The Law Adds to the Harm by Joseph D. McNamara
The appearance of any new study indicating an increase in marijuana use by youth is always a prelude to a renewed government surge in America’s war on drugs. But let’s be realistic about our options. It’s not as though tough enforcement keeps kids away from marijuana. Usage goes up and down no matter what we do. By keeping marijuana illegal, we nudge youngsters into contact with real criminals engaged in the drug trade. Then we bust kids, giving them a criminal record.
We should be asking: Is the drug war worth fighting? Is there such a thing as victory?
We shouldn’t, of course, recommend to kids that they get high on pot instead of drunk on booze or blasted on coke, but recognizing that they may not be the perfect children that we were, the following facts speak for themselves: No one ever died from using marijuana, unlike alcohol or cocaine. Marijuana tends to mellow people, but we know alcohol and cocaine excites some into violence. Driving under any of these drugs is a no-no, but cocaine and alcohol are more likely to produce speeding and reckless driving than marijuana is. Both the law and common sense clearly show that a designated driver is the way to travel.
The scare tactics — raising alarms about youngsters falling under the evil spell of marijuana and tumbling down the slippery slope to a lifetime of degradation and crime — are used to ward off hard questions. The real policy question is not how to save kids from the bogeyman scare scenes depicted in “Reefer Madness,” the government’s ludicrous 1930s film advocating a ban on marijuana. Instead we should be asking: Is the drug war worth fighting? Is there such a thing as victory? Are the methods we employ worse than the supposed evils they are meant to prevent?
Alcohol prohibition from 1920 to 1933 taught the federal government that it pays to emphasize the “protect our youth” angle. This intimidates many from daring to question some of the corruption and unnecessary deaths and injuries resulting from violent drug enforcement. Even I, a former anti-drug warrior, am hesitant to risk being attacked as encouraging kids to think any drug use is harmless and cool. Yet I have joined thousands of former hard-charging cops, prosecutors and judges in an organization called Law Enforcement Against Prohibition, which unequivocally states that people can cure past drug excess, but can never cure the damage of a conviction and a youthful trip into the world of crime and the criminal justice system.
Joseph D. McNamara, retired police chief of San Jose, Calif., is a research fellow at the Hoover Institution at Stanford University.