Is the War on Drugs a war on jobs?

California’s search for a sane drug policy

A Gallup poll released last week found that 50 percent of Americans support legalizing marijuana while 46 percent are opposed. For more information, search for this poll at

The four California U.S. attorneys who recently announced a federal crackdown on medical marijuana and I agree on one thing: California’s Compassionate Use Act, which permitted the use of medical marijuana, has turned out very differently than what California voters expected when they approved the 1996 ballot proposition.

No one I knew thought it would produce an estimated 200,000 patients, thousands of collectives, revenues of $1.3 billion, more than $100 million paid in taxes and tens of thousands of jobs.

Now, while the feds and some local officials may want to throw this unplanned baby out with the bathwater, I think it is important to consider whether this morphed medical-marijuana system is good for California. Have we somehow stumbled upon a much more effective marijuana policy than the federal law-enforcement method? What if our California policy actually hurts the Mexican cartels, dramatically reduces dangerous and clandestine growing, severely weakens an illicit marijuana sales force focused on high-school students, all the while increasing much needed tax revenue for the state and local communities?

Maybe instead of trying to close down California’s medical-marijuana system, the federal government should be copying it. This is not to say the California system is perfect because it is not. Money laundering has occurred at some collectives and that is not OK. And the shipment of marijuana out of state should obviously not be happening. Nonetheless, the current system in California is a giant step forward to an effective, sane drug policy.

In full disclosure, I, as an alternative-newspaper publisher, made money on medical-marijuana advertising until the federal crackdown. Now that’s all changed. But it is true that I benefited from the old system. Also hanging over my head is the suggestion by the San Diego U.S. attorney that, at least in her district, she may prosecute media that ran medical-marijuana ads. Also, in terms of full disclosure, I have a fear I could literally be setting myself up for prosecution by writing this story, which is not totally unreasonable given the feds’ willingness to make examples of individuals who speak out.

But here goes.

Using any objective measure, such as the percentage of Americans who use and abuse drugs, the numbers of individuals incarcerated for crimes associated with drugs, and law-enforcement and prison costs, the 40-year War on Drugs is a colossal failure.

The failure starts with its name: the War on Drugs. It is not a War on Drugs. It is a war on people: Roughly half of Americans who have not used marijuana or other drugs trying to put the other half in jail.

Or more accurately, since it is not feasible to have roughly half of Americans serving time at some point in their lives, the policy has basically been to put a whole lot of minorities in jail to show that politicians are tough on crime. While Caucasians and African-Americans are equally likely to use drugs, African-Americans are around three times more likely to be arrested.

Anyone who studies history knows that Prohibition did not impact the amount of drinking. Stringent law enforcement may have made it more expensive, but it clearly did not significantly decrease demand. It’s the same with marijuana.

It costs around $400 to grow a pound of marijuana that can be sold for up to $6,000 on the street. With that kind of money, there will always be a supply. And it will be a plentiful supply. It is totally hopeless to think that law enforcement can solve this problem.

But law enforcement can create a bigger problem than the one they are trying to solve. Recently, when the four U.S. attorneys announced their crackdown, they mentioned the illegal and dangerous growing in national parks, the involvement of the violent Mexican cartels and the targeting of youth. Ironically, all of these understandable concerns are minimized by the California medical-marijuana system. Or to be more accurate, they would be minimized if the federal government would get out of the way.

Let’s take them point by point. If the federal government would allow medical marijuana to be grown in regulated areas, this would significantly reduce the need and advantage to planting in wilderness areas. But the feds are against this.

Next point, the Mexican cartels. Anyone in their right mind should be frightened of the Mexican cartels. Experts say these cartels make between 60 and 70 percent of their revenue in marijuana sales. California’s medical-marijuana industry takes away revenue from these cartels. What’s not to like about that?

Next point, targeting youth. Medical-marijuana collectives are not targeting kids. While one could make a case that liquor stores that sell candy next to alcohol, and cereal companies that run ads on cartoon shows are targeting kids, medical-marijuana collectives are not. On the other hand, the illegal marijuana distribution system definitely targets kids. That sales network, supported by the huge profits of illegal marijuana sales, has a very effective high-school sales operation. It should be noted that in countries such as Portugal, decriminalized drugs produced a dramatic decrease in youth drug use.

Finally, there is cost—a subject that was not mentioned by the U.S. attorney. California’s medical-marijuana system is providing much-needed revenue for our cash-strapped governments.

Just as Prohibition did not work, the federal crackdown on medical marijuana will not work. It is not enough to say federal law prevails over state law. After all, we have all kinds of banking and security laws, but the federal government seems to find hardly anyone in violation of those laws. The juxtaposition is the kind of thing that destroys the credibility of our legal system.

It is time for the federal government to focus on critical issues for our country, and let California figure out a more rational, sane and economical drug policy. Our state has led the way for the country on other issues; the feds should allow us to lead on this one.