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War on Drugs: The Price Tag


War on Drugs: The Price Tag

America can’t afford marijuana prohibition – it’s a matter of dollars and sense.

By Anita Bartholomew, January 14, 2009

With our economy going to pot, President-elect Obama has promised a “top-to-bottom audit to eliminate spending for programs that don’t work.” So, here’s a sane, simple proposal to save the country billions of dollars a year: end the war on marijuana users.

This failed and counter-productive program is an assault on people who pose virtually no threat to themselves or anyone else, certainly no more than that all-American “Joe Sixpack” revered in our recent presidential election.

Yet, getting caught with a few seeds or trace marijuana residue on a pipe is enough in some jurisdictions to trigger an arrest. Most who favor continuing the war assume that law enforcement focuses on sweeping up kingpins and members of cartels. But, here’s a sobering statistic. Of the 872,000 arrests in 2007 for marijuana-related offenses, almost 90 percent were for simple possession of the dried vegetation in question. The typical arrestee is younger than 30. Think college-age kid caught lighting up a joint. Now, multiply that by 775,000 — that’s where a significant chunk of your drug war dollars are going.

The price of deploying an army of local, state and federal cops, prosecutors and guards to arrest, try and imprison the perpetrators of this non-scourge? Using data from 2000, Harvard economist Jeffrey Miron estimated it as $7.7 billion per year while a 2007 study, by public policy expert Jon Gettman, figured it closer to $10.7 billion per year.

Most of that money is eaten up by law enforcement according to Miron, with $2.94 billion going to prosecution costs in 2000, and less than half a billion toward incarceration.

Add in the revenue we’d eventually gain if marijuana were regulated and taxed like alcohol and tobacco (from $6.2 billion to as much as $31.1 billion per year), and you’re talking real money.


David Doddridge took pride in his work for most of his 21-year career with the LAPD. But when, five years before his retirement, he got transferred into narcotics, he began to feel he was doing more harm than good.

Cops see the collateral damage done by the drug war, costs that don’t show up on anyone’s budget analysis and are paid, not just by those arrested for the high crime of preferring a doobie to a Bud Lite, but by their families: The father whose car is confiscated when junior gets pulled over by an officer with a nose for burnt herb. The daughter who tries to buy medical marijuana – because it’s the only medicine that relieves her parent’s chemotherapy-induced nausea – and gets arrested in the process. The children who get shuffled from foster home to foster home while mom serves time.

“One of the first things that struck me as a narcotics officer was the tremendous amount of damage we were doing to the social structure – homes, families, children, parents,” says Doddridge. “I look back and still see the faces of the people I arrested and threw in jail.”

He recalls a young mother he busted who had been working her way through college. “Her boyfriend left her and she was trying to make a better life for herself and raise two children at the same time. All of that was gone now. All of it was gone.

“I got to thinking, what are we doing? I’d been thinking it for a while but that just made it worse.”

When I ask him to give me the positive side of prohibition, Doddridge’s usually soft, thoughtful voice betrays anger. “It’s really helped out the drug cartels. It’s created lots of new jobs, building new prisons, hiring new guards.” Doddridge also decries how, under the guise of protecting us from ourselves, the government has enacted laws that ignore the fourth amendment’s prohibitions against unreasonable search and seizure.

And there are practical considerations even the fiercest anti-drug crusader should take into account. When law enforcement agencies allocate more time, money and officers to drug task forces, those resources aren’t available to fight crimes against people and property.

“The homicide clearance rate today is less than it was in 1950,” says Doddridge. “Today we have all the DNA and all the electronic stuff and CSI and all these other people. But we can’t clear as many because serious investigative resources, that could go into clearing homicides, rapes, robberies and other things are now being diverted into this war on drugs.”

After leaving the LAPD, Doddridge joined Law Enforcement Against Prohibition (LEAP), the only drug reform organization representing those in law enforcement. LEAP, founded by five former police officers in 2002, now has 10,000 members, including current and former judges, cops, DEA officers, prosecutors, and others. By giving the law enforcement perspective in media interviews, in talks to groups such as Rotary, Lions, and Kiwanis clubs, and testifying before legislatures, LEAP has helped to bring about incremental changes in some state and local laws, such as decriminalization of possession of small amounts of pot. It’s one battalion in the army of reform organizations that includes NORML, the Marijuana Policy Project, the Drug Policy Alliance, and others.

Now one of LEAP’s spokespeople, Doddridge says he expected at first to get “a lot of hoots and howls” when he spoke to an audience. Instead, almost everyone has been receptive to his message.

“It’s almost like they’re waking up from a dream. You can just see them, click, click click,” he says, as the arguments against prohibition break through preconceptions.

Like Doddridge, Earl Barnett is a retired law enforcement officer – he was on a force of about 500 in Greenville, South Carolina – whose experiences soured him on the drug war. In his view, law enforcement needs to get out of the business of policing drug users. “The fact of the matter is, the large majority of the people who use drugs are not a threat to the community.”

Barnett, who is also a spokesperson for LEAP, points to Prohibition, the U.S.’s last failed attempt at keeping people from choosing their own intoxicants. “They preached that we would turn into a nation of alcoholic zombies if we repealed Prohibition.”

Today’s prohibitionists warn that marijuana legalization would lead to a nation of drug-addled zombies.

Barnett believes we should take the lessons of history to heart and feels frustrated that we haven’t as yet. “We are still enthralled with politicians who preach fear in this country. The only thing our country has done very well in the war on drugs is that we have created such fear, we’re reluctant to consider any alternative.

“There has to be a different way because what we’ve been doing has absolutely squandered our resources. And for what?”


On January 16,1920, the eve of Prohibition, the flamboyant evangelist Billy Sunday (himself, a reformed drinker), staged a mock funeral for John Barleycorn, complete with a grief-stricken Satan marching behind the casket. Sunday preached that demon rum was at the root of all crime and, without it, there would be no more need for jails. To an audience of 10,000 celebrants, Sunday proclaimed, “We will turn our prisons into factories and our jails into storehouses and corn cribs.”

This belief, shared by many Prohibitionists, prompted some towns to close their jails and sell off the buildings.

Drinking and crime did take a dive for a couple of years but neither ended. By 1923, people were drinking more than they had in 1918 to 1919, prior to the passage of the 18th amendment that banned alcohol. Homicide rates spiked.

Prohibition had created a distribution vacuum that organized crime quickly filled, operating much like today’s drug cartels.

With the double-whammy of the Great Depression hitting at the same time Prohibition-associated crime was burning a hole in the law enforcement budget, voters clamored for repeal.

So will a deep recession lead us to reconsider pot prohibition? Jeffrey A. Miron, a Senior Lecturer in the Department of Economics at Harvard, authored one of the many studies that calculated the billions we’d save each year if we stopped prosecuting marijuana users. In June 2005, more than 500 economists, including the late Milton Friedman, signed a letter in support of the study, urging repeal of marijuana prohibition.

Miron isn’t sanguine about the war on weed ending any time soon, but he believes that, in a free society, the government has no business protecting us from ourselves — especially when it makes arbitrary choices about which risks it’s going to prevent us from taking.

“Any argument one could make for keeping marijuana illegal would apply at least as strongly for tobacco and alcohol and many other things which carry risks,” says Miron, “driving on a highway, downhill skiing, Ben and Jerry’s ice cream, you name it.”


Why do we spend billions per year on enforcement, judicial costs, and imprisonment of people whose only crime is to prefer a relatively mild, non-government-sanctioned intoxicant over more addictive, more health-damaging government-approved ones? Why is the government so intent on protecting me from me – and you from you? Isn’t its rightful role to protect us from outside threats against our persons and property?

Drug czar John Walters heads the Office of National Drug Control Policy (ONDCP), a federal agency that establishes drug war objectives and priorities throughout the U.S. I made several attempts to reach Walters, or a representative, so I could ask these and other questions, but was unsuccessful.

So, we’re left to public statements made by Walters and others in his office, such as those from a press conference in September, when Walters was campaigning against a ballot initiative to legalize medical marijuana in the state of Michigan, which has since passed. Walters claimed that marijuana is “dangerous” an “addictive substance” and that proponents of legalizing marijuana for medical use are promoting “poisoning on a wider scale.” A blog entry from the office of the drug czar suggests that marijuana use leads to schizophrenia.

How dangerous is pot, really? There are no records of anyone having died from smoking marijuana, ever, nor has anyone overdosed on it, or been poisoned by it, unlike over-the-counter remedies such as, say, aspirin and similar pain relievers, which kill approximately 7,600 people per year. Medical researchers tell us that the potential for marijuana to be habit-forming is equal to or less than the habit-forming potential of caffeine. But we haven’t outlawed coffee, tea or chocolate. In the seemingly endless search for some justification for the war on weed, researchers have looked for a cause-and-effect connection between marijuana and schizophrenia.

And they did discover that those with schizophrenia are more likely to smoke marijuana than are other people. However, they also found that those with schizophrenia are even more likely to drink alcohol. No one’s suggesting we again ban alcohol.

When all else fails, the drug czar’s fallback argument is that marijuana is a “gateway drug” that leads young people to try more potent stuff. The Institute of Medicine is a non-government body commissioned by the drug czar’s office in 1999 to weigh the value of marijuana as medicine. It found that “most drug users begin with alcohol and nicotine before marijuana” and that “marijuana is not the most common, and is rarely the first, ‘gateway’ to illicit drug use.” In other words, the drug czar’s last, best argument had been debunked by his own office before Walters took over.

Ordinary people are getting wise to the realities and pot won’t be our boogey man forever just as demon rum has lost its ability to instill fear. As it was before the repeal of alcohol Prohibition, average Americans of all stripes are ahead of the politicians on the learning curve. A Zogby poll of 4,730 people nationwide, conducted in September 2008, found that 76 percent surveyed believed the war on drugs was a failure. And 54.4 percent overall believed that the solution to drug abuse should not be law enforcement-related, but either education/treatment, legalization of some drugs, or ending the war on drugs all together.

Twenty-one states have now decriminalized marijuana possession for personal use, medical use or both, most often by ballot initiative — demonstrating that a majority of voters favored relaxing the law. On Tuesday, November 4, 2008, Massachusetts’s voters became the latest to decriminalize possession of up to an ounce of marijuana and Michigan voters legalized medical marijuana. Both measures passed with more than 60 percent approval.

But as long as there are any criminal penalties attached to marijuana use, we will continue enriching the violent cartels and gangs that grow, harvest and distribute pot. They thrive for the same reasons the Al Capones of the alcohol Prohibition era thrived: prohibition throws all the business their way.

As long as marijuana is illegal, we’ll still be directing billions to enforcement, prosecution and incarceration. And we still won’t realize the revenues that regulation and taxation can bring.

We could use those lost billions right now. Estimates of the combined savings from legalizing marijuana, and revenues from taxing it like alcohol or tobacco, range from $13.94 to $41.8 billion per year. That’s enough to pay for all or most of President-elect Obama’s proposed ten-year, $150 billion alternative energy investment. Or it could contribute roughly one-fifth to one-half of the $75 billion per year estimated cost of Obama’s proposal to extend health insurance to all.

We can’t know yet where an Obama administration will take us but, Candidate Obama gave a few clues about how President Obama may look upon the war on weed. Obama and his spokespeople have said that he would respect the medical marijuana laws passed by local and state governments and end the Clinton and Bush era DEA raids on medical marijuana providers.

It’s less clear how receptive he’ll be to either legalization or decriminalization. Although he backtracked once he became a presidential candidate, Obama agreed with decriminalization in 2004. And, like the majority of Americans polled by Zogby, Obama has called the drug war an utter failure.

It’s a start. Alcohol Prohibition didn’t end all at once. At the dawn of Prohibition, doctors lobbied to retain the ability to prescribe liquor for medicinal purposes. Toward the end, low alcohol content beer was re-introduced. And with economic collapse and bootleg alcohol gang violence out of control, the U.S. reached a tipping point; the 21st Amendment repealed the 18th.

It’s time to reassess marijuana prohibition with clear minds, the way that our ancestors eventually viewed repeal of alcohol Prohibition, to get past the fear-based and moralistic misinformation. Do we really want to keep spending insane amounts of our dwindling government funds on tracking down, arresting and imprisoning the hundreds of thousands of hapless Harolds and Kumars who then can no longer contribute to our faltering economy by overeating at White Castle? Is this where we want to focus our law enforcement resources when we’re entering a deep recession that’s likely to produce an increase in property crime?

Going back to President-elect Obama’s promise to “eliminate spending for programs that don’t work,” it’s clear that the war on marijuana users hasn’t worked. It’s not just a failure, it’s a disgrace, on every level, and it’s time to end it. Not only to save money or to stop punishing non-criminals, but to fulfill a promise made long ago, about inalienable American rights to liberty, the most basic of which is, quite obviously, the freedom to do what you choose with your own body in the privacy of your own home.

[Editor’s note: This is one of three pieces Culture11 is publishing on the War on Drugs. See Radley Balko’s piece on collateral damage in the drug war here, and David Fredosso on the case against legalization here. And see David and Radley debate their respective pieces here.]