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Over 95 Million Served July 21, 2009

Posted by Kate Ryan in Drug War, Economy, Marijuana, Politics, Taxes, US Drug Policy.
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marijuana restaurantEveryone probably has heard at least one story about the unsuspecting tourist in Amsterdam that walks into a “coffee shop” expecting to get a cup of coffee.   For those that have not, a coffee shop in Amsterdam is where one can go to smoke marijuana – if you want coffee, go to a cafe.  I was amused to no end when an aunt of mine visited one of these places and brought back a menu.  I did not ask if she ordered off it.

Like many Americans, I have operated under the assumption that Marijuana is legal in the Netherlands.  To my surprise, it is not – it has merely been decriminalized for the use of small amounts – and the establishments that sell it are legal, though they are not allowed by law to grow their own supplies.  This is to ensure the safety of the supply as well as the government’s income from it.  Recently, the Dutch government has been cracking down on the Amsterdam coffee shops – new zoning laws are regulating where they can be located – but the city still has over 200 operational establishments.  One of the reasons cited is so that all drug use – including marijuana use – is discouraged.  It is estimated that about 17% of the Dutch population has ever used marijuana and 3% have used it within the past month.

Compare these statistics – in a country where marijuana use is discouraged but tolerated – to the U.S. policy wherein marijuana use is a crime and the punishments are severe.  Almost 37% of Americans have used marijuana in their lifetimes (about 95 million of them) and five and a half per cent have used in the past month.   The American “War on Drugs” has certainly not been successful in curbing illegal drug use.  About 20% of the inmates in American state prisons are incarcerated on non-violent drug offenses.  Of these, 47% are marijuana offenses and 90% of those are for simple possession.

There has been a growing chorus to rethink American drug policy – especially where marijuana use is concerned.  California estimates the value of marijuana grown and distributed in the state at approximately $6.4 billion annually.  Taxed at a rate similar to alcohol, California could bring in revenues of about $1.5 million per year plus achieve savings on prosecution and incarceration of drug offenders.  About eight and a half per cent of the California prison population – about 13,000 inmates – are incarcerated for an average two years.  It costs California $31,000 per year to house a single inmate.  This translates to over $800 million to keep those prisoners incarcerated for two years.  A non-violent offender caught up in the “three-strikes” policy would average a 25-year sentence and cost the state over $750,000 to keep him incarcerated.  When does the end – cost – no longer justify the means?  Law enforcement has more important responsibilities than arresting 750,000 individuals a year for marijuana possession, especially given the additional justice costs of disposing of each of these cases. Marijuana arrests make justice more expensive and less efficient in the United States, wasting jail space, clogging up court systems, and diverting time of police, attorneys, judges, and corrections officials away from violent crime, the sexual abuse of children, and terrorism.

Many on the other side of this debate, those who would argue for the continued prohibition of marijuana, cite the drugs addictive and “gateway” properties.   Several studies, however, have shown these arguments to be erroneous.  In a 1999 study by the Institutes of Medicine, researchers concluded that “There is no conclusive evidence that the drug effects of marijuana are causally linked to the subsequent abuse of other illicit drugs.”   They reasoned that marijuana was considered a gateway drug in that “Because it is the most widely used illicit drug, marijuana is predictably the first illicit drug most people encounter. Not surprisingly, most users of other illicit drugs have used marijuana first. In fact, most drug users begin with alcohol and nicotine before marijuana — usually before they are of legal age.”  As far as addictive properties, marijuana is considerably less so than alcohol; alcohol has twice the intoxication rate of marijuana and three times the dependence rate.  The dependence rate of caffeine is twice as high as that of marijuana.

Lastly, there are other economic benefits to marijuana legalization.  Foremost among these is the development of Hemp as an eco-friendly cash crop.  As one of the fastest-growing biomasses on the planet, the Hemp plant can be cultivated anywhere in the world and requires nearly no pesticides or herbicides.  Because of its density, it has been valued in farming for weed control and soil enrichment.  The plant can also be used to “mop” impurities and chemical out of the soil and water.  Hemp fiber can be used in cordage, building materials, biofuels, fabric, and paper.  Hemp seeds are also a nutritionally sound foodstuff and could bring more food security around the globe.

When you stack up all the benefits of marijuana and hemp against the policies we follow in this country today, it is clear that we are going down the wrong road.  We need voices and politicians that are unafraid to bring this issue to the forefront and turn us in the right direction.

(Please see the NORML website for more information on legalization)

Faster! Play Faster! February 24, 2009

Posted by Kate Ryan in Crime and Punishment, Drug War, National Politics, Politics, popular culture, Racism.
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Reefer Madness

Dave O'Brien in "Reefer Madness"

When I was in college, a favorite activity among my friends and I was to get super stoned and watch “Reefer Madness”.  Also known as “Tell Your Children”, the movie was originally  released in 1936 by a church group as a cautionary tale of drugs, sex, and violence.  It was rediscovered in the early 70’s and quickly became the darling of dopers everywhere.  The campy production and overacting are uproariously funny even when you’re NOT stoned.

“Reefer Madness” included themes typical for the day.  In middle America, marijuana use was something that people of color – like Mexican immigrants and black musicians – indulged in.  The racist tone of early anti-cannabis literature was common.  In Texas, a senator said on the floor of the Senate: “All Mexicans are crazy, and this stuff [marijuana] is what makes them crazy.”  Also, a 1934 newspaper story editorialized that “Marihuana influences Negroes to look at white people in the eye, step on white men’s shadows and look at a white woman twice.”   What naturally followed was the usual fear-mongering; that Mexicans, Blacks and other foreigners were snaring white children with marijuana.  It became necessary to white America that the menace needed to be stopped to “protect our children”.  So, in 1937, a low-level functionary at the Bureau of Narcotics – Harry Anslinger – decided to make his career by making marijuana illegal.  Anslinger found an ally in William Randolph Hearst, who absolutely hated Mexicans and saw that lurid stories sold papers – even if they weren’t exactly true (sounds like Fox News!).  An excerpt from a published Hearst editorial says, “Users of marijuana become STIMULATED as they inhale the drug and are LIKELY TO DO ANYTHING. Most crimes of violence in this section, especially in country districts are laid to users of that drug.”   Thus, marijuana was made illegal, and we have been paying the penalty for it for over 70 years. 

The United States is spending, between the state and federal governments, over $30 billion per year on the “war on drugs”.  A bit more than half is spent on interdiction and enforcement; the remainder is spent on legal costs, incarceration, social services for the children of drug violators, and other social costs incidental to drug arrests and prosecutions.  Of the more than 1.8 million drug arrests in 2007, 47% of those were for marijuana.  More than 88% of the marijuana arrests were for simple possession; most of the rest were for possession with intent to sell.  These are the heinous “drug crimes” – possession – not robbery, or murder, or domestic violence, or assault.

The anti-drug culture says that marijuana smokers are doing themselves irreparable mental and physical harm.  However, a review of the literature suggests that the majority of cannabis users, who use the drug occasionally rather than on a daily basis, will not suffer any lasting physical or mental harm.  Daily users are more likely to suffer from similar tobacco-related illnesses than meth-related ones.  Despite the widespread illicit use of cannabis there are very few if any instances of people dying from an overdose.

The other powerful argument about marijuana is that it is a “gateway drug”, that is, use of marijuana will lead the individual to try other, more harmful drugs.  Marijuana is no more a gateway drug that alcohol or tobacco.  Indeed, studies have shown that adolescents generally experiment with tobacco and alcohol BEFORE trying marijuana.  If marijuana were legalized, most 12th graders felt that they would be little affected personally.  Three fifths (60%) of the respondents said that they would not use the drug even if it were legal to buy and use, and another 17% indicated they would use it about as often as they do now or less often.

Since marijuana was officially criminalized in 1937, over 97 million Americans have admitted to trying it.  They have found that it doesn’t make you violent, it doesn’t make you insane, and it doesn’t make you start shooting heroin.  Nobody has ever smoked some dope and beat up the old lady.  Nobody has ever smoked marijuana and jumped off a building because they think they can fly.  For the most part, it makes you laugh at the silliest things (like Reefer Madness), eat a pan of brownies, and fall asleep.