The war on drugs will be on the ballot in California this November. The nation will watch the state decide whether to tax and regulate marijuana or continue to arrest adults for possession of this plant.
The vote on the Regulate, Control and Tax Cannabis Act of 2010 will impact many of the most important issues in the country today. Californians will express how they want police resources used, if adults who consume marijuana should be criminalized, how best to deal with the tragic violence in Mexico, and what our priorities should be in tough economic times. It's no wonder that seven months out, this issue has already generated thousands of news stories around the world.
Opposition to this reform has crystallized within the drug war establishment, and so has their spin. Here are their top five talking points and the truth beyond them:
Drug Warrior Spin #1: Why would we authorize another harmful substance in our society?
The reality is that marijuana is already widely available in our society. Like it or not, it's a mainstream recreational drug consumed by millions, including one in ten Californians last year, according to federal data. The California ballot initiative simply acknowledges that marijuana is here and that it's more sensible to regulate this massive market, like we do with even more harmful drugs like cigarettes and alcohol. Prohibition of highly popular substances never works and brings terrible collateral damage. Alcohol prohibition didn't keep people from drinking, but it did give us Al Capone and gun battles in the streets. No one dies over sales of Budweiser today.
Drug Warrior Spin #2: Regulation will cause marijuana consumption to skyrocket with addiction rates to match.
The truth is rates of marijuana consumption aren't determined by penalties against it. If they were, the U.S. - which arrests an astounding 750,000 people for marijuana possession every year - wouldn't have double the consumption rate of The Netherlands, where marijuana sales have been tolerated for decades. That principle holds true across this country as some states that lowered penalties against marijuana possession years ago have among the lowest rates of use while some states that retained harsh marijuana laws have among the highest. As for addiction, the risk of becoming dependent on marijuana is mild compared to most other drugs including alcohol and tobacco. In fact, most people who enter treatment for marijuana addiction in this country today are referred by the criminal justice system, but 65% don't even meet the standard criteria for dependence.
Drug Warrior Spin #3: Regulating marijuana will aid drug cartels.
It is practically Orwellian to claim that state regulation of marijuana would benefit criminal cartels. More than 20,000 Mexicans have died in the last three years thanks to prohibition. There is nothing inherent about the plant that has caused these brutal murders. Banning marijuana makes it worth more than gold, so valuable that people are willing to kill each other over the right to sell it. By regulating marijuana and beginning to bring its production and distribution under the rule of law, we would eliminate the cartels' existing monopoly and dramatically siphon their profits. They would be the biggest losers in this reform.
Drug Warrior Spin #4: Regulating marijuana would cost society more than the taxes it generates.
Taxing marijuana like alcohol statewide would generate $1. 4 billion in California alone, according to the state Board of Equalization. Californians will also save hundreds of millions in scarce law enforcement dollars currently devoted to enforcing these futile laws. Yet opponents say that drugged driving, increased health care costs, and lost productivity will end up costing much more than taxes would generate. By that logic, alcohol, which causes nearly 100,000 American deaths annually, should be illegal and warrant life without parole. The bottom line is that marijuana is California's largest agricultural commodity, freely consumed by millions with no regulations or protections, and with no financial benefit to the state. In this economic climate, this is a reality we literally can't afford to ignore any longer.
Drug Warrior Spin #5: What kind of message does regulating marijuana send to kids?
The irony is that failed marijuana prohibition does nothing to protect kids. Despite 30 years of "Just Say No," half of high-school seniors admit to trying marijuana. Students are more likely to smoke marijuana than cigarettes and say it's easier to buy marijuana than alcohol because drug dealers don't ask for ID. Even more chilling, of the 78,000 Californians arrested for marijuana offenses in 2008, one in five was a child under 18 and half were under 30. Out of control access and mass arrests are prohibition's true impact on our youth. State regulation will reduce that access, separate marijuana from harder drugs, and allow us to focus on effective youth drug education programs.
We will see these arguments play out repeatedly over the next six months. In the end, California will get to choose between two very different models of dealing with marijuana in our society.
Tony Newman is the Media Director and Stephen Gutwillig is the California Director of the Drug Policy Alliance (www.drugpolicy.org), the nation's leading organization promoting alternatives to the failed war on drugs.