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In The Time of the War on Drugs

Legend has it that in the five-thousand year history of marijuana, only one death has ever been attributed to the plant: Two smugglers were flying low over Floridian farmland back in the 1970s when they received a radio warning that the DEA. was waiting on the ground. They started dumping 20 pound bricks of Colombian bud out the airplane door and one of the bricks crashed through the roof of a farmhouse and pulverized a farmer who was kicking back, having a beer and watching TV.

That small story, probably untrue, usefully illustrates two points. One, marijuana is benign. One death, however peripheral, in five millennia is not a bad record at all. Two, whatever harm that can be associated with marijuana—in this case getting squished while sipping a Schlitz—comes not from some intrinsically pejorative quality of the plant, but from it’s prohibition (If the DEA weren’t waiting in the bushes, the farmer never would have been flattened). In the War On Drugs, that farmer is collateral damage; and if we are going to admit collateral damage then we would certainly have to include Donald Scott, age 61, wealthy, reclusive and also quite doomed. His story is definitely true.

On October 2, 1992, agents from the Los Angeles Police, The Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Office, the Park Service, the DEA, the Forest Service, the California National Guard and the California Bureau of Narcotic Enforcement—thirty agents in all—knocked and announced their presence at 8:30 am at the front door of Donald Scott’s $5 million 200-acre ranch in Malibu, California. Seconds later, the agents kicked in the door and rushed into the house where they found Mrs. Scott screaming and Donald Scott holding a gun. They shot him twice in the chest and killed him on the spot.

Agents were acting on a tip that marijuana was cultivated on the property but a subsequent search found no marijuana, no drugs and no paraphernalia whatsoever anywhere. An investigation conducted by the Ventura County DA after the raid found that the Sheriff’s Department lied, that it knowingly sought a search warrant on insufficient information, that much of the evidence supporting the warrant was false while exculpatory evidence was withheld from the judge. The only way to explain why seven agencies and thirty agents were willing to do so much with so little was greed. By their presence at the raid each agency gained a claim to a portion of the revenues that would presumably be generated by the civil forfeiture of the Scott’s $5 million property. In fact, the DA’s report found that the various authorities had targeted the property, not the crime and that two of the thirty agents who raided Scott’s home were asset forfeiture specialists. In addition to coming in with high-powered rifles, police dogs and battering rams, these guys were also armed with a property appraisal and a parcel map of the ranch marked with the sale price of a nearby property.

Civil forfeiture—the taking by government of property used in the commission of a crime—has been broadened in the time of the war on drugs. Authorities can seize property without filing criminal charges and, if charges are filed, the property may be retained by the government even if the accused is acquitted. The owner need not know of any alleged criminal activity in order to have their property taken away. Hence, an elderly couple in Connecticut lost their house when the police founds their grandson in the basement with drugs. This new breed of forfeiture allows police and prosecutors to decide who is “really” guilty even if a judge and jury have determined otherwise. Seized assets give prosecutors enormous clout in plea-bargaining as in “What are you willing to say in order to get your house back?” and negotiations always favor the propertied allowing kingpins to cut deals and leaving small-fry to swing in the wind. Another drug law modification allows untainted property to be seized in substitute for supposedly tainted assets which authorities deem to be unrecoverable or destroyed. Since the laws were re-written in 1984 authorities have confiscated houses, cars, bars, boats, jewelry, securities, IRAs, cash, lots and lots of cash, and, in one particularly galling instance, a childhood coin collection that had nothing to do with a crime. The participating law enforcement agencies split the seized assets to spend as they see fit, raising the spectre of self-funded, self-regulated law enforcement agencies beholden to no oversight but their own questionable judgment. There is now close to $3 billion in the Federal Asset Forfeiture Fund and some local police agencies have seized assets worth many times their annual budgets.

Enhanced civil forfeiture is but one of many blunt legal instruments which have become crude weapons in the time of the War on Drugs. At least, the prosecutors call them weapons; defense attorneys and their clients call them fundamental abrogations of the Bill of Rights. Fifty percent of American workers are now required to submit urine and/or hair samples for drug testing. No-knock policies, warrantless searches and infra-red heat seeking devices mounted on low-flying military-style helicopters foreclose our right to privacy; mandatory minimums and “Three strikes! You’re out!” sound bite sentencing fill the jails to bursting. In thize=me of the war on drugs the nations prison population has doubled, and, currently, the U.S. imprisons more of its citizens than any other country in the world, perhaps a half-million more than communist China. In the past two decades thousands of new prisons and jails have been built resulting in a system that is more overcrowded now than when the building spree began. Sixty percent of all Federal prisoners are serving time for drug crimes. The Federal prison system as a whole now operates at about 40% above capacity, at least 45 state prison systems are now operating beyond their design, and at least 24 of those state prisons are under court order to relieve the overcrowding. This is sometimes accomplished by releasing violent criminals back into society in lieu of non-violent drug offenders whose mandatory sentencing does not allow for parole; and this is sometimes accomplished by jobbing the incarceration out to one of a vast number of private prisons that have cropped up like weeds during the time of the war on drugs.

The U.S. Government currently spends $17 billion on its Drug War and it needs marijuana to be illegal in order to play at this level of the game. Consider that there are perhaps a million heroin users in the U.S.; a half million are thought to be addicts and only 2,000 die each year of overdose. The “only” in that last sentence is not as cynical as it sounds. Drug war rhetoric implies that the death rate among hard drug users is much greater than it really is. In fact “only” 15,000 people die each year in the U.S. from an overdose of an illegal drug, and while those 15,000 deaths are tragic, unacceptable and, for the most part, avoidable, spending $17 billion to spare the lives of 15,000 individuals does not make financial sense. Drug warriors will argue that we need to protect our children and ourselves from the crime and violence that accompanies drug abuse, but they don’t say that almost all of the crime and violence to which they refer stem from the drug business which is a function of prohibition (During alcohol prohibition liquor distributors were criminals, carried guns and killed each other and the police. After Prohibition was repealed liquor distributors put their guns away and became a much more civil lot).

The hard drug problem in the U.S. simply doesn’t warrant a $17 billion expenditure, but add marijuana to the mix and suddenly the drug war becomes feasible, fungible and fundable. Marijuana is now and long has been the most popular, most frequently used illegal drug in the country. It is used more frequently than all the other drugs combined. There are 14 millions U.S. citizens who consume illegal drugs regularly but 80% of them are marijuana smokers. So three million hard drug offenders become fourteen million once marijuana is admitted to be the “gateway” to other drugs. The drug warriors point to studies that show a vast majority of hard-core drug users began by using marijuana, and the drug law reformers reply sarcastically that, for a lot of drug abusers, mother’s milk came even earlier; but the truth is more complicated. Truthfully, there is a gateway dynamic between marijuana and heroin. Owing to its illegality, a marijuana purchase can bring a neophyte consumer into a dealer’s orbit where pills and powders are as prevalent as weed. In that way marijuana can lead to harder drugs. By asking junkies which drug they began with, researchers reached a foregone conclusion. Had researchers asked how many of the 70 million Americans who have tried pot went on to experiment with harder drugs the results would be minimal and would not justify an annual $17 billion war chest.

There is no doubt that the current Drug War grew out of an anti-marijuana movement organized by conservative groups in the late 1970s. When Ronald Reagan was trolling for an anti-drug abuse agenda, these groups provided the zero-tolerance anti-pot rhetoric that quickly became national policy.

In 1980, before the current Drug War started, 50% of the inmates entering state prisons were violent offenders; by 1995 less than a third were convicted of a violent crime. Similarly, the rate of violent crime has dropped by about 20% since 1991, but the prison and jail population during the same period has risen by 50%. Non-violent pot offenders fueled the Drug War. And while there is no doubt that the conservatives in the 1970s were sincere (albeit misinformed) in the tirade against marijuana, motivations have morphed in the last dozen years.

Today’s drug war is a bi-partisan witch-hunt. The War on Drugs has become an institutionalized part of our economy and Republicans and Democrats alike applaud it as no small contributor to our current prosperity. Enhanced foreclosure extravagantly rewards police officials who target the drug war.

The urine-testing business which didn’t exist ten years ago is now a $350 million piss-mill. The doubling of our prison population, seen another way, represents an economic boom to millions of American workers. When we build prisons Wall Street financiers handle the public bond issues and private prison investment (a private prison boom in Texas was backed by Shearson Lehman, Allstate, Merrill Lynch and American Express).

Construction companies, electrical contractors, plumbing contractors, supply companies, clothiers and all sorts of local labor benefit. Food services thrive. Trash needs to be hauled. After the prison is built the institution remains labor-intensive and hires its personnel from the local labor pool.

When the prison boom came to the upper-New York State North Country, a economically-depressed area was put back to work. North Country prisons (up to eighteen at last count with another one on the way) now bring $425 million annually to the region in payroll and operating expenditures.

Politicians like the North Country’s State Senator Ron Stafford can return to their districts with fat-cat prison construction projects that are a sure-win with voters wanting jobs. During the ten years Mario Cuomo was the Democratic Governor of New York State he authorized the building of 29 prisons; 28 were built in upstate districts represented by Republican Senators. Prison construction as coin of the realm. This is political cachet of the first water, and this is the real reason why we wage a war against marijuana in the time of the War on Drugs.

Our unfortunate farmer notwithstanding, there has never been a death attributed to marijuana in all of history. In fact, it is one of the few pharmacologically active substances for which there is no quantified toxic dose. Nevertheless, there were more marijuana arrests in 1997 than ever before, almost as high as the number of arrests for murder, rape, robbery and aggravated assault combined. According to one extrapolation, a male marijuana offender is raped, heads or tails, in the U.S. prison system once every two hours. Cruel and unusual punishment to say the least or a Constitutional crisis at worst, listen closely: that’s the sound of Thomas Jefferson spinning in his grave.

Posted by A. Shapiro
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