John Havelock, part two: A little weed should be permissable

John Havelock

Second of two columns

The War on Drugs has become such a standard part of American life that most of us are unaware that it has been growing steadily, sometimes dramatically, from its origins in 1914. The Prohibition Era came and went apparently without any of its lessons impacting the companion prohibition on drugs. The occasional voices of reason from academe and from government sponsored studies by institutions like the Rand Corporation and even the federal Office of Drug Control Policy calling for a new direction have been largely ignored.

Relentless enforcement policy in the face of expanding failure can be traced in part to the opinion, held by many, that marijuana or other drug use is immoral. Moral lapses justify criminal sanctions. The problem, as with Prohibition, is that a larger part of the community does not share that view. Today, more people view drug abuse as a medical problem with medical answers. A larger proportion of the public, about 75 percent, views the war on drugs as failing. And marijuana? For a slight majority, marijuana use is a form of recreational pleasure, not as dangerous as alcohol or cigarettes and not everybody's "cup of tea," but still at least as enjoyable. A little weed should be permissible.

A second reason failed policies continue is that the war has become economically and otherwise profitable to a complex of interests. Direct federal appropriations totaled more than $15 billion annually. Some of this money goes to state police, based on enhanced drug arrests, marijuana the easiest. State costs exceeded the federal. In 2005, 800,000 drug prosecutions meant $7 billion in funds to hire prosecutors. Total incarceration went from less than 300,000 in 1980 to an eye-popping 2.3 million eight years later. Marijuana arrests are approximately half of drug busts, and 82 percent of the increase in arrests in the period through 2008. Though Alaska , assisted by a legislative bribery scandal, has escaped much of the growth in the private industry, police, prosecution and judicial resources have been diverted from other responsibilities and Corrections is the fasted growing state department.

Money is the least of the problems with drug policy. Taking discretion away from judges with mandatory minimums sentences was madness and a big contributor to increased imprisonment. As reported in the UAA Justice Forum, as rates of incarceration have soared, difficulties in reentry have multiplied, with consequences such as expanded destruction of family structure, unemployment and creation of a permanent underclass.

Then there are the racial impacts, an issue alive notwithstanding the US Supreme Court's apparent view that racial discrimination by states is over. Nationwide, thirteen times as many blacks go to jail on drug charges as whites, even though consumption is roughly equivalent. One out of nine black children has a parent in prison. Felony arrest is a convenient way to limit minority voting too.

Most of us are already familiar with this waste. We simply are not doing anything about it. The war on marijuana is similar to the war in Vietnam. The drug war damaged or destroyed lives by the hundreds of thousands. It sent American youth, still with a great potential for useful lives, to prison schools, guaranteeing the growth of an underground of lawlessness. Generation after generation, it made the police the enemy instead of the friend. We will eventually end the war. Marijuana use was generational. The generations tolerant of marijuana use are slowly growing into the generation of political power.

The systems we use for controlling alcohol and cigarettes are much more sensible than the criminal justice system we use to control marijuana. Our prisons are overloaded with hundreds of thousands of Americans who lack any violent inclinations.

Alaska policy has wobbled, as indicated in UAA Professor Brandeis's recent article in the Alaska Law Review. Signature gatherers are now abroad seeking initiative relief from the present system. The Legislature must assist in forging a new design. Maybe, following Oregon and Colorado, Alaska will help get the country out of its rut.

This is the second of two columns by John Havelock on marijuana and the war on drugs. Havelock is a former Alaska attorney general and, later, while director of University Legal Studies, directed the state's criminal code revision project.

John Havelock