America's never-ending prohibition: Bernd Debusmann

Wed Aug 6, 2008 10:27am EDT

Canadian soldiers of India company from the NATO-led coalition force walk past marijuana plants after a firefight against Taliban insurgents near Sangsar, Zhari district in southeastern Afghanistan, July 3, 2007. REUTERS/Finbarr O'Reilly

Canadian soldiers of India company from the NATO-led coalition force walk past marijuana plants after a firefight against Taliban insurgents near Sangsar, Zhari district in southeastern Afghanistan, July 3, 2007.

Credit: Reuters/Finbarr O'Reilly

Bernd Debusmann is a Reuters columnist. The opinions expressed are his own.

By Bernd Debusmann

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - America's alcohol prohibition lasted 13 years, filled the country's prisons, inspired contempt for the law among millions, bred corruption and produced Al Capone. What it did not do was keep Americans from drinking.

America's marijuana prohibition drew into its 72nd year this month. It has created a huge underground industry catering to users, helped the U.S. prison population balloon into the world's largest, and diverted the resources of American law enforcement. What it has not done is keep Americans from using marijuana.

On the contrary. Since 1937, the year marijuana was outlawed, its use in the United States has gone up by 4,000 percent, according to the Marijuana Policy Project, a Washington-based lobby group which advocates regulating the drug similar to alcohol. A recent World Health Organization study of marijuana use in 17 countries placed Americans at the top of the list.

The 1920-1933 prohibition on the sale, production and transportation of alcohol is now seen as a dismal failure of social engineering. Will the prohibition on marijuana ever be seen in a similar light?

For the first time in a generation, there is a bill before Congress that would eliminate federal penalties "for the personal use of marijuana by responsible adults." But not even the congressman who introduced the bill, Democrat Barney Frank, sees bright prospects for swift passage.

The last time the U.S. Congress dealt with legislation that would have decriminalized marijuana was in 1978, when a bill introduced by Senator Edward Kennedy was passed by the Senate but never got to a vote in the House.

The case for legalizing marijuana, the most widely used drug after alcohol and tobacco, rests on several planks - the most obvious being that prohibition simply hasn't worked despite extraordinarily labor-intensive and costly government efforts. In 2006, the last year for which figures from the Federal Bureau of Investigation are available, 830,000 Americans were arrested on marijuana charges, most of them for possession rather than trafficking.

That works out at a marijuana arrest every 38 seconds. A study last year estimated the cost of these arrests at $10.7 billion.

"This is an enormous waste of law enforcement resources that should be focused on violent and serious crime," says Allen St. Pierre, who heads the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws (NORML), the marijuana smokers' lobby in Washington.

NO DISTINCTION BETWEEN USE AND ABUSE

"With alcohol we acknowledge the distinction between use and abuse, and we focus our law enforcement on efforts to stop irresponsible use. We do not arrest or jail responsible drinkers. That should be our policy for marijuana as well."

The Bush administration's drug czar, John Walters, will have none of this. He talks about marijuana in terms reminiscent of the apocalyptic warnings issued by Harry Anslinger, the first head of the Bureau of Narcotics in the 1930s and a driving force behind the 1937 marijuana prohibition.

Anslinger deemed marijuana "an addictive drug which induces in its users insanity, criminality and death." Walters often takes issue with "the perception that marijuana is about fun and freedom. It isn't. It's about dependency, disease and dysfunction."

(For a vivid portrayal of the dysfunction Walters warns about, see a mock documentary produced for the White House Office of National Drug Policy. It is entitled Stoners in the Mist, a play on the 1988 film on mountain gorillas in the Congo. here)

Americans who have admitted smoking marijuana at one point or another but escaped dependency, disease and dysfunction include President George W. Bush, Supreme Court Judge Clarence Thomas, California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger, New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg, Senator John Kerry, former Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich, former Vice President Al Gore and Barack Obama, the Democratic nominee for next November's presidential election.

Former President Bill Clinton falls into a special category. When he studied in England, away from the long reach of U.S. law, he experimented with marijuana "a time or two," he once told a television interviewer. "I didn't inhale and I didn't try again."

Hollywood, conscious of a mass audience that does inhale, has produced a slew of new "stoner" movies this year. The pot-smoking protagonists include an investment banker and a medical student (Harold & Kumar), a psychiatrist (The Wackness), and a process server (Pineapple Express).

But sympathetic portrayals of marijuana use in popular culture do not necessarily translate into faster progress towards legalization. Government anti-drug fighters are serious in their opposition.

When Barney Frank, at a news conference to explain the rationale for his bill, was asked what timeline he had in mind, he quipped: "Not soon ... but eventually, you'll see the development of a marijuana futures market." David Murray, the chief scientist in the drug czar's office who had listened to the briefing, was not amused. "It's not funny," he said, "not funny at all."

But not impossible either, in the long run.

(You can contact the author at Debusmann@Reuters.com)

(Editing by Sean Maguire)