by Aaron Houston
Director of Government Relations
Americans' annual rush to file our tax returns — April 17 this year, due to quirks of the calendar — is a good time to think about how those dollars get used, and how they get wasted. No one, on the political left or the political right, likes the idea of pouring tax money into programs that are proven failures.
And proven failure number one is America's war on marijuana.
Consider this: From 1982 to 2005, the federal Drug Enforcement Administration's Domestic Cannabis Eradication/Suppression program seized over 103 million marijuana plants. In recent years, an average of over 33,000 cultivation sites per year have been eradicated, representing a massive investment of law enforcement dollars and effort.
The result? According to federal government estimates, in roughly the same time period, annual U.S. marijuana production increased from 1,000 metric tons to 10,000 metric tons.
To put this in perspective, a study released late last year (based entirely on government figures) found that marijuana is America's number one cash crop by a whopping margin. With an estimated value of $35.8 billion in 2006, our marijuana crop exceeds the value of corn ($23.3 billion) and wheat ($7.45 billion) combined.
Imagine how politicians would react if this were a program to eradicate, say, unemployment. If after two and a half decades, the result were a 1,000 percent increase in unemployment, the howls of "big-government boondoggle!" would be heard all the way from Washington, D.C., to the next galaxy.
Amazingly, the government's 2007 National Drug Control Strategy — released by the White House in February — touts the "eradication" of over 6 million marijuana plants last year, but ignores the complete failure of this program to actually impact the marijuana supply.
Ah, some might say, but maybe it's still worth it if we're keeping marijuana away from kids.
Alas, there is no sign of success there either.
According to the federal government's 2006 Monitoring the Future survey, 84.9 percent of high school seniors report that marijuana is "easy to get." That is virtually unchanged from 1975, the first year the survey was done, when the figure was 87.8 percent. In all the years since, the "easy to get" figure has never dropped below 82.7 percent.
But this isn't the only way our government wastes money in its war on marijuana. Since 1998, the White House drug czar's office has poured nearly $3 billion dollars into a Youth Anti-Drug Media Campaign that has been dominated by anti-marijuana ads, including ridiculous spots featuring teenagers under the influence of marijuana committing violent crimes. Doubts about the effectiveness of the campaign were raised as early as 2002, and have only grown since then.
Following an Aug. 25, 2006, assessment by the U.S. Government Accountability Office questioning the effectiveness of the ad campaign, the National Institute on Drug Abuse finally released an evaluation of the ad campaign that had been kept under wraps for a year and a half. The report found that the anti-marijuana campaign has not only failed to reduce teen marijuana use, but it actually increased marijuana use among certain adolescents.
That data — also paid for with your tax dollars — might have stayed buried forever if the GAO hadn't forced its release.
So what's the alternative to this failed war on marijuana? Contrary to claims by Drug Czar John Walters, the alternative isn't "surrender," it's common-sense regulation: Take marijuana out of the criminal underground and establish sensible controls.
Treat it like we do alcoholic beverages, with everyone involved licensed and required to follow a strict set of rules. Educate teens about the dangers of drugs with materials that treat them with respect and present the facts honestly.
A sensible marijuana policy would save billions of dollars and leave everyone better off.
Aaron Houston is director of government relations for the Marijuana Policy Project in Washington, D.C.
CONTACT: Bruce Mirken, MPP director of communications, 415-668-6403 or 202-215-4205