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Keeping Drugs Illegal Costs Society Dearly

Tom Condon

May 29, 2011

A couple of weeks ago, as the legislature was debating two marijuana bills, a 29-year-old Oxford man named Cheyne Mazza pleaded guilty in federal court to involvement in a major marijuana-growing operation. He and his crew were nurturing more than 1,400 plants when the feds showed up in 2008.

His maximum sentence is life in prison and and a $4 million fine. There were several others involved, including a former Ansonia alderman. They'll be sentenced in August, and will likely spend hard time in Club Fed.

Mazza must be cursing his timing. If the state passes a medical marijuana law, it will need someone who can grow large amounts of marijuana, albeit in a secure indoor facility. Nonetheless, let's us examine what will be accomplished by putting Mazza and his cohorts in the crossbar motel.

The cost for a year in the federal snoozer is approaching $30,000 per annum. So the jail time for the bunch could run us, say, a half-million. Add the value of time it took to investigate and prosecute, and perhaps we're up to $1 million. Will it mean there'll be fewer drug dealers or less marijuana available? Of course not.

It may mean that more comes in from Mexico, which in a perverse way hurts the state's economy.

June 17 marks the 40th anniversary of President Richard's Nixon's introduction of the term "war on drugs." If this indeed was a war, it was the least successful in American history, and consider the competition. Over the four decades the country has spent in excess of $1 trillion and made tens of millions of arrests.

We now have one in every 100 American adults behind bars, many on drug-related charges, thanks to the massive criminal justice industrial complex. Drugs are cheaper, purer and more prevalent than they were in 1970. Blacks are arrested at a higher rate and imprisoned longer for drug crimes. The rate of addiction - 1.3 percent of the population - has stayed the same for about a century. Cities such as Hartford that are continually ravaged by the violence connected to illegal drug trade.

Is it perhaps time to change policy?

We kicked this around a couple of weeks ago at a Key Issues Forum co-sponsored by The Courant and Leadership Greater Hartford.

To deal with this subject, policy-makers need to perform the difficult mental gymnastic of holding two ideas at once: the health problems often attendant to drug use and the problems caused by criminal prohibition of drug use.

Is there a way of dealing with the first issue without resorting to the second, which costs $60 billion a year, involves utterly insane policies such as spraying toxic herbicides on the landscape of Columbia (see: effects of Agent Orange) and ruins countless lives?

Yes there is. And I am an example.

One of the panelists was a guy name Jack Cole, a former New Jersey undercover narcotics cop who is chairman of an organization called Law Enforcement Against Prohibition, or LEAP, which has 50,000 cops, judges, prosecutors, prison wardens and others fighting to end drug prohibition. There is, as far as I know, no other criminal law that has such a group trying to change it.

Cole risked his life, as these officers do, for years at a time. He told me matter-of-factly that his efforts made not one iota of difference in solving the drug problem. (Perhaps that's why LEAP exists. As John Kerry said of Vietnam, who wants to be the last man to die for a mistake?)

The soft-spoken ex-cop, who provided many of the statistics I quoted above, would like to treat drug abuse as a public health problem. He said there's been only one success in fighting drug abuse in the last 40 years, and that was in the addiction to nictotine. Cigarettes! Cancer sticks! Coffin nails! From 1985 to 2003, the percentage of the U.S. population that smoked tobacco dropped from 42 percent to 21 percent.

Did we achieve this remarkable success by making tobacco illegal, by having cops bust tobacco dens? No. It's been done by taxation, regulation, treatment and education. I will testify. Next year I celebrate 30 years of easy breathing, thanks to an excellent smoking cessation program by the American Lung Association in East Hartford.

Can this be done with other drugs? It would certainly be worth our while to find out. By one estimate, Connecticut spends $130 million a year enforcing marijuana laws. A 2008 study by Harvard economist Jeffrey A. Miron estimated that legalizing drugs would inject $76.8 billion a year into the U.S. economy - $44.1 billion from law enforcement savings, and at least $32.7 billion in tax revenue.

The state should pass the medical marijuana law, for humanitarian reasons. It should also pass the decriminalization bill, making posession of small amouns of marijuana an infraction. If the world doesn't end, we should look at what's happening in countries such as Portugal and the Netherlands, and try some pilot programs that favor treatment and education over arrest and prosecution.

If we took the profit motive away from criminals, this would be a different country.

Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant. To view other stories on this topic, search the Hartford Courant Archives at http://www.courant.com/archives.
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