On May 4, Washington, D.C., Assistant Police Chief Peter Newsham was quoted in the Washington Post as saying, “People don’t feel marijuana is dangerous, but it is because of the way it is sold.”
On Feb. 11, when the Columbia Police Department conducted a SWAT raid on the home of Jonathan Whitworth, the officers shot both of his dogs, killing one and wounding another in the same house with his terrified wife and 7-year-old son. Undoubtedly, the police were following protocol for a policy that we, the American people, have endorsed. And although we might try to change the protocol to mitigate its effects, the flawed policy itself is the root cause of the problem.
That policy we have endorsed is, of course, marijuana prohibition.
These seemingly unemotional executors of the law — in this case, officers of the Columbia Police Department — were merely following procedure for what is potentially a very dangerous situation: policing an illegal market.
Let one thing be very clear. Two of our most highly valued principles in a capitalist economic system are transparency and accountability, neither of which is present in an underground trading market. As a democratic society, we are complicit in giving billions of dollars a year to criminals to oversee the distribution of marijuana and other drugs.
And that means criminals become the de facto regulators, distributors and enforcers of “unfair business practices” making a nontoxic, nonlethal substance like marijuana potentially fatal to anyone, including children and dogs who might be unintentionally caught in the crossfire of its rogue regulation. The notion of our policy to drive this market underground is to limit its availability and use. Yet despite billions of dollars spent annually in the “war on drugs,” marijuana is as easily available in the United States as it is in Amsterdam — though the marijuana use rates among youths there are only 60 percent of what they are in the United States.
Exactly like alcohol prohibition, our policies have created a juggernaut of violence for an unstoppable consumer demand. We have forced a commodity with a large consumer base (Missouri’s No. 1 cash crop) that half the American population is guilty of having consumed into an informal market where the only regulation is by the bullet. And despite decades of the same just-say-no-or-we-will-bring-our-guns-on-you approach, we have not lowered use rates. Marijuana is widely available — and, specifically, more widely available to teenagers than alcohol — and no one who sells it asks for ID.
The war on drugs is frequently waged in the name of the nation’s children. But if you were to ask your children about it, they would probably tell you they want you to stop fighting a war and killing people’s dogs. And if your child has a drug-abuse issue, would you really want to put her in a cage with violent criminals instead of sending her to counseling? Isn’t the whole point of marijuana prohibition to help the kids? And how do we help the kids? By continuing to support an outdated law that funnels massive amounts of money to support the lives of violent criminals with no legal oversight or regulation, who end up endangering everyone’s lives. Jonathan Whitworth was needlessly, violently intruded upon and terrorized in his own home; his child was subjected to a horrifying scene that no doubt will leave psychological implications for years to come; and his innocent puppy was murdered.
Let us not gloss over the 22,000 Mexicans dead since President Felipe Calderon began his “war on cartels” just three years ago. His increase in violence has led only to that — an increase in violence. It has done nothing to lower use rates and availability and has only led to an increase in competition between violent criminals for an incredibly profitable business.
Chief Newsham was right — marijuana is dangerous because of the way it is sold. And these officers were prepared for the war we have asked them to fight: a war in which criminals are funded at a rate of 10 times what we could ever hope to provide as taxpayers.
Jonathan Whitworth had only a small amount of marijuana — a substance safer than alcohol and, frankly, safer than aspirin. A small amount of marijuana — which 62 percent of Columbia voters said in 2004 should be dismissed from any fine, punishment, reprimand or sanction on a first offense anyway.
It is time to acknowledge that marijuana prohibition, like alcohol prohibition, has failed. It is time to tax and regulate marijuana.