The following article appeared in the November 2009 issue of Blue Line (Canada's national law enforcement magazine). It was titled "Save our Police Budgets: Legalize and Tax Marijuana." This is my second article in Blue Line. The first one was published in June and it was titled The Failure of Drug Prohibition: A Law Enforcement Perspective. In this new essay I am using some of the arguments promoted by SAFER (ie. marijuana is safer than alcohol, so why are we driving people to drink?). If you like this article please Digg it!
Save our Police Budgets: Legalize and Tax Marijuana
Michael Klimm raised a number of excellent points in his letter published in the August issue of Blue Line. Although he argued against legalizing and regulating drugs, several of his statements were compatible with drug policy reform. First, he acknowledged the status quo is not working. Second, he stated that the damage caused by tobacco - a dangerous but legal substance - has been reduced through education. Third, he asserted the best way to tackle organized crime is to remove the profit motive from the black market. Finally, he emphasized that the legalization and regulation of drugs has not yet been tried anywhere in the world. With these key points in mind, perhaps it is time for a new approach?
Marijuana policy would be a good place to begin as 53 percent of the population supported legalization in a 2008 Angus Reid poll. Approximately 44 percent of Canadians have used cannabis at some point in their lives according to the Canadian Addiction Survey. Despite heavy enforcement, it remains the largest illegal drug market in the country with over two million citizens using cannabis on a recreational basis. A legal and regulated cannabis market would therefore eliminate the majority of all domestic drug trafficking in Canada.
Marijuana is not a benign substance, but it is substantially safer than alcohol. Assaults against peace officers, sexual assaults and incidents of domestic violence are frequently traced back to liquor consumption but rarely to cannabis consumption. Many of us know friends or colleagues whose personal and professional lives were ruined through alcohol abuse. Upstanding citizens have committed terrible crimes while drunk, and yet Canadians remain legally bound to abstain from using marijuana. It is time to present the public with a safer, legal alternative to alcohol.
Unfortunately, the Canadian Association of Chiefs of Police / Canadian Police Association joint resolution on drug abuse in 2002 insisted on the status quo. Now, seven years later, federal, provincial and municipal governments are broke. Police organizations are facing budget cuts, although leaders in law enforcement can still increase the long term financial health of their respective agencies by supporting an end to marijuana prohibition. It is the least painful concession to make, especially compared to wage rollbacks, hiring freezes and training cutbacks.
Critics might point to the Netherlands and offer anecdotal reports of a failed drug policy, but the facts show otherwise. The country adopted de facto decriminalization in 1976. Adults can buy personal amounts of marijuana in licensed outlets known as cannabis coffee shops. Alcohol is banned in the coffee shops and advertising is prohibited. Overall the system works well, although one problem is that the actual production and distribution of marijuana remains illegal. Organized crime is still involved in that part of the industry which is why it is important for Canada to legalize the entire supply chain.
The Netherlands has a cumulative lifetime incidence of cannabis use that is half that of the United States (19.4% versus 42.4%). Its cumulative incidence of cocaine use is one eighth that of the United States (1.9% versus 16.2%) according to data from the World Mental Health Surveys as compiled by the World Health Organization. The United States uses a tough justice approach with drug offenders, and yet per capita drug use rates, overdose deaths and HIV infections are significantly lower in the Netherlands. Why is this?
It appears the Netherlands’ tolerant attitude toward drugs has reduced the forbidden fruit effect. There is nothing rebellious about smoking marijuana in Amsterdam. In addition, they have separated the cannabis market from other drugs. Cashiers in the coffee shops don't lace marijuana with crystal meth or give away free samples of cocaine. In contrast, Canadians face a multitude of dangers when purchasing marijuana on our city streets.
At the end of the day, it is easy to look into our past and determine which social policies were just and effective. For example, contraception was legalized forty years ago with the Criminal Law Amendment Act, 1968-1969. Prior to the Act it was illegal to advertise or sell condoms or other forms of birth control. The Pill was only prescribed to women who needed help regulating their menstrual cycle. In other words, it could only be used for medicinal purposes. (Does this kind of language sound familiar?) Today, few officers could imagine using criminal law to prevent the sale of birth control pills, in spite of their harmful side effects.
It is more difficult to look forty years into the future and consider how our children and our grandchildren will judge our actions as law enforcement officers. Institutional inertia is not a good enough reason to maintain a prohibition on marijuana or any other drug. Regulating cannabis would provide a safer alternative to alcohol, eliminate most domestic drug trafficking, generate tax revenue, free up police resources and reduce abuse by young people.
What are we waiting for?
David Bratzer is a police officer in British Columbia, Canada, and he also manages the blog for Law Enforcement Against Prohibition (http://copssaylegalize.blogspot.com). The opinions expressed in his essay are entirely his own.