingly difficult to justify spending billions on a policy that not only fails to achieve its objectives, but creates additional problems along the way. Here's hoping that both sides of the political aisle use this report to focus not on unfounded fears about marijuana regulation, but on the very real ways that marijuana prohibition continues to harm America.