It's not just about us. If Californians legalize marijuana on Nov. 2, maybe Mexico will end its horrific drug war.
The "war on drugs," like the war on terror, is a simplistic and brutally stupid solution imposed on a complex, multifaceted human problem, born out of the notion that you can take evil out of context and eradicate it with the firepower of righteousness. Science and the arts have long ago moved on to new realms of awareness, but we're still playing politics the way we did in the 19th century -- or the 12th or 1st -- with the primary difference being that we have the capacity to do far more harm these days.
And righteousness, indeed, all too often becomes a far greater cause of harm than the original problem; in tandem, problem and solution may combine to turn chronic trouble into unfathomable disaster, especially for innocent bystanders.
Mexico's drug war, for instance, which began in late 2006, has so far resulted in the deaths of 28,000 people and consumed billions of dollars in military expenditures. Meanwhile, government human rights violations are rampant, crime in general is on the rise -- and most Mexicans think the drug cartels are winning.
Writing earlier this month in the Washington Post, Héctor Aguilar Camín and Jorge G. Castañeda ask: "If California legalizes marijuana, will it be viable for our country to continue hunting down drug lords in Tijuana? Will Wild West-style shootouts to stop Mexican cannabis from crossing the border make any sense when, just over that border, the local 7-Eleven sells pot?"
If Californians pass Proposition 19 and make marijuana fully legal, Mexico may choose to legalize it as well, they suggest. The two countries are inextricably linked via drugs; what Mexico produces, the U.S. consumes. Thus: "If the initiative passes, it won't just be momentous for California; it may, at long last, offer Mexico the promise of an exit from our costly war on drugs."
All of which puts Prop 19 and the entire issue of legalizing pot in the United States in a context larger than the one we generally acknowledge. Our country's anti-pot bureaucracy is wreaking harm and punishing the innocent beyond our borders as well as within them -- all the while turning a plant with extraordinary medicinal and other highly useful properties into our arbitrary enemy, "devil weed," to no serious end except to waste law-enforcement resources and keep our prisons full to bursting.
Indeed, in 2009, police busted 858,408 people for pot violations, according to the FBI's recently released Uniform Crime Report. This is the second highest total ever, and just shy of the record set in 2007. What gives? Even as the country inches its way toward marijuana sanity -- medical marijuana is now legal in 14 states and two more (Arizona and South Dakota) have the issue on the November ballot -- a "stoned righteousness," you might say, seems to be fighting back and punishing people when and where it can.
My friend Bernie Ellis, who was arrested eight years ago for growing medical marijuana on his farm near Nashville, Tenn., calls it "the farces of evil" -- which have not stopped harassing him even though he has served 18 months in a halfway house run by the Federal Bureau of Prisons. Last month, the final hideous ritual of false justice was enacted, as the feds auctioned off the 25-acre piece of his farm they had confiscated in a plea-bargain arrangement that allowed him to keep the other 147 acres. Originally they were going to take the whole thing.
All of this, as Ellis wrote recently, was "for the crime of growing seven pounds of pot and giving it away to four terminally ill neighbors, a crime that I never denied I committed from the moment that two helicopters and ten four-wheelers descended on my farm."
And in the three weeks before the auctioning of his land, he wrote, his farm was buzzed three times by pot-seeking government aircraft, "low enough to rattle my windows and blow down my late summer sweet corn." What it sounds like is governmental stalking.
Lavishing so much righteous, punitive energy on marijuana users and growers is doubly ironic. The plant's abuse potential is minuscule compared to its value. Harvey Wasserman, writing irreverently in the December issue of Hustler, points out that George Washington, Thomas Jefferson and other Founding Fathers not only grew but in all likelihood smoked hemp; and that the plant's national value was extolled in a 1942 video produced by the U.S. Department of Agriculture called "Hemp for Victory" (five years after marijuana was declared illegal).
But even if marijuana was a clear social problem, on the order of cocaine, declaring war on it and proceeding ruthlessly, consequences be damned, to eradicate it, not only doesn't work, but causes incalculable and pointless harm. Mexico's nation-wrecking drug war is one example. The spraying of highly toxic herbicides across the landscape of Third World countries is another.
Prop 19, which no mainstream California politician has the nerve to support, could do more than legalize adult possession of an ounce of marijuana in the nation's largest state. It could legitimize sanity and put a lid on the forces of simple-minded righteousness in politics and government.
Robert Koehler is an award-winning, Chicago-based journalist, contributor to One World, Many Peaces and nationally syndicated writer. His new book, Courage Grows Strong at the Wound (Xenos Press) is now available for pre-orders. Contact him at email@example.com or visit his website at commonwonders.com.
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