The story of drug policy is often told through the lens of hypocrisy and potential revenues. How contradictory is it for us to legalize and promote alcohol, but ban marijuana? And at a time of deficits, how much public revenue could we generate by legalizing marijuana and taxing it?
These are important points - but just as significant are the two other questions that don't get much attention: How much public money are we now wasting by criminalizing marijuana, and how much is that criminalization endangering our security?
I raise these questions not just to highlight how much the prison-industrial complex's "zero tolerance" drug laws are making us spend on incarcerating non-violent drug offenders, but to additionally highlight how huge a chunk of law enforcement resources are now going to enforce drug laws - rather than to protect our communities.
At a national level, we know, for instance, that much of the resources being plowed into using the Patriot Act are being used not to fight terrorism, but to enforce prohibitionist drug laws. This trend is now bleeding into local law enforcement operations as well. Case in point is the massive anti-pot operation here in Colorado. In a state so choked by budget deficits that we're slashing our police force to the bone, our law enforcement officials are spending huge amounts of public money busting pot grow houses.
Remember, these are finite resources - creating a huge task force aimed at stopping pot growers means we can't, say, create a similarly sized task force aimed at investigating securities fraud or even stopping violent street crime.
What's so appalling about this is the response from the law enforcement Establishment. Here in Colorado - a state that has legalized medical marijuana - the Drug Enforcement Agency is attacking legal medical marijuana dispensaries for supposedly providing business to dangerous Mexican drug cartels. That's right, at the same time the DEA is working to shut down domestic marijuana grow houses (many of them potentially totally legal businesses) and limit marijuana supply, they are complaining that medical marijuana dispensaries may be inadvertently buying their supply from illicit sources.
Interestingly, the DEA is accidentally making an argument against itself. If it is afraid that legal medical marijuana dispensaries are sending business to Mexican cartels, then the solution is for the DEA to help expand the legal supply of domestic medicinal marijuana.
But that's not about to happen. Just like the military Establishment has been hostile to the White House's refusal to rubber-stamp the Pentagon's demand for an Afghanistan escalation, the DEA seems hostile to the Obama Justice Department's recent directive telling the agency to respect states' medical marijuana laws. As attorney Rob Corry told the Ft. Collins Coloradoan, we may have "a set of rogue agents from the DEA who are blatantly...violating the express explicit written directives from their own bosses."
And so the huge waste of resources will likely continue - a huge waste of law enforcement resources at a time of massive deficits.
Of course, when President Obama laughed off a drug policy question at his online townhall meeting in March, he did what most politicians do on the issue: imply it is only important to Dirty Fucking Hippies who want to get high. But ultimately, that's not what this is about in the public policy arena. It is about where we should be spending finite resources. I don't know about you, but I'd be much more comfortable with the money being spent busting pot growers going instead into regulating Wall Street, stopping bank/mortgage fraud and preventing the kind of run-of-the-mill violent crimes that plague our communities.