The Responses to Illegal Marijuana Use

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Chapter 4
The Responses to Illegal Marijuana Use

The popularity of marijuana makes its illegality a highly scrutinized and controversial topic. Even though it is the third most frequently used nonmedical drug after alcohol and tobacco and the most popular illegal drug in the world, it is also the subject of extensive efforts by law enforcement agencies to stop its importation, cultivation, transportation, sale, and use. Further, preventing people, especially young people, from using marijuana is the subject of numerous educational and treatment programs. Even so, widespread use of marijuana continues in the United States, leading some people to contend that the nation's marijuana laws should be changed.

Prohibition Again?

From 1919 to 1933, the United States undertook an experiment to stop the manufacture, transportation, and sale of all alcoholic beverages. The result was a set of laws known as Prohibition. Anslinger spoke about how he thought Prohibition should have punished the users of alcohol, an oversight that he intended not to repeat in the Marihuana Tax Act of 1937. In fact, the thinking and social concerns that led to alcohol prohibition strongly influenced the formation of America's early marijuana laws, and because of the similarities, many people have called the illegality of cannabis "marijuana prohibition."

Today alcohol prohibition is generally viewed as a total failure. Prohibition not only failed to prevent alcohol consumption, but making the alcohol business illegal put it in the control of criminals who used increasingly violent means to control the market. Alcohol prohibition created a huge illegal business with extensive smuggling and secret domestic manufacturing operations. Illegality increased the prices of alcohol and the huge profits that resulted made alcohol smugglers and dealers very wealthy. The dealers and smugglers, in turn, commonly used their riches to bribe police and government officials into ignoring their illegal activities.

Other negative consequences of alcohol prohibition also appeared. Since hard liquor was more profitable to smuggle and manufacture, beer and wine almost disappeared and more people began to consume stronger alcoholic beverages. Organized crime, for the first time ever, became a fact of life in America. Further, to combat the resulting crime wave, the government created the largest police force that had ever existed in the United States, which led to more frequent violent encounters with criminals. All the while, to the government's astonishment, illegal alcohol sales continued to increase. Finally, after more than a decade of Prohibition, the government decided to repeal the laws and once again allow people to sell alcohol legally and to pay taxes on its sales.

Alcohol prohibition created a criminal empire, lost huge amounts of tax revenues, caused many deaths in the battles for control of the illegal business, led to the corruption of many police and politicians, and failed to achieve its goal of reducing alcohol consumption. Marijuana prohibition exhibits the same characteristics with one major difference: alcohol prohibition did not attempt to punish the users of the illegal substance.

Is Marijuana Prohibition Failing, Too?

Based on many government statistics and scores of studies, marijuana prohibition is even less successful and far more costly than alcohol prohibition was. First, assuming that the purpose of marijuana prohibition is to stop people from using marijuana, so far it has not succeeded. Marijuana has been illegal in the United States since 1937, yet marijuana use is at an all-time high and growing. Very few Americans had even heard of marijuana in 1937, but in 2001 nearly 70 million Americans had used it. During the 1980s the U.S. government declared an official "war on drugs," a government program aimed at reducing and even eliminating drug use in America. Yet the federal government's Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) reported that marijuana was more available in 2000 than it was in 1980.

In addition, many critics of marijuana prohibition contend that the cost to the criminal justice system has been staggering. Arrest rates are so high for marijuana and other drug offenses that prison officials sometimes are forced to release violent criminals early to make room for more drug offenders. And the ever-rising cost of the war against drugs drains funds from other social programs. For these reasons some people believe that marijuana prohibition has been more harmful to society than marijuana use.

A number of government and private studies and research reports have also arrived at this conclusion. Typical of these is a comprehensive, long-term study conducted by the Kaiser Permanente medical group that concluded no link exists between regular marijuana smoking and increased health problems. The report emphasizes that marijuana prohibition actually poses the most significant health hazard to the user and strongly suggests that "medical guidelines regarding [marijuana's] prudent use . . . be established, akin to the commonsense guidelines that apply to alcohol use."12

Marijuana Prohibition and Teen Marijuana Use

Government efforts to reduce marijuana use have focused, among other areas, on reducing teen use. Many studies, however, show that marijuana prohibition seems to have had exactly the opposite effect on cannabis use by teenagers.

Since marijuana prohibition began in 1937, marijuana use by teens has skyrocketed. In 1937 only 0.4 percent of all Americans under the age of twenty-one had ever smoked marijuana. By 1979, after forty-two years of heavy penalties for breaking the marijuana laws, that figure had jumped to 51 percent. This increase does not necessarily prove that marijuana prohibition actually caused more people under the age of twenty-one to use the drug, but it does illustrate that teen use increased dramatically despite the fact that marijuana use was against the law.

Opponents of marijuana legalization say the fact that prohibition does not seem to be working is no reason to legalize the drug. If marijuana were legalized, they argue, teen use would simply increase. One federally funded study looked at this question by studying high school students' attitudes about drugs in states where decriminalization had occurred. Over a five-year period from 1975 to 1980, the researchers found that "decriminalization has had virtually no effect either on the marijuana use or on related attitudes and beliefs about marijuana use among American young people."13

With only one such study conducted in the United States, it is necessary to look elsewhere for additional evidence of how teen marijuana use changes when the drug is decriminalized. Studies published by governments in places where marijuana use has been decriminalized, including the Netherlands and two of Australia's eight territories, indicate that the rates of marijuana use across all age groups has not substantially changed after decriminalization.

Many people are baffled by the way marijuana prohibition has, for the most part, produced the opposite of the desired effects, particularly when it comes to curtailing use by young people. By prohibiting marijuana, the government expected that it would make the drug less available—but according to every report that has come out in the last two decades, this is obviously not the case. The federally funded Monitoring the Future survey, for example, found that in 1995 teenagers in many areas of the United States considered marijuana easier to obtain than beer. According to the report, "Every year, about 85 percent of the nation's high school seniors report that marijuana is 'fairly easy' or 'very easy' to obtain."14

In addition, the fact that using marijuana is against the law does not appear to be the primary factor in most teenagers' decision to use or not to use marijuana, much like the illegality of underage drinking seems to do little to deter underage drinking. In fact, a 1995 series of national public opinion surveys about marijuana found that "non-users were much more likely to mention 'not interested' than 'fear of legal reprisals' as the primary reason why they did not use marijuana."15

Further, the drug's illegality also sometimes works the opposite way for many teens, and the illegality of marijuana can actually increase the attractiveness of the drug. Best-selling natural health author Andrew Weil, M.D., wrote in 1993, "Because drugs are so surrounded by taboos, they invite rebellious behavior. . . . Unfortunately, our society's attempt to control drug-taking by making some substances illegal plays into the hands of rebellious children."16

Weil's statement was echoed by the Netherlands Institute of Mental Health and Addiction when that agency explained why marijuana use was decriminalized in Holland. The institute stated that to prevent alcohol and drug abuse, these substances must be "stripped of their taboo image and of the sensational and emotional tone of voice that did in fact act as an attraction."17

Marijuana Arrest Rates

Reducing the number of youthful marijuana users is just one goal of marijuana prohibition; the larger goal is to reduce the number of marijuana users of all ages. This goal is further from being achieved today than it was when the Marihuana Tax Act of 1937 was enacted. Despite more than half a century of anti-marijuana laws, despite the tens of billions of dollars spent on enforcing those laws, and despite the presence of drug education programs in schools, arrests for marijuana use are at an all-time high and still climbing.

The total number of annual marijuana arrests rose steadily during the 1960s and '70s, and then leveled off and even dropped during the '80s. Beginning in 1992, however, arrests for marijuana began climbing sharply again, a trend that has continued to the present time. Public records from the U.S. Justice Department's Bureau of Justice Statistics (BJS) show that there have been more than seven hundred thousand marijuana arrests every year since 1996, the highest numbers in history. Of these arrests, almost 90 percent are for possession rather than trafficking or selling.

Also, according to BJS figures, in 1998 the average number of marijuana offenders in jail or prison, not counting those awaiting trial, was close to sixty thousand. About thirty-seven thousand of those were convicted of possession. The BJS estimates that the direct costs to American taxpayers for maintaining this population of marijuana prisoners in federal and state prisons and local jails is about $1.2 billion per year.

The Financial Cost of Marijuana Prohibition

Exact figures on how much the government spends specifically on marijuana prohibition are not available, but it is possible to make a conservative estimate based on the available figures for fighting all illegal drugs. The Department of Justice (DOJ) reports that the federal expenditure for all categories of drug law enforcement (investigating and arresting people and seizing drugs) is well over $15 billion a year. In addition, state and local governments spend an additional $16 billion per year enforcing drug laws. Adding these two figures means that the total cost of enforcing the drug laws in America is at least $31 billion per year. Based on DOJ estimates that between 25 and 40 percent of all drug arrests are for marijuana, the cost to American taxpayers of enforcing just the marijuana laws is between $7.8 billion and $12.4 billion each year.

These huge sums of public money must be diverted from other causes, causes like education and fighting violent crime. Further, each of the more than half a million arrests made each year in the United States for violating marijuana laws, even the most trivial arrest, removes at least one or two police officers from crime fighting for several hours while they complete the paperwork and process the defendant. This adds up to millions of man-hours per year that could be used for fighting more serious crime.

Recognizing that this is a problem, some state governments have tried to reduce these costs. In 1976 California passed the Moscone Act, a marijuana decriminalization law that reduced the penalty for possession of small amounts of the drug to a citation and a small fine. As a result of the Moscone Act, police in California no longer arrest people for small amounts of marijuana, and courts and jails are no longer clogged with marijuana users. Further, according to a 1988 report, "California has saved an average of $95.8 million annually during the ten years since the Moscone Act was passed."18 An indepth study is needed, however, to calculate the true cost of marijuana prohibition.

Marijuana and the "War on Drugs"

Despite the success in California and other states, the federal government has not shown much interest in backing down from its opposition to decriminalizing marijuana. Instead, the government has remained committed to its "war on drugs," a term that describes the immense effort to reduce drug availability and use in the U.S.

The marijuana part of the government's war on drugs has several components. The most obvious one is the constant effort of local police and DEA agents to catch, arrest, and punish users (except in the states where it has been decriminalized) and dealers. But there are other components in the war on drugs that often go unseen by the general public, components that require immense amounts of manpower, equipment, and money. These are interdiction (stopping the importing of cannabis products), eradication (stopping the growing of cannabis within U.S. borders), and education (stopping the use of marijuana).


For many years the United States has concentrated much of its military, technological, and law enforcement might into stopping marijuana and other drugs from entering the country. The amounts of marijuana seized by authorities during this time are huge. In 1997, for example, along the country's southwest border, a record 593 tons of marijuana were intercepted. Even so, the DEA estimates that despite all the government's massive interdiction efforts, only 15 percent of the marijuana coming into the United States gets stopped.

According to the DEA, drug-trafficking organizations based in Mexico supply most of the foreign marijuana available in the United States. However, countries in South America (primarily Colombia) and Asia (including Cambodia, Thailand, India, and Pakistan) also cultivate and ship marijuana to the United States.

Foreign marijuana bound for U.S. markets must be smuggled into the country. Smugglers resort to a great variety of methods of getting the bulky drug across the borders, using everything from trucks to ships and aircraft. Even though the government seizes many tons every year, most experts agree, and the statistics back them, that it is virtually impossible to stop this flow of marijuana into the country. This is a troubling fact to the many people involved in the war on drugs.


Besides curbing the flow of marijuana into the United States, officials are also focusing on cultivation of the drug within the country. Beginning in the 1970s, cannabis cultivation within the borders of the United States began to blossom. This was primarily the result of two factors. First, increased interdiction pressure on drug smugglers has decreased the availability of imported (smuggled) marijuana. The second reason is that marijuana's tremendous profit potential makes people willing to take the risk of growing cannabis in or close to their homes. The wholesale value of American-grown marijuana (its value to the farmers who grow it), by the DOJ's most conservative estimates, has exceeded $15 billion every year since 1995. And on the retail market, domestic marijuana is worth more than $25 billion. This makes marijuana the fourth largest cash crop in the country, with only corn, soybeans, and hay ranking as more profitable. According to 1998 DEA and state police statistics, marijuana cultivation produces more money than any other crop in Alabama, California, Colorado, Hawaii, Kentucky, Maine, Rhode Island, Tennessee, Virginia, and West Virginia, and ranks as one of the top five cash crops in twenty-nine other states. In fact, the government estimates that at least a quarter of the marijuana consumed by Americans is grown within the country's borders.

An Eradication Story from California

Sometimes eradication efforts are successful. During the summer of 2000, an eleven-week sweep of California marijuana growing areas produced a record haul. During that operation, called Campaign Against Marijuana Planting (CAMP), a total of 345,207 marijuana plants were seized at large-scale growing operations around the state. The raids resulted in the arrests of fifty-seven people, and officials estimated the cash value of the seized marijuana at $1.3 billion.

Successful raids like these are not easy. Eradicating the big bushy plants, even ones that are growing right out in the open, is more difficult than it might seem. To make the dark green marijuana plants less visible to spotters in planes and helicopters, growers usually spread the plants around instead of planting them in rows like conventional crops. When task force agents are successful at spotting marijuana from the air, the hard work starts. The sites are rarely accessible from public roads, so the raids are often carried out by helicopter. In some cases agents are lowered to the ground in slings because the remote ravines and hillsides where the plants grow are too rocky, steep, or thickly forested for helicopters to land. Once on the ground, the agents cut the plants and load them into a sling to be hauled up into the helicopter and transported away for destruction.

It takes a lot of cannabis plants to produce that much marijuana, and the DEA first noticed the growing amount of domestic cultivation during the late 1970s. The U.S. government, specifically the DEA, responded in 1979 by starting the Domestic Cannabis Eradication/Suppression Program (DCE/SP). This program initially included two multiagency operations, one in Hawaii and the other in California, whose goal was to eradicate marijuana cultivation in those states. Gradually other states discovered that they, too, had marijuana growing within their borders and began participating in the program. By 1982 twenty-five states were involved in the DCE/SP, and by 1985 all fifty states had joined it.

DCE/SP's eradication program uses advanced technology, including military aircraft, remote infrared sensing devices, and satellites to find outdoor marijuana crops, and thermal imaging systems for finding indoor growing operations. In addition, the DCE/SP sometimes uses herbicidal eradication, similar to the defoliation program used during the Vietnam War. Herbicidal eradication relies on controversial plant poisons, and most states still don't allow their use. Oklahoma was the first state to use herbicidal marijuana eradication, and Hawaii, South Dakota, and Indiana have joined the list.

Because of pressure from the DCE/SP, many marijuana growers have been forced to move their operations indoors, where their crops are better hidden from helicopters and satellites. At first this seemed like a victory for the DCE/SP, but it soon became apparent that this was not the case at all. Indoor cultivation, as both the DEA and growers soon discovered, provides a controlled environment that favors the production of higher potency grades of marijuana. Indoor cultivation also permits year-round production and can be carried out everywhere from closets, garages, attics, and basements to elaborate, specially constructed greenhouses. Furthermore, growth rates of indoor cannabis plants can be more precisely controlled and enhanced by special fertilizers, plant hormones, steroids, insecticides, and genetic engineering, advantages that are nearly impossible outdoors.

Indoor cultivation is not completely immune to detection by law enforcement agencies, however. The special high-intensity lights used

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by growers to take the place of sunlight consume large amounts of electricity, so buildings with unexplained high electrical bills are likely to draw the attention of the DEA. Government agents then used thermal sensing technology to identify garages and closets in private homes that are too hot due to the presence of the high-intensity lights. In 2001, however, the U.S. Supreme Court, in a ruling on an indoor marijuana cultivation case, voted that using thermal-sensing technology to investigate private homes is an unconstitutional invasion of privacy and could no longer be used as a basis for obtaining a search warrant (permission for the police to search a home).

The government's eradication program requires considerable manpower, aircraft, and other equipment, all of which are expensive. To justify requests for more funding, the eradication program's administrators must present evidence of large marijuana seizures to prove that the program is working. Critics of the program discovered that the government was counting ditchweed in their marijuana seizure figures. This practice, say the critics, creates the impression that the program is far more successful than it actually is. Ditchweed, the wild cannabis that grows in fields and ditches, mostly throughout the Midwest, has very low THC content and no value as marijuana. Critics say if ditchweed were removed from the government's eradication figures, the amount of destroyed marijuana would be so low that the program would be considered a failure.


Many people, including some government and law enforcement officials, believe that interdiction and eradication efforts are having little success. Consequently, many feel that education programs may offer the best hope for reducing marijuana use.

The nation's major drug education program is known as D.A.R.E., an acronym for Drug Abuse Resistance Education. Former Los Angeles police chief Daryl Gates founded the first D.A.R.E. program during the late 1970s to teach children about the dangers of drugs. Since then it has expanded to become the federal government's favored drug education program. Today the national D.A.R.E. program receives about $600 million a year from federal, state, and local governments, and employs uniformed police officers, who go into schools to present the program.

At first, educators and parents welcomed a drug education program in schools. After years of unquestioning community acceptance, however, the D.A.R.E. program has recently found itself facing growing opposition from all sides. Numerous research and government agencies have issued scathing critiques of the program, accusing D.A.R.E. of having little or no impact and arguing that the approximately $600 million a year from federal, state, and local governments used to fund it might be better spent elsewhere. One government study reported that D.A.R.E. students were not less likely to use drugs than students not involved in the program. That report concluded, "D.A.R.E. could be taking the place of other, more beneficial drug use curricula that adolescents could be receiving."19

Further, in California, where the program began, researchers found that 40 percent of the students surveyed were "not at all" influenced by D.A.R.E. programs, and only 15 percent were influenced "a lot" or "completely." Nearly 70 percent described a "neutral to negative" feeling toward the D.A.R.E. officers.

Numbers and reports like these have caused parents, teachers, students, and government officials to become increasingly dissatisfied with the D.A.R.E. program. Consequently, D.A.R.E. officials announced in 2001 that the program was being completely redesigned.

Treatment Programs

One reason government officials spend so much time and money on marijuana interdiction and eradication is that they believe marijuana is addictive. Even though marijuana use has not been associated with the life-wrecking effects of alcoholism or health-damaging effects of nicotine addiction, some marijuana users do have to seek treatment to help them stop using the drug. A small percentage of marijuana smokers (anywhere from 1 to 5 percent) develop a dependency on the drug and feel that they cannot function without it or stop using it. Some of these people seek treatment on their own. Others are ordered by employers or a court to attend a treatment program.

One of the most common treatment programs is Marijuana Anonymous (MA), an organization that helps users learn to live without the drug. Based on a twelve-step program pioneered by Alcoholics Anonymous, MA meetings bring together people with similar experiences who feel they are either emotionally or psychologically addicted to marijuana. MA meetings provide a sense of camaraderie that allows members to feel comfortable admitting that using marijuana causes problems in their lives.

Programs like this are becoming increasingly popular because many people now believe that treating marijuana users is preferable to putting them in jail. The newest and boldest effort to put marijuana and other drug users into treatment programs instead of prison began in July 2001 in California when the state's Proposition 36 took effect. This new law directs judges to require treatment instead of jail for most nonviolent drug users on their first and second offense. Previously, treatment had been an option only if offenders pleaded guilty and a judge approved. Under the new law, approximately thirty-seven thousand offenders in California will be eligible for treatment the first year. Officials estimate that this will save the state about $250 million a year in prison costs. Courts, prosecutors, and police officials around the country are eagerly awaiting the results of this new law, which if it is successful may encourage similar laws in many other states.


Some people feel that requiring treatment programs instead of jail time still does not solve the problems associated with marijuana prohibition. These people, marijuana smokers and not, want to see marijuana legalized.

The reasons for legalization are as varied as the people who support it. Some want marijuana to be legalized for sick patients who can benefit from its usage. Others want it to be legalized so that more hemp products, which have proven environmental and industrial benefits, can be produced. Still others want it to be legalized to cut off criminal profits and to create tax revenues for the state and federal governments. And then there are those who want it legalized so they can use it when they want to without fear of legal consequences.

One outspoken advocate for legalizing marijuana and other drugs is James Gray, a superior court judge in California. In 2001 Gray said;

Based upon my background as a former federal prosecutor in Los Angeles, a criminal defense attorney in the Navy and as a trial judge in Orange County[,] California[,] since 1983, I believe we must change . . . our laws of drug prohibition and develop a policy based upon truthful drug education, drug treatment, deprofitization of these often dangerous drugs, and, most importantly, individual responsibility. . . . [T]o me it makes as much sense to put people like the actor Robert Downey, Jr. in jail for drug abuse as it would have to put [former first lady] Betty Ford in jail for her alcohol abuse. And even if people somehow disagree with that view, from my experience on the bench, we have proved to any reasonable person's satisfaction that this approach [putting drug users in jail] simply doesn't work.20

Although considerable disagreement about how the American government should go about legalizing marijuana remains, most supporters agree that the way alcohol is regulated and taxed in the United States provides a workable model. Judge Gray offers this view of what a marijuana legalization law would look like:

A Quaker Speaks Out on the Drug War

The Quaker faith, also known as the Society of Friends, is one of America's original religious groups. In a February, 1996, article titled "Getting Off Drugs: The Legalization Option," that appeared in the Friends Journal, a leading Quaker spokesman, Walter Wink, made a strong case for changing the way the United States deals with drug use.

The drug war is over, and we [the United States] lost. We merely repeated the mistake of Prohibition. The harder we tried to stamp out this evil, the more lucrative we made it, and the more it spread. An evil cannot be eradicated by making it more profitable. . . . Drug laws have also fostered drug-related murders and an estimated 40 percent of all property crime in the United States. The greatest beneficiaries of the drug laws are drug traffickers, who benefit from the inflated prices that the drug war creates. Rather than collecting taxes on the sale of drugs, governments at all levels expend billions in what amounts to a subsidy of organized criminals. . . .

The uproar about drugs is itself odd. Illicit drugs are, on the whole, far less dangerous than the legal drugs that many more people consume. Alcohol is associated with 40 percent of all suicide attempts, 40 percent of all traffic deaths, 54 percent of all violent crimes, and 10 percent of all work-related injuries. Nicotine, the most addictive drug of all, has transformed lung cancer from a medical curiosity to a common disease that now accounts for 3 million deaths a year worldwide. . . . We must be honest about these facts, because much of the hysteria about illegal drugs has been based on misinformation. . . .

It is safe to say as we approach the end of the eighth decade of federal control of inebriating drugs that the experiment has been a dismal and costly failure. . . . Already 95 percent of our adult population is using drugs, and the vast majority do so responsibly. Most people who would misuse drugs are already doing so. . . . No one wants to live in a country overrun with drugs, but we already do.

Marijuana, defined as cannabis with a THC content greater than 0.3 percent, may be purchased by anyone who is 21 years of age or older at a package store which sells only this product, and may be purchased, possessed and used by that same person without criminal or civil penalty. Reasonable taxes will be accessed for this sale, and the revenues raised will be used exclusively for drug and alcohol education and treatment. Furnishing marijuana to anyone under the age of 21 years of age, driving a motor vehicle under the influence of marijuana, etc. are prohibited by this initiative.21

Since the 1970s the United States has spent tens of billions of dollars in what most deem to be a largely unsuccessful effort to stop the flow of marijuana into the country. Hundreds of thousands of men and women have been imprisoned for marijuana offenses as the government continues to pour billions of dollars into enforcement, interdiction, eradication, and education campaigns of questionable effectiveness. In spite of this, most studies indicate that marijuana prohibition has failed to stop marijuana from entering the country, from being grown in the country, and from being used by ever-increasing numbers of people. Nevertheless, the efforts continue as the government searches for effective ways to control people's use of marijuana.

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The Responses to Illegal Marijuana Use

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The Responses to Illegal Marijuana Use