Americans' annual day of reckoning with the IRS on April 15 is a good time to consider where our money is going -- and where it's being wasted. With the federal budget deficit ratcheting past $400 billion per year, and with the White House and Congress looking at cutting spending for Medicare, education, and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, there is no excuse for squandering billions of dollars on programs that don't work.
Number one on the failure list is our government's war on marijuana users. This war has not only failed to curb marijuana use and availability, but it has done real harm to our nation while chewing up billions of dollars every year.
How many billions? Last year, Harvard economist Jeffrey Miron estimated that the federal government spends about $2.4 billion annually on enforcing anti-marijuana laws, which is on top of about $5.3 billion that local and state governments spend annually. Under prohibition, we also forgo the roughly $6.2 billion in tax revenues that Prof. Miron says would be generated if marijuana were regulated and taxed like alcohol and tobacco.
But that's only part of the cost of marijuana prohibition. The federal government has spent over $1 billion since 1998 on TV, radio, and print anti-drug ads that have focused overwhelmingly on marijuana, often neglecting far more dangerous drugs like methamphetamine. And the government spends millions of additional dollars conducting and publicizing research that’s designed to justify marijuana prohibition -- and an unknown amount campaigning against state and local efforts to reform marijuana laws.
The goal of all this is to choke off the marijuana supply and put a stop to marijuana use. Are we getting our money's worth?
In a word, “no.”
According to the U.S. Justice Department's 2006 National Drug Threat Assessment report, "marijuana availability is high and stable or increasing slightly." In another recent federal government survey, 86 percent of high school seniors said that marijuana was "easy to get" -- a figure that has remained virtually constant since 1975.
All this, despite an all-time record marijuana "eradication" campaign in 2005, with over four million plants seized. Marijuana arrests have also set a record: 771,984 in one year. That's the equivalent of arresting every man, woman, and child in the state of Wyoming plus St. Paul, Minnesota -- every year.
By cherry-picking the most favorable statistics, the White House has tried to convince us that marijuana use has dropped in a big way, but this simply isn't so.
Although changes in survey methodology make direct comparisons difficult, the latest edition of the federal government's National Survey on Drug Use and Health, released last September, reports a higher percentage of 12-to-17-year-olds using marijuana at least monthly than when President Nixon first declared a "war on drugs" in 1971. The number of Americans who admit to having tried marijuana has reached an all-time record -- nearly 100 million.
Nearly 15 million say they use marijuana at least monthly. That's more people than attend all college and professional football games in a typical month, more than three times as many as buy Apple's red-hot iPod in a month, and eight times as many as attend rock concerts in a month.
The futile effort to "eradicate" marijuana has produced a harvest of misery. By forfeiting any chance to regulate the marijuana market -- you can't regulate what's illegal, after all -- we've given criminals and gangsters an exclusive franchise. We've guaranteed that marijuana will be grown in dangerous locations -- even hidden in wilderness areas or national parks -- instead of by regulated producers who are subject to environmental and labor standards. Unlike liquor merchants, who could lose their very lucrative liquor licenses if they sell to children, marijuana dealers have no incentive not to sell to kids.
Marijuana prohibition may be the most spectacular policy failure since -- well, since the prohibition of alcohol in the 1920s. It's time to stop wasting money on this boondoggle. It’s time to tax and regulate marijuana similarly to alcohol.
Rob Kampia is executive director of the Marijuana Policy Project in Washington, D.C., www.mpp.org
-- Bruce Mirken, Director of Communications
-- Marijuana Policy Project
-- P.O. Box 77492 -- Capitol Hill -- Washington, D.C. 20013
-- http://www.mpp.org -- Bruce.Mirken@MPP.ORG
-- phone 415-668-6403 (office) -- 202-215-4205 (cell)