By Frank McCandless
In the fifties, the myth of crazed marijuana smoking teenagers and counterculture jazz playing hooligans seemed like a real threat to Ward and June Cleaver. The threat in the sixties was pot-smoking, draft card burning hippies. By the seventies, the all-knowing elite had enough and began the war on drugs.
Nixon initiated the war in 1971 because of high rates of soldiers returning from Vietnam “addicted” to drugs. These drug-addled warriors were putting a major crimp on our war in Southeast Asia. It simply did not look good to have soldiers coming back high. So began the 40-year war on drugs including a substance most people could grow in their backyard.
In the eighties and nineties the war on this substance was put into high gear. First by Ronny Ray-Gun in Central America and secondly, by states using courts. Baseball was referenced by the states in making these new laws because, as we know, sports are a great basis for any legal system. The three strikes and you’re out law guaranteed to keep any habitual offender off the streets and our prisons filled to the brim with non-violent drug offenders, most of which are poor people and those of color.
As with the war on poverty, the war on drugs, especially marijuana, has been a complete failure. People will smoke pot – it’s inevitable, like teens humping. Some will get addicted – about 10 percent – most will not. Some will abuse the drug and cause problems, but most will not. All the problems concerned with marijuana use are already present. Continuing ineffective anti-drug policies is extremely costly to society. No one is a winner except the prison industrial complex.
According to the Office of National Drug Control Policy, the United States federal government spent $15 billion fighting the war on drugs in 2010; that’s about $500 a second. States spent another $25 billion on drug enforcement. The result of these massive expenditures to criminalize drug use has been a significant growth in our prison populations, a significant amount of police time and resources dedicated to the war on drugs, and the destruction of many young, often black, lives as a result of a criminal court record, loss of access to school financial aid, and the correlating barriers to work.
In 2010, Wisconsin saw over 16,000 arrests for minor possession of marijuana, according to the Department of Justice. That rate is twice the number arrested in Minnesota. The rate of arrest for a black adult is nearly six times that of whites, despite no evidence suggesting this population is a more active user of marijuana. Despite being a drug the White House reports as tried by over 42 percent of Americans (more than 18 million Americans actually reported using the drug within one month of the survey), the arrested users of marijuana are given a criminal record, charged excessive fines, and often thrown in jail. The arrest history can serve as a major barrier to employment, and even to finding affordable housing. This begs the question: do these arrests for common marijuana use (and not the actual drug use) have a damaging effect in leading to serious future criminal activity?
Marquette Law School associate Dean Michael O’hear agrees, writing, “probationary sentences, for instance, can lead to incarceration if the terms of release are not obeyed. Moreover, arrests and convictions in even minor cases become part of a criminal history that makes an offender more likely to experience arrest and conviction in more serious cases later on, as well as tougher sentences if there are any subsequent convictions. Then, too, criminal history of any sort diminishes employability in mainstream job markets, which may increase the likelihood of more serious criminal activity in the future.”
The toolkit for U.S. and Wisconsin policy makers seems to only contain a hammer: every problem looks to them like a nail which needs to be forced into submission. It’s time we add a few more tools to our kit. The first tool in the kit should be reason; rationale dictates that if something does not work, change it. The second in the toolkit should be compassion, which, in my opinion, is a lot to ask for from people in power. Decriminalizing drugs, especially pot, is the first step in having a more realistic drug policy. You do not need to make a whole new set of laws; treat pot the same way we treat alcohol and cigarettes, and bring in a little extra tax revenue to help fund the education of those young hooligans you’re so afraid of.
In 2014, drugs and alcohol are already easy to get. Wisconsin needs to decriminalize drugs, especially pot. This would free up the local police, free up funds for treatment centers, job programs, and free up people to make a simple, uneventful choice that would largely go unnoticed to the general public.
People who use pot are not drug-crazed hooligans. The myths concerning marijuana and its disastrous effects are perpetuated by a system that wants little more then to maintain the status quo with unsupported slogans like “gateway drug.” The use of pot is already massively widespread, including in Oshkosh. Yet we don’t see or hear about any problems this is causing (because there aren’t any), aside from the justice system-fueled fear of pot use itself. The current system is completely ineffective at what it is designed to do, and has much broader negative impacts than the simple use of pot ever did.
Regulation, similar to what we see with tobacco and alcohol, is the only rational, fiscally responsible, and just route, and now a majority of Americans agree.
Frank graduated from UW Oshkosh, former machinist, roofer. Lives with wife Ann.