Editor’s Note: At a time when American prisons are overflowing and government budgets are busting, authorities across the United States continue to arrest and prosecute hundreds of thousands of people for marijuana possession, sometimes even for small amounts.

In this guest essay, journalist Sherwood Ross examines this excessive use of government power against citizens engaging in personal behavior that many doctors say isn’t as dangerous as drinking alcohol and far less risky than smoking cigarettes:

People convicted of possessing even one ounce of marijuana can face a mandatory minimum sentence of a year in jail, and having even one plant in your yard is a federal felony,” progressive organizer Jim Hightower and co-author Phillip Frazer point out in the November issue of “The Hightower Lowdown.”

Police arrest someone in America every 36 seconds on marijuana charges, with a record 872,000 arrests made in 2007, “more than for all violent crimes combined,” Hightower and Frazer point out. They note that 89 per cent of all marijuana arrests “are for simple possession of the weed, not for producing or selling it.”

They argue the drug war “is doing far more harm than marijuana itself ever will,” because  (1) it diverts hundreds of thousands of police agents from serious crimes “to the pursuit of harmless tokers”; (2) it costs taxpayers at minimum $10 billion a year to catch, prosecute and incarcerate marijuana users and sellers; (3) it enables government to snatch the cars, money, computers and other properties of people caught up in drug raids even if they have had no charges filed against them; and (4) it allows “police agents at all levels to trample our Bill of Rights in their eagerness to nab pot consumers.”

The drug war has also unleashed a torrent of racism in the form of unjust sentencing, which confines crack-cocaine users who are mostly black to prison for longer terms than powder snorters, who are mostly white. 

Hightower and Frazer say authorities have perverted the infamous “Patriot Act” of 2001 for use in non-terrorism cases, allowing “sneak-and-peak” search warrants to be used in drug war probes, including pursuit of marijuana users.

The Act’s provisions were supposed to be applied only for suspected terrorist acts.  Only three of the Justice Department’s 763 requests for “sneak-and-peak” last year were used for terrorism searches, they report in Lowdown.

By outlawing drugs, Hightower and Frazer contend, Congress has created “a vast, murderous narco-state within Mexico” to satisfy U.S. consumer demand for the drugs.  And Plan Colombia, the multi-billion-dollar operation started by Bill Clinton in 2000 to eradicate coca production there, has failed, judging by the 15 percent increase in coca production.

For all the legislation against it, pot is more plentiful than ever and 10 per cent of Americans told surveyors they have enjoyed using it in the previous year while four in ten say they used it at some point in their lives.

Plus, a 2005 survey found 85 per cent of high school seniors claimed pot was “easy to get”, easier than alcohol, which is a regulated drug, The Hightower Lowdown points out.

The publication quotes a University of Michigan student who told them, “If the government trusts society to use alcohol responsibly, it is idiotic to assume citizens are somehow incapable of responsible use of cannabis.”

A Gallup opinion poll in 2005 found 51 percent of Americans stating that alcohol is more dangerous than marijuana and 52 per cent saying pot should be legalized, taxed, and regulated.

State and local governments, Hightower and Frazer report, “have begun walking step by step away from the weed war.” Since 1996, 13 states from Rhode Island to Alaska have passed laws to allow growing and distribution of doctor-prescribed marijuana for medical purposes.

What’s more, pot possession is no longer criminalized in a dozen states: Alaska, California, Colorado, Maine, Massachusetts, Minnesota, Mississippi, Nebraska, Nevada, North Carolina, Ohio and Oregon.

The drive now is for outright legalization of pot, the authors say. This would enable officials to take the exorbitant profit and violence out of illicit black-market weed by legalizing it and turning it into a revenue-producer that would rake in tax dollars. 

Instead, the Office of National Drug Control Policy says, Americans spend $9 billion a year buying pot from Mexico; $10 billion on pot from Canada, and $39 billion on home-grown pot, now America’s Numero Uno cash crop – “topping the value of corn and wheat combined.”

By one estimate, legalization would produce annual tax revenues of $6.2 billion. In Portugal, which legalized all drugs in 2001, hard drug use has showed a stunning decline while the numbers of people getting detox aid has soared, Time magazine reported on April 26. By contrast, the United States has the highest rates of drug use in the world.

As Rep. Barney Frank has said, “I now think it’s time for the politicians to catch up to the public. The notion that you lock people up for smoking marijuana is pretty silly.”

There is, however, a downside to the legalization of pot: some of the individuals in the legal system who depend on the arrests of pot smokers might have to find worthwhile jobs instead.

Look at all the paychecks that get cut: The cops make their collars. The bail bondsmen get their rake off. The prosecutors make their cases. The social workers write up their interviews. The clerks push their papers. The lawyers collect their fees. The judges render their verdicts. The prison guards make their rounds. The vendors sell their baloney sandwiches. The construction firms build their additions. And the shrinks nod their heads.  

One last thought: cigarettes kill 440,000 Americans every year and sicken millions, while smoking a joint creates no such danger. If the growers and peddlers of pot belong in jail, where do the manufacturers of brand-name cigarettes and cigars belong?

In two years, they kill more Americans than all the Blues and Grays who died (620,000) in the Civil War. Indeed, in the next two years, 440 times as many Americans will be killed by smoking cigarettes than all U.S. troops killed in six years of fighting in Iraq.

While this writer opposes the use of all drugs, and does not indulge himself, it’s easy to see the prosecution of pot smokers and growers for victimless crimes is, as Lowdown  reports, “preposterous.”

Sherwood Ross formerly worked for The Chicago Daily News and other major dailies and as a columnist for wire services. He currently runs a public relations firm for “worthy causes”. You can reach him at sherwoodross10@gmail.com.

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