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A New Look at Why Pot Prohibition Fails

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Marijuana prohibition is a failure. Its failure is a matter of evidence, not a matter of opinion.

After all, it has been in effect for 78 years, and marijuana is more popular now than ever. That’s evidence. But why is it a failure?

There are lots of reasons.

First of all, marijuana is not really the dangerous drug that it was portrayed to be when prohibition was enacted. And then, prohibition failed to eliminate marijuana commerce. In fact, the problem got worse. Law enforcement was prepared for a battle over illegal marijuana sales and use—that was to be expected—but in some respects, the desire for this battle is why prohibition was enacted in the first place.

What was not expected was that the United States would be become one of the world’s largest producers of marijuana.

The marijuana cultivation boom began in the late 1970s. One of the pivotal events was the Paraquat scare. In 1978, the herbicide Paraquat was used in Mexico to eradicate cannabis plants. Farmers harvested the plants prematurely and rushed them to market before the herbicide killed the plants. In one study, 21 percent of 61 pot samples from the southwestern United States market were found to be contaminated with the herbicide. No one got seriously ill, but consumers were upset.

Soon after the Paraquat scare, American cannabis cultivation emerged on a large scale.

Originally, large scale cultivation began in California, Oregon and Hawaii. The federal government responded with a proportionately large scale eradication program, relying on paramilitary squads and extensive aerial searches with helicopters.

Cultivation spread to other states, followed by the eradication program. Growers began to rely on smaller plots and responded to other tactical developments. For example, when the government began to aggressively use forfeiture proceedings to seize land used for marijuana cultivation, some growers began to use public land—such as national parks and forests—for marijuana plots.

Eventually, marijuana cultivation not only spread to all 50 states and the District of Columbia, it also moved indoors. Nowadays, the cultivation of marijuana in the U.S. is so extensive and so decentralized that it’s practically impossible to prevent and impossible to eliminate.

These, however, are tactical matters.

The real problem with prohibition is strategic.

Marijuana prohibition is not only a failed strategy, it is not really a strategy at all.

First, consider a simple definition of a strategy. A strategy produces a sustainable, competitive advantage. Prohibition is a strategy that provides an advantage for law enforcement and for politicians. It is successful in terms of providing a pretext for funding, political support and power. However, that’s not what the public—the ultimate source of funding, political support and power—was offered. The public was sold on a program that would promote public interests in reducing teenage access to marijuana, reduce drug abuse and promote public safety. With respect to these three objectives, marijuana prohibition has not only failed, it does not even provide a viable plan of action for success.

Marijuana prohibition is not a plan of action. It’s really more of a goal masquerading as a plan. This is not just rhetoric.

Shift gears for a moment and think about a for-profit company owned by thousands of shareholders. In recent decades, there has been an interesting discussion in financial circles about corporate strategy. Here is the question: Is maximizing shareholder value a strategy? Certainly, a business intends to make money, that’s an important objective. But maximizing shareholder value is a goal not a strategy. A strategy is how a goal gets achieved.

Prohibition is like maximizing shareholder value—it represents a desired state, but it really doesn’t explain how it will be reached.

In these terms, prohibition is just a series of utopian slogans, like “Drug Free America.” Serious policy analysts will disagree. They will concede that prohibition is rhetoric, but that the nation’s drug policy actually consists of a sophisticated strategy of balancing efforts in both the areas of supply and demand reduction, and that the modern approach has a prominent emphasis on prevention and treatment.

Yes, that is a plan of action and can reasonably be described as a strategy. But that’s not what opponents of marijuana legalization emphasize when they advocate their preferred course of action.

While offering support for prevention and treatment programs in response to drug abuse problems, opponents of legalization prefer to keep the supply side of the policy package just the way it is. They defend maintaining prohibition, with justifications that include concerns that legalization would increase use and arguments that keeping marijuana illegal is important in order to discourage greater use.

In other words, when it comes to prohibition, the defense continues to be utopian slogans, a collection of vague objectives without any concrete plan to actually achieve them. It is as if the noble intentions of prohibitionists alone are supposed to be sufficient for them to prevail.

Strategy is a plan that provides a sustainable competitive advantage. Prohibition has not, cannot and will not provide a sustainable competitive advantage against the operation of a vast, extensive, unregulated and profitable illegal market in marijuana. Opponents of marijuana’s legalization refuse to face this fact.

This is why prohibition has failed, and this is why opponents or marijuana legalization are failing.

What is the sustainable advantage of prohibition? It gets money and power for police departments, and it gets votes for politicians. The ‘votes for politicians’ racket is falling apart, and soon after that, the money and power it provides for police departments will also fade away.

But when it comes to the public, people are realizing across the nation that prohibition provides them with no advantages at all. That’s why prohibition is a failure; it doesn’t do the public any good.

Jon Gettman is the Cannabis Policy Director for High Times. Jon has a Ph.D. in public policy, teaching undergraduate criminal justice and graduate level management courses. A long-time contributor to High Times, his research and analytical work has been used by NORML, Marijuana Policy Project, American’s for Safe Access, the Drug Policy Foundation, the American Civil Liberties Union and other organizations. Jon’s research contributions to the topic of marijuana law reform have included findings on the economic value of domestic marijuana cultivation, attempts to have marijuana rescheduled under federal law and racial disparities in marijuana possession arrest rates. Serving as NORML’s National Director in the late 1980s, he was instrumental in creating NORML’s activist program.

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