May 10, 2005,
As the nation's "drug czar," John Walters is supposed to be saving us from the ravages of hard drugs like heroin and cocaine. At least that was the original sales pitch for the "war on drugs" in the 1980s. But the war has evolved into largely a fight against marijuana, which no one has ever claimed is a hard drug. Walters is nonetheless committed, Ahab-like, to arresting every marijuana smoker in the country whom law enforcement can lay its hands on.
It used to be that drug warriors denied that marijuana was much of a focus for them, because they understandably liked people to think they were cracking down on genuinely dangerous, highly addictive drugs. No more. We are waging a war on pot, a substance less addictive and harmful than tobacco and alcohol, which presumably friends of Walters enjoy all the time with no fear of being forced to make a court appearance.
According to a new report by the Sentencing Project, in a trend Walters heartily supports, annual drug arrests increased by 450,000 from 1990 to 2002. Marijuana arrests accounted for 82 percent of the growth, and 79 percent of that was for marijuana possession alone. Marijuana arrests are now nearly half of all the 1.5 million annual drug arrests. Marijuana-trafficking arrests actually declined as a proportion of all drug arrests during this period, while the proportion of possession arrests increased by two-thirds.
Has the use of other drugs declined, prompting the focus on marijuana? No. According to the Sentencing Project: "There is no indication from national drug-survey data that a dramatic decrease in the use of other drugs led to law-enforcement agencies shifting resources to marijuana. Indeed, there was a slight increase in the use of all illicit drugs by adult users between 1992 and 2001. Over that same period, emergency-room admissions for heroin continued to increase." Drug warriors simply think it's a good thing in and of itself to arrest marijuana smokers.
Their crusade bears little or no connection to law enforcement. Crime generally has been declining from 1990 to 2002, even as pot arrests have increased. Are we to believe that crime is at its lowest rates in 30 years, but the nation is beset by rampaging marijuana smokers who are kept under minimal control only by ever-increasing arrests? Every major county in the country, except Fairfax, Va., saw an increase in marijuana arrests during the past 12 years. That Washington, D.C., suburb has not been notably overrun by hemp-crazed hordes.
The fight against marijuana isn't even working on its own terms. According to the Sentencing Project, since 1992, the price of marijuana has fallen steadily, declining by 16 percent. In 1990, 84.4 percent of high-school seniors said it was easy to get marijuana. In 2002, 87.2 percent said it was easy. Daily use by high-school seniors tripled from 1990 to 2002, going from 2.2 percent to 6 percent the same level as in 1975.
As Allen F. St. Pierre, executive director of the pro-decriminalization group NORML, puts it, "Increased arrest rates are not associated with reduced marijuana use, reduced marijuana availability, a reduction in the number of new users, reduced treatment admissions, reduced emergency-room mentions, any reduction in marijuana potency, or any increases in the price of marijuana." Besides that, the war on marijuana is a smash success.
Marijuana is not harmless, and its use should be discouraged, but in the same way, say, smoking a pack of cigarettes a day should be discouraged. The criminal-justice system should stay out of it. Twelve states have decriminalized marijuana to varying degrees, fining instead of arresting people for possessing small amounts. They recognize that as the authors of a new study for the conservative American Enterprise Institute argue "the case for imposing criminal sanctions for possession of small amounts of marijuana is weak."
John Walters, of course, will have a ready answer for the ineffectiveness of the war on marijuana. It's the answer drug warriors always have even more arrests.
Rich Lowry is author of Legacy: Paying the Price for the Clinton Years.
(c) 2004 King Features Syndicate