Pot and Kettle

Yesterday, the head of Indiana State Police did something police officers rarely do: he gave a candid answer to a question posed by a legislative study committee. State police Superintendent Paul Whitesell told members of the State Budget Committee on Tuesday that he had followed the issue during 40 years in law enforcement and believed we should legalize and tax possession of small amounts.

Whitesell had the guts to say publicly what numerous police officers and judges have said privately for years. The “War on Drugs” is a failure by any measure you want to apply: it’s illogical, expensive, and ineffective. The inclusion of marijuana in that war–in contrast to hard drugs–makes even less sense.

Current laws are illogical for a number of reasons. Drug abuse (which, by the way, is nowhere defined in our drug laws, which focus on any use of a “scheduled” substance) is a public health issue. Behaviors connected to the use of drugs–driving while impaired, theft to support a habit, etc.–are matters to be addressed by the criminal law, but the mere use of a substance deemed harmful is a health issue, and should be addressed as a health issue. Marijuana is less harmful to users than tobacco, yet we have wildly different approaches to pot and tobacco use–undoubtedly the result of a much more effective tobacco lobby. According to police officers I know, people who use pot are significantly less likely to become violent than people who abuse alcohol, yet we outlaw pot, but regulate and tax alcohol and tobacco.

Current laws are fiscally wasteful. The US spends roughly 60 billion dollars annually on drug prohibition, and we get virtually no bang for those bucks (see ineffective, below). We also forgo collection of billions of dollars in potential tax revenues that we would collect if we simply taxed pot like we treat alcohol and tobacco. We waste criminal justice resources that would be better used elsewhere, to treat drug abuse or to deter nonconsensual crimes that actually harm others. (Whitesell made this point in his testimony.)

We’ve lost this war. Not that the War on Drugs has ever been effective; the percentage of Americans who use hard drugs is pretty much the same as it has always been. Pot use has ebbed and flowed over time, providing the only real changes in the numbers. Thirty plus years of research has consistently demonstrated the utter failure of American drug policy, and the error of the premises upon which it has been constructed. (Pot smokers become hard drug users in about the same percentages as milk drinkers do, and we don’t outlaw milk as a “gateway drug.”) The only thing the Drug War has done effectively is ruin the lives of (disproportionately black) teenagers who are imprisoned for non-violent drug crimes.

What is frustrating is the number of policymakers who respond to this mountain of evidence with a renewed enthusiasm for failed interventions.

What would you think of a doctor who had performed a certain operation 200 times, with the same result: all the patients died. How convinced would you be by his conviction that he just needed to do more of that operation?

When are we going to learn from our mistakes?


  1. You do fail to mention one thing – civil forfeiture. Marijuana busts are often the pretext for civil forfeiture, regardless of whether charges are ever filed. Law enforcement makes a ton of money off of civil forfeiture. (The abuses of civil forfeiture are of public record and I won’t repeat them here.) At the end of the day, law enforcement will fight legalization of marijuana because they want the money from civil forfeiture.

  2. YES. Lets get past this childish law. It was first put in place as an anti imigrant thing when the early Mexican folks were bringing it into the SW with them. Our drug laws are awful. So very many lives wasted. So much money wasted. NOW we have to let dangerous people out of prisons to make room for more drug users. Anything wrong with this? I think so. Our top cop told the truth. He will be punished for doing so. Too bad. It is time we grew up.

  3. Would forfeiture yield less money than taxing marijuana and avoiding the HUGE expense of
    adjudications and incarcerations?

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