Reefer madness

For more information on the eradication raids, check the Web site of the national Marijuana Policy Project at

A few weeks ago, 200 federal, state and local law-enforcement officers launched a huge marijuana-eradication effort in the mountains of Sacramento’s forested neighbor to the north, Shasta County. The strike, dubbed Operation Alesia, was so big that even President Bush’s drug czar, John Walters, flew out to Redding on July 12 to kick it off.

“America’s public lands are under attack,” Walters said, charging that heavily armed Mexican drug cartels had turned the national forests into “ground zero for drug cultivation. These violent drug traffickers are endangering America’s outdoor enthusiasts and sportsmen, and the sensitive ecosystems of our wilderness.”

The week-long operation was a big success, if success is measured by the number of plants seized, 283,397 in this case. Numerous other eradication raids—including ones in Calaveras County near Stockton, and in the Sequoia National Forest and Yosemite—have been executed across California these last weeks because cannabis plants mature in late July, early August.

Will all that expenditure of manpower and resources do much good in the long term? Probably not. Marijuana gardens are low-investment, high-yield ventures. If they don’t produce a crop, little is lost, at least as far as the cartel bosses are concerned. If some low-paid workers end up spending 10 years in prison, as could happen to the 16 Mexican nationals arrested during Operation Alesia, the cartels don’t care. They’ll just try again next year.

Not long ago, most marijuana growers in California were local people who cultivated the herb on their own land. Gradually, law enforcement drove most of them out of business, but demand for the product didn’t go away nor did the lure of high profits. Well-financed Mexican operators moved in to fill the void.

All the pot seizures in the world aren’t going to stop them. According to an October 2006 press release issued by former state Attorney General Bill Lockyer, the number of seizures increased by more than 1,200 percent in the past decade and yet marijuana remains California’s No. 1 cash crop, worth almost $14 billion annually.

For more than 30 years government has been trying to convince people not to use marijuana and spent billions of dollars trying to catch pot growers, and yet marijuana is still big business. It’s crazy to keep doing something that doesn’t work, especially when it’s so expensive. It’s time for a new approach, one that acknowledges reality.

We believe marijuana should be legalized and regulated. That’s what we do with wine, for example, and it seems to work. What’s more, a 2005 Harvard University study, signed by 500 economists, found that allowing marijuana to be taxed and regulated would actually lead to savings and revenue of $10-14 billion.

As Bruce Mirken, of the Marijuana Policy Project, notes, “There’s a reason you never hear about clandestine vineyards hidden in national parks and forests. If we regulated marijuana as we do wine, the problem Walters denounces so vehemently would disappear overnight.”