Bill Steigerwald Bill Steigerwald, 10/15/2007 [Archive]

Stop the Failed Drug War -- Opinion Column

Stop The Failed Drug War

Let's hear it for America's drug police.

Last year our drug warriors made 829,627 marijuana arrests.

That's the most ever, according to the FBI. Arrests for marijuana -- arguably the least dangerous drug ever declared illegal in America -- are up nearly threefold since 1990. Total arrests for all illegal drugs in 2006 hit 1.89 million, up from 1.08 million in 1990.

If you think those 829,627 Americans were all out selling weed to 10-year-olds at the local strip mall until they were heroically brought to justice, you've had way too many Bush administration cocktails.

Nearly 90 percent of marijuana arrests last year were for possession only. About 90,000 citizens were busted for selling or manufacturing pot, which includes anyone nabbed for growing it for personal use or for medical use.

Since about a third of all marijuana arrestees were under 19, there's a good chance a kid you know or love is among the victims of our immoral, irrational and expensive two-front war on (some) drugs and personal freedom.

But even if the drug war's body count doesn't touch you personally, its economic costs do.

The prohibition of marijuana alone costs about $10.7 billion a year, according to a new study by Jon Gettman of the Marijuana Policy Project, a reform group that believes the best way to minimize the harm associated with marijuana is to regulate it like alcohol.

Gettman's report, 'Lost Taxes and Other Costs of Marijuana Laws,' pegs the total cost of marijuana enforcement and lost tax revenues to U.S. taxpayers at $41.8 billion. The U.S. marijuana supply (14,349 metric tons) is worth an estimated $113 billion in retail sales. He estimates the marijuana trade would generate $31.1 billion in taxes if it were made legal and taxed.

Legalizing marijuana would certainly please Ethan Nadelmann, the director of the Drug Policy Alliance and author of 'Legalize It,' the September/October cover story of Foreign Policy magazine.

No libertarian, he is not sure that legalizing all drugs is prudent. But Nadelmann knows the current 'regime of prohibition' has failed miserably and obviously here and around the world, just as similar prohibitions have failed since time began.

As he wrote in a recent Drug Policy Alliance newsletter, though it is increasingly clear to world leaders that global drug prohibition 'is responsible for stunning levels of violence, crime, corruption, disease and suffering,' few dare to acknowledge this reality.

Why not? Because, says Nadelmann, 'the drug war, and the prohibitionist ideology which fuels it, is not about rational policy.' It's not 'about science, compassion, health or human rights,' it's 'a sort of dogma -- a secular fundamentalism that sees itself immune from critical examination.'

Nowhere is that more true than in politically potheaded America. Getting our so-called leaders to assess the real-world costs, failures and harm done to society by our prohibitionist drug policies is never going to happen.

The drug war is the 36-year-old, $40 billion-a-year rogue elephant in the game room everyone running for president pretends not to see. Republicans, except for Ron Paul, get their drug policy ideas from the Taliban. And Democrats -- who don't have the courage to end the war in Iraq -- surrendered their spines in the war on drugs long ago.

Bill Steigerwald is a columnist at the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review. E-mail Bill at© Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, All Rights Reserved.

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