PDXS, Volume 7, Number 14, October 24-November 13, 1997, p. 3

Criminal Injustice - The Politics Of The War On Marijuana

Everyone who uses drugs - both legal and illegal - knows that marijuana is the least harmful one out there. Tens of thousands of people die each year from using tobacco, alcohol, heroin, cocaine and methamphetamine. But nobody dies from marijuana. It's impossible to overdose on pot. If you smoke too much dope, you just say stupid things and fall asleep. Even asprin kills more people than marijuana every year - look it up.

People on pot don't commit many crimes, either. Nobody is ever accused of sticking up a market to feed his marijuana habit. Few, if any, traffic accidents are ever blamed on stoned driving - although most fatal car wrecks are blamed on alcohol, a legal drug. Alcohol is also the drug most closely associated with domestic abuse, aggravated assaults and other violent crimes.

Despite all this, law enforcement agencies, including the Portland Police Bureau, are devoting a tremendous amount of their limited financial resources to fighting pot. There's even a regional Marijuana Task Force which only goes after people with grass. Across the nation, local, state and federal law enforcement agencies will spend an estimated $16 billion fighting the War on Drugs this year. Most drug busts will be for marijuana - the vast majority for mere possession. The National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws (NORML) estimates that over nine million people have been arrested for marijuana in the United States since 1965. The Federal Bureau of Investigation reports that over 80 percent of these are for possession. The government doesn't keep statistics, but activists estimate that between 40,000 and 70,000 people are currently locked up for marijuana offenses - including at least 30 who are serving life sentences.

Why is marijuana such a priority for the government?

Two reasons. First, busting people for pot is easy. They don't fight back. Marijuana dealers don't operate like the Crips and the Bloods. A few might own guns, but most are modern day hippies, too laid back to resist arrest. And if that's not easy enough, the police have now taken to busting sick pot smokers. On Wednesday, September 24, the Portland police raided the downtown Alternative Health Clinic. For much of the past year, the clinic has been providing marijuana to people suffering from AIDS, various forms of cancer, and other painful diseases. With operations like this, it's easy for law enforcement agencies to artificially increase the scope of the "drug problem" and the need for more money to fight it.

But, as Michael Pollan wrote in the July 20, 1997, issue of the New York Times Magazine, "Remove the millions of marijuana users from the ranks of illicit drug users and we would be left with a 'drug abuse epidemic' involving roughly two million regular heroin and cocaine users -a public health problem to be sure, but hardly one big enough to justify spending $16 billion."

The second reason is political. Yes, the police are enforcing the law. But they are also waging a covert war on the small group of political activists who are working to legalize marijuana. Here in Portland, the police have singled out the annual Portland Hemp Festivals for special treatment. In fact, several city agencies have worked together to raise the cost and liability of staging the event so high that it almost didn't happen this year. In addition to that, several prominent legalization advocates have been busted in recent years, including Terry Miller, director of the Portland Chapter of NORML, and Phil Smith, the group's assistant director. These activists were all accused of "dealing" marijuana, even though they were only growing small quantities in their own homes for personal use.

But the legalization movement has won some small skirmishes, most tied to the "medical marijuana" issue. Last November, voters in both California and Arizona passed citizen initiatives legalizing the use of marijuana to treat chronic ailments. The establishment went ballistic. The Arizona Legislature effectively overturned the law. In California, both state and federal law enforcement agencies threatened to enforce the anti-pot laws even more strictly - in direct violation of the clear will ofthe voters. Follow-up news coverage has been virtually non-existent.

And now Oregon has moved to the forefront of the marijuana controversy. Medical marijuana is a small issue compared to legalization - and that's what just made the Oregon ballot. Not full legalization, but the most direct challenge to an existing drug law to ever make it on the ballot in any state. Because of a successful referendum drive by Oregonians for Sensible Law Enforcement, a new law "re-criminalizing" small amounts of marijuana has been blocked from taking effect. The bill was passed by the 1997 Oregon Legislature and signed into law by Governor John Kitzhaber. But now it will be placed on the 1998 General Election ballot, where Oregon voters can decide whether they want limited law enforcement resources spent on busting people for a few joints. If the voters throw out the new law, Oregon will be the first state to oppose a general anti-drug law. The state would be bucking a nationwide trend toward more arrests, more prosecutions and more jails.

We expect the anti-drug establishment to run a massive, well-funded campaign full of lies against the measure. The law enforcement industrial complex has too much to lose. Without being able to arrest people for marijuana, how could they inflate their statistics to justify their massive War on Drugs?

But Oregon voters have already made news by stopping the recriminalization law from taking effect. Things will only heat up from this point on.



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