Sunday, September 20, 2009

What if they had a war...?

What If They Had a War…?

About fifty years ago, our country got involved in a highly unpopular war that incited considerable protest and civil disobedience. One of the slogans of that period was: “What if they had a war and nobody came?”

I was reminded of that slogan when the September 28 issue of Fortune ran a cover story, “How Pot Became Legal”, by Roger Parloff. It’s starting to look like the Government is having a War on Drugs, but no one is coming.

(But, first, a modest little claim of priority. Several months ago, I started spreading the idea that “The people have already legalized marijuana; when will the government catch up?”)

The idea was that, while politicians and generals may declare wars, they depend upon the peoples’ compliance in serving as cannon fodder to fight them. As far as the War on Drugs is concerned, it really looks like the people have become either draft resisters or conscientious objectors.

In the seventy years since the federal government outlawed marijuana, the government’s own estimate of the number of Americans who have used it has grown from 100,000 to over 100,000,000. That’s a lot of people sitting out the War – and they haven’t even had to go to Canada or Sweden.

Even the courts have dropped out. Government officials now proclaim that almost no one (but, unfortunately “almost no one” is not the same as “no one”) goes to jail for a first-time possession of a small amount of marijuana. But, one may ask, if they are not going to put anyone in jail, why were about 800,000 people arrested for marijuana possession last year? Just last year, Massachusetts joined the thirteen states (why does the phrase “thirteen states” resonant with me?) who had acted in the 1970s, and decriminalized the possession of a small amount of marijuana. Some of the police officials and prosecutors screamed that the end of civilization had arrived, but the people just yawned – and lit another joint.

Congress itself is starting to relent. Last week the House of Representatives, in reauthorizing Pell Grants in Aid for college students, voted out the provision barring grants to those convicted of any drug offenses, including marijuana possession. The injustice, which has lasted for ten years, is that students were not barred from receiving grants by other convictions, including those for violent crimes or financial crimes.

The Fortune article claims that California has decriminalized marijuana under the rather transparent fig leaf of authorizing the medical use of the herb. In California, a patient may use marijuana if a physician certifies that, in his medical opinion, use of the drug would be beneficial. Determination both of the existence of a medical condition and of the benefit of marijuana is left to the professional discretion of the doctor. Conditions diagnosed have included headaches, muscular or joint pain, loss of appetite, PMS, insomnia, and even general malaise or disphoria.

If any doctors could use some additional income, consider the numbers. The usual fee for a consultation and issuing of a certificate good for one year is $200. These consultations rarely last longer than ten minutes. A doctor spending an additional thirty minutes a day for 200 days a year would see 600 patients, increasing his income by $120,000 per year.

The federal government has said it will not interfere, and while a few local governments are resisting the opening of dispensaries in their communities, most seem satisfied with the situation. Fortune claims that there are about three times as many marijuana dispensaries in Los Angeles as there are McDonald’s – even more dispensaries than Starbuck’s.

Both Colorado and New Mexico are allowing dispensaries this year, and Rhode Island has passed a law authorizing them. The California model seems to be spreading.

Thirteen states now recognize the medical use of marijuana, and five or six more have bills under consideration. Fourteen states have decriminalized possession. Even allowing for a large overlap between these two groups of states, a substantial part of the American population now lives in a jurisdiction in which marijuana use is legally accepted. Two companies – Oaksterdam University and Cannabis Tech -- now run commercial operations teaching people how to grow and market marijuana.

When I talk to young people, high school and college age, they accept marijuana as a normal part of life even if they don’t use it themselves – and most do not. The law against it rarely enters their consciousness, but when it does, it appears as a minor inconvenience, not a deterrent. A common sentiment is that if a police officer finds them with marijuana, he will just take their stash and send them home. At worst, they think they face a few months easy probation.

I started this piece with a metaphor comparing the War on Drugs to the Vietnamese War, but now I wonder if that was the best choice. Our government finds itself on the losing side in both instances, looking for a way out, but we have been engaged in this war for our entire lives, and opting to sit on the sidelines seems a cowardly choice.

Perhaps a better comparison would be Shaw’s Chocolate Soldier. When forced to war, he threw away his cartridges and filled his ammunition box with chocolates. Maybe we should try to kill the drug warriors with sweetness.

But the best fit may be the major of nursery rhyme fame (Attention, Source Scouts: help me track down this image that remains just out of memory). He’s the one who marched all his men up the hill and then marched them down again.

At any rate, it’s time for the politicians to listen to the people. The war is over. Marijuana is legal. Deal with it.

[Nota bene: Some commentators have asked for my views on the effect of marketing if drugs are legalized and on the role of the U.S. in the international drug trade. It has taken some time to put my thoughts in order and to do a little (ugh!) research, but you can expect to see something on this topics and further parts of my Theory and Practice of Prohibition, interspersed with random brain droppings, in the near future. Let me know if you have other ideas for me to talk about. BCT]


  1. The Vietnam War is a bad choice. The War Was won (remember the peace agreement?) and America was out of the picture by 1973.

    What happened in 1975 was that a Democrat Congress refused to support our ally and the Communist took over putting 100,000 in camps and sending at least 1/2 million to sea where it is estimated that 1/2 died. We called them boat people then.

    The Vietnamese were mired in poverty and totalitarian government until the Communists of that country decided to take a hint from the Communist Chinese and move to a more market oriented economy as opposed to a totally government controlled economy.

    A better example might be the collapse of the
    USSR due to its many market distorting prohibitions.

  2. I stand by my choice of Viet Nam. We never had an "ally" in that war. all of the south Vietnamese reegimes were strawmen set up to put a native face on anti-communist intervention into a nationalistic war of independence.
    -- but that's an argument for a different time and place.
    but the S.U. didn't fit the "War on Drugs" metaphor I wanted to play with. BCT

  3. > The federal government has said it will
    > not interfere

    As I understand it the raids continue under cover of supposed state law violations.

    On a different topic, what do you think of the California Supreme Court refusing to review County of Butte v. Superior Court (

    The ASA claims that "the California Supreme Court sends a strong message that local law enforcement must uphold the medical marijuana laws of the state and not competing federal laws". Do you see it that way?

  4. I'll leave detailed comments on the California Law to California lawyers.

    But, as I understand it, California leaves a lot of discretion to local government entities and a lot of these localities are hostile to medical marijuana. Many of these raids have occured in localities when the local government is fighting establishment of dispensaries.

    I hope someone can flesh this out.