After more than seven decades in which we have arrested millions of people and spent billions of dollars to enforce marijuana prohibition, here’s the report card.
Today, marijuana is more available, more potent than ever, and is easier for teenagers to obtain than beer.
It is California’s largest cash crop, and violent criminal gangs reap enormous profits without paying a cent in taxes.
When we arrest about 60,000 people in the state a year on marijuana charges, as we did in 2008, law enforcement has less time and resources to spend on preventing and investigating violent crime.
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Indeed, that same year, more than 60,000 violent crimes in California went unsolved.
Yet some people and groups want California to continue the policies that have created, and will extend, this disaster.
As a 35-year veteran police officer who worked to enforce the marijuana prohibition laws all the way up the ranks to San Jose police chief, I can tell you there is a much better way.
Proposition 19, on the Nov. 2 ballot, is a chance for Californians to reject prohibition’s failure and take a pragmatic approach to regulating and taxing a commodity that almost 4 million people in the state used last year.
Let’s be clear. Proposition 19 is not about the right to get high. It’s about public safety. It’s about regulating marijuana in much the same way we regulate alcohol and tobacco.
I’m a member of Law Enforcement Against Prohibition, a nonprofit group made up of police, prosecutors, judges, attorneys and prison employees. We believe that marijuana prohibition has not only failed, but has also made our drug problems much worse. It has no chance of ever succeeding.
Please don’t misunderstand.
The failure of marijuana prohibition isn’t the fault of the police or of judges or prosecutors. Many criminal justice professionals have shown great skill, commitment and courage in trying to enforce laws that are simply unworkable.
Marijuana prohibition has failed, and always will, because its basic premise is fatally flawed. The reality is that no level of law enforcement expertise, dedication or resources will ever eliminate an activity that is extremely popular and obscenely profitable.
We saw this in the 1920s in America when we tried alcohol prohibition. Then, as now, the creation of an illegal market led to huge untaxed profits, violent turf battles and easy access to the banned substance for whoever wanted it.
When we ended prohibition in 1933, Al Capone and his rivals did not continue selling alcohol. Today, no one dies over a beer deal gone bad. People don’t get murdered when they wander into an area of a state or national park where a cartel is growing wine grapes.
That’s because we regulate alcohol. We can do the same with marijuana.
Opponents of Proposition 19 have talked about “flawed provisions” of the initiative and the “chaos” that regulating marijuana would create.
Their hope is that people will be confused and fearful. That hope is understandable. After all, people who want to continue the failed status quo don’t want voters to think about the actual results of marijuana prohibition or what the future holds if we vote to do more of the same.
That’s because the results of prohibition are horrible, and the same approach will mean more of the same miserable results.
On Nov. 2, we have a chance to do better. We can say “no more” to the failure and awful consequences of marijuana prohibition. Let’s seize that chance.
Let’s put marijuana policy on a pragmatic path that will reduce violence, will cut the lavish funding of drug gangs, will make it tougher than it is today for teenagers to get marijuana and will help law enforcement to focus on real threats to people and property.
Let’s vote “yes” on Proposition 19. Joseph McNamara is a retired San Jose police chief. He is currently a member of Law Enforcement Against Prohibition and a research fellow at Stanford University’s Hoover Institution.