A good step in a phony war

2013-09-03 09:46

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There was a great victory for common sense in November last year when the states of Colorado and Washington decided to legalise, to a large extent, the sale and consumption of marijuana. That victory was echoed last week when the Department of Justice decided it wouldn't sue the states to comply with federal laws that forbid the aforementioned.
It is tricky legal territory as the states are a lot more autonomous than, for example, the provinces are in South Africa, and they also pay most of the costs of prisons - logically they should have a fair say in who gets put in them.

Sadly, irresponsible politicians have often successfully decided to run on platforms cracking down on crime (something people love), necessitating more laws, more arrests, more convictions, more prisons and therefore more costs (something people hate). This has results like the state of California, which, in 1994 saw its population vote yea in a referendum enacting the now infamous "three strikes" law, which threw people in prison for life for a third felony conviction, no matter what it was.

Logically, this resulted in California's prison population booming with non-violent offenders, and prison and court costs skyrocketing alongside them. And although the state’s budget last year was in the black for the first time in ages, it has a serious financial mess it is currently dealing with, helped in part by the $8-billion (R82bn) it spends per year in prison costs - 9.5% of its total budget.

Good argument

So there's a good argument to be made for states to decide to imprison or not dependent on their own bottom lines. There's a better argument to be made, however, for beginning to break down this absurd "War on Drugs" which morphed from an attempt by the Richard Nixon administration in 1971 to devote resources to both incarceration AND rehabilitation, into one which heavily prioritised arrests, convictions and discriminatory mandatory sentences.
The "War on Drugs" has trashed the civil liberties Americans take so seriously, and target minorities: black people use marijuana, for example, at the same rate as white people, but are four times more likely to be arrested for it. Black Americans are also issued sentences that are 20% longer that white Americans convicted for similar offences.
Many prison facilities are privately run, and are therefore profitable as long as thousands of drug users continue to enter them. There can be no justification for any motivation to ensure prisons are full (in this case profit), yet the "War on Drugs" achieves exactly that. In 1978 there were 307 367 inmates in the USA, which expanded to 1 615 487 in 2009. As a percentage of the population, that's an increase of 3.76 times. Private prisons were massively expanded in the 1980s. You do the math.

And for all this "War on Drugs" effort, which has lasted over 40 years, the US remains number one in the world when it comes to use of illegal drugs.
Worth being cautious

In Colorado and Washington, where marijuana will now be regulated and taxed in similar fashion to alcohol (in fact that Colorado law is named the "Regulate Marijuana Like Alcohol Act of 2012"), criminal penalties have been removed for any adults in possession of one ounce or less, which may not be consumed in public or anywhere outside the state. Both states are expecting a tax windfall due to sale of the product, which is literally money being appropriated from its former destination of drug cartels.
It's worth being cautious when judging this federal government at its face-value word: Holder made clear the Department of Justice maintained the right to go after the two states in future. And after announcing in 2009 that the department would not prioritise cases of medical marijuana (outlawed federally, but legal in 20 states and the District of Columbia), then went and killed off more medical marijuana businesses - in states where they trade legally - than the previous president did in both terms combined.
But any intention to begin limiting the "War on Drugs" is a good thing, and the people of Washington and Colorado have kicked it off. The federal government keeping its nose out of these states' attempt to stop the damage of this phony war should be welcomed.
May the distant federal bureaucracy learn from these two states, instead of lashing out at them.

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