Why They Fight

The nation's drug war warriors (led by current and past DEA chiefs and drug czars) along with sideline apologists (timid politicians, blinkered editorialists), are resorting to a last-minute campaign of hair-afire hysterics in the effort to dissuade California's voters from voting Yes on Proposition 19. The initiative would, finally, sensibly, regulate, control and tax cannabis.

What's all the screeching about? The usual: marijuana is a gateway drug...law enforcement will not be able to detect or arrest people driving under its influence... employers will not be able to discipline or fire under-the-influence employees. Lies and red herrings, all. Also, they know Proposition 19 will pass if young, educated voters turn out.

But, what's the subtext? Why are anti-19 forces battling so frantically to defeat the smartest piece of drug reform legislation to come along since the repeal of alcohol prohibition?

Two words: money and identity.

The drug war, particularly the part that focuses, advertently or inadvertently, on adult possession of small quantities of cannabis, is spectacularly expensive. Billions of taxpayer dollars are "invested" annually as federal, state, and local police, courts, and corrections agencies target, investigate, arrest, charge, prosecute, and, in many jurisdictions, incarcerate Americans for possessing even a wee quantity of the weed. Add to this the ancillary costs, such as laboratory testing (necessary to charge even a petty pot case), probation and parole agent involvement, and the like, and you get a pretty good idea of just how financially dependent our criminal justice system really is on the preservation of marijuana prohibition.

(The most odious and ominous aspect to all of this is the effect of the rapidly expanding privatization of our prisons: corporations rake in profits with each and every prisoner. A parole violator re-imprisoned for possession of a joint is worth every nickel as much as a rapist.)

Then there's the identity piece, which doesn't get nearly as much play as it should. If I grow up in the criminal justice system, subjected to the steady drumbeat of drug war propaganda, there's a good chance I'll come to self-identify as a drug warrior. In other words, drug enforcement is not just what I do: It is who I am. Not to get too woo-woo here, but the prospect of ending the war against cannabis is for some drug warriors tantamount to excising a chunk of their egos. Which just might help explain why all those anti-19 superegos are in moralizing overdrive in these waning moments of the California campaign.

An evidence-based argument may be a weak match against something as knotty as one's core identity, but imagine California's criminal justice practitioners putting the public's money, plus their own time, imagination and egos behind a drive to end domestic violence, child abuse, drunk and drugged driving, and predatory street crimes. This is precisely the reasoning of Law Enforcement Against Prohibition, whose thousands of members enthusiastically support Proposition 19.

It will happen. Marijuana will be legalized in California. This week will tell when it will happen. In the interests of public health and safety, human rights, personal liberties, and sound fiscal policy it makes far more sense that it happen next Tuesday, not the next election.