With the enactment of the Volstead Act in 1919, America embarked on a social experiment known as Prohibition. Prohibitionists rejected the idea that people could be trusted to drink in moderation, arguing that alcohol use inevitably led to moral corruption and undesirable behavior. Accepting these premises led Congress to conclude that a federal ban on the production and sale of alcohol would go a long way toward reducing crime and addressing a variety of other social problems. Within a decade, however, Americans discovered that the criminally enforced prohibition of alcohol produced harmful side effects. The rise of black markets empowered organized crime to an unprecedented degree. In some of America's largest cities, local governments had been heavily corrupted by the influence of organized crime. The black market provided minors with easy access to bootlegged alcohol, which was frequently of poor quality and unsafe to drink. Faced with the disastrous consequences of Prohibition, Congress decided in 1933 to repeal the Volstead Act. Since that time, the government has implemented the much more successful policy of focusing law enforcement efforts on irresponsible alcohol users who endanger the rights of others.
Unfortunately, current drug policy fails to take into account the lessons of Prohibition. The law regards all users as abusers, and the result has been the creation of an unnecessary class of lawbreakers. According to the FBI's Uniform Crime Report, more than 734,000 individuals were arrested on marijuana charges in 2000. This number far exceeds the total number of arrestees for all violent crimes combined, including murder, rape, robbery, and aggravated assault. Eighty-eight percent of those arrested were charged with possession only. Convicted marijuana offenders are denied federal financial student aid, welfare, and food stamps, and may be removed from public housing. In many cases, those convicted are automatically stripped of their driving privileges, even if the offense is not driving related. In several states, marijuana offenders may receive maximum sentences of life in prison. The cost to the taxpayer of enforcing marijuana prohibition is staggering -- over $10 billion annually.
The harsh nature of punishments for marijuana offenses is even more disturbing if one considers the racial bias of the war on drugs. According to data collected by the National Household Survey, on an annual basis the overall difference between drug use by blacks and whites is quite narrow. However, a recent national study found that African Americans are arrested for marijuana offenses at higher rates than whites in 90% of 700 U.S. counties investigated. In 64% of these counties, the African American arrest rate for marijuana violations was more than twice the arrest rate for whites. Questions of racial bias affect the integrity of investigations, arrests, and prosecutorial discretion. If we truly aspire to the ideal of "Justice for All," then these unjust racial disparities are unacceptable outcomes for the American justice system.
The rationale for continuing this draconian policy of marijuana prohibition is unclear. Statistical evidence shows that marijuana use follows a pattern very similar to that of alcohol. Most marijuana users do so responsibly, in a safe, recreational context. These people lead normal, productive lives -- pursuing careers, raising families, and participating in civic life. In addition, marijuana has proven benefits in the treatment of numerous diseases, such as providing a valuable means of pain management for terminally ill patients. In either of these contexts, there is no rational justification for criminally enforced prohibitions. These unnecessary arrests and incarcerations serve only to crowd prisons, backlog the judicial system, and distract law enforcement officials from pursuing terrorists and other violent criminals.
New Mexico's 2001 state-commissioned Drug Policy Advisory Group determined that marijuana decriminalization "will result in greater availability of resources to respond to more serious crimes without any increased risks to public safety." This finding is backed by the successful implementation of such policies in twelve states. The state governments of Alaska, California, Colorado, Maine, Minnesota, Mississippi, Nebraska, Nevada, New York, North Carolina, Ohio, and Oregon approved these measures after the National Commission on Marijuana and Drug Abuse recommended that Congress adopt a national policy of marijuana decriminalization. A recent CNN/Time magazine poll indicates overwhelming public support for this approach, with 72% of Americans favoring fines as a maximum penalty for minor marijuana offenses, and 80% approving of marijuana used for medical purposes.
As a nation, we must work to implement a drug policy that removes responsible recreational users and medical users of marijuana from the criminal justice system, in order to redirect resources toward the following goals:
Enforce penalties for those who provide marijuana to minors.
Enforce penalties for those who endanger the rights of others through irresponsible use, such as driving under the influence.
Develop drug treatment programs focused on rehabilitation, rather than incarceration.
Support the efforts of state governments in developing innovative approaches to drug policy.
Improve drug education by emphasizing science over scare tactics.
Implement a Department of Justice program that would review the records of, and consider for sentence reduction or release, inmates convicted for nonviolent marijuana offenses.