Marijuana prohibition hanging by a thread

It's only a matter of time before the federal government capitalizes on the multi-billion dollar industry

By Doug Fine
Published November 2, 2012 12:06AM (UTC)
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(Reuters/Cliff DesPeaux)

This article originally appeared on AlterNet.

AlterNet Even though I’ve lived west of the Mississippi for half my life, the native New Yorker in me has always been dismissive of reports that my tax dollars are being used to fund black helicopters that are hassling Americans in defense of foreigners, or the UN, or something.

“We have a Constitution,” was my standard tavern line to tipsy ranchers in places like Deming, New Mexico. No Americans are getting invaded by men jumping out of helicopters, I argued. Then I spent a year on the front lines of the war on drugs.

While researching what a post-drug war economy might look like from the producer standpoint -- a project spurred in part by the 2011 arrest of the town mayor near my New Mexico ranch on charges that he was a member of a Mexican cartel -- I quickly learned to sleep through the roar of helicopter blades that essentially provides the summer soundtrack in American cannabis production country. These choppers are used to seize something like 1% of the domestic cannabis crop. Oh, and sometimes they’re black.

It’s loud and nearly constant, but 40 years of such expensive, constitutionally questionable, cartel-ignoring nonsense has hardly put a dent in supply or demand. How do we know this? Let’s quote the U.S. Department of Justice’s 2009 Domestic Cannabis Cultivation assessment: “The amount of marijuana available for distribution in the United States is unknown…Despite record-setting eradication efforts in the United States, the availability of marijuana remains relatively high, with limited disruption in supply or price.”

Regardless, your tax dollars and mine, by the billions, in a time of fiscal crisis, are going to arrest otherwise law-abiding Americans north of the border. As former Fed chairman Paul Volcker, Ronald Reagan’s Secretary of State George Shultz and even Albert Einstein have pointed out (in 1921 during that early bout of nonsensical Prohibition) this further enriches the murderers south of the border by sustaining a prohibition economy. I don’t know how my neighboring cattle ranchers in the desert knew it, but they’re right: the war on drugs really is being fought for the benefit of foreigners.

Want an example? Just before he and his wife had their Mendocino County, California farm and medical cannabis cooperative destroyed by heavily armed and chainsaw-wielding Drug Enforcement Administration agents last October, a locally permitted, non-profit cannabis farmer and chamber of commerce member named Matt Cohen told me he was confident that he and his fellow American farmers (of America’s far and away number-one cash crop) were on the right side of history.

As we toured the field where his 99 man-sized plants wavered fragrantly in the breeze, the 33-year-old Cohen told me, “By the time alcohol Prohibition ended, on December 5, 1933, 23 states had already enacted laws regulating the alcohol industry.” Yep, he really knew the date. It was kind of his mantra.

In other words, before Congress was forced to wake up 80 years ago, enough states first decided that hysterical zealots telling people what they could or could not ingest was not the way to go, policy-wise. It was no way to run an economy (alcohol taxes at times had provided 70% of federal revenue prior to Prohibition). It was not even a good way to "think of the children," as the screed still goes.  When gangsters control an industry, they don’t ask to see ID. One hundred million Americans have used cannabis, including the last three presidents. “They shouldn’t have to be federal criminals,” Cohen told me last August.

Cohen was not a local criminal. Every plant on his farm wore an expensive, bright-yellow, local permitting “zip-tie” bracelet around its stalk. These represented participation in a new county program started because, in the words of Nobel Laureate free-market economist Milton Friedman in 1991, “Illegality creates obscene profits that finance the murderous tactics of the drug lords.”

True in 1933, true in 1991, true in 2012. With Connecticut’s new medical cannabis law, the latest but not the last, we’re at 17 states now unilaterally declaring peace in the drug war, and that number is going to keep growing (Massachusetts and Arkansas voters go to the polls on the issue in a couple of weeks on the medical side, and Coloradans, Oregonians and Washingtonians will be voting to fully end the drug war by regulating cannabis for adult social use). In fact, despite two recent polls showing a majority of Americans favor full -- not just medicinal – marijuana legalization, it looks like the one-state-at-a-time model is going to be the one that ends the four-decade, ineffective, trillion-dollar war on cannabis.

That’s because the drug war issue is, in the words of former New Mexico Governor and current Libertarian presidential candidate Gary Johnson, the issue of “greatest disconnect” between Americans and their leaders on the federal level.

What he means is, there is as yet almost no support in Congress, especially in the Senate, to get cannabis out of Schedule I of the Controlled Substances Act. This absurd classification means that officially the plant has no beneficial uses at all. Even cocaine and methamphetamine are in Schedule II. As the tired and wrong rhetoric about brains frying on drugs fades from the society’s zeitgeist, the taxpayer is coming to ask why.

Here’s what I discovered: devoid of reason or results, inertia becomes the last refuge of the drug warrior. And it’s a powerful refuge. You think it’s hard to get funding for a program? That’s nothing compared to urging a legislator to turn offthe tap once the bureaucratic flow is cascading to beneficiaries. And at a higher cost annually then Reagan’s entire 10-year Star Wars initiative, the drug war is one big flow. Sixty-billion dollars of our taxes are spent annually (state and federal) to lose this war.

Appropriations taps tended to get rusted in the on position because a lot of jobs and programs are at stake. That is sure true in the case of America’s longest and most expensive war. An American is arrested for cannabis every 37 seconds, according to the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws. This despite its proven medicinal properties and what any honest law enforcer will tell you is a much easier call to get than an alcohol one or one connected to America’s real epidemic: prescription pill abuse.

That cannabis is the main domestic drug war target has nothing to do with public safety. The reason for all the rural raids and urban stop-and-frisks is that a lot of people are paid to keep doing these things. The federal DEA alone has more than 9,000 employees and a budget of $2.5 billion. That’s an industry, people. Local law enforcers are directly and indirectly reimbursed based on their arrests and property seizures. Private prison executives guarantee incarceration rates in bids to municipalities. And the same banks you use launder Mexican drug money.

President Obama knows all this. Or did until his inauguration. In 2004, he said, “The war on drugs has been an utter failure. I think we need to…decriminalize our medical marijuana laws.” In 2011, hounded for three years by cannabis activists at every town hall meeting he held, he finally said, “Am I willing to pursue a decriminalization strategy as an approach? No.” Hard to turn of the money tap, ain’t it? That explains the federal disconnect, Governor Johnson. Too much of the drug war, in practice, is incarceration industry welfare.

Are there bad players in the American cannabis industry, which crop is worth more than corn and wheat combined, according to ABC? Of course. Criminals are just about all that prohibition’s free-for-all creates, other than a massive prison population. It’s why we’ve heard of Al Capone.

As one cannabis farmer I followed, Tomas Balogh, put it, “When there’s a gold rush, you’ve got Yosemite Sam right next to responsible hardworking people.”

Matt Cohen, the Mendocino farmer who was about to be raided, is not a gangster. He doesn’t own a weapon and even his dogs will lick you to death. He was, according to Mendocino County Board of Supervisors member John McCowen, “the first…to call for regulation of the cultivation and dispensing of medical marijuana to prevent black market diversion.” His raid, according to NORML’s Dale Gieringer, was “a victory for the cartels.”

The funny thing is, in the year I spent researching American cannabis farmers, most law enforcers I met were well-intended, regulations-following professionals just trying to do their job. Good cops, in other words. Not intentionally working for cartels. Though more than a few were aware that they are on the losing side of the war and part of a bad policy.

Last July, a man wearing fatigues whose salary I pay pointed an automatic weapon at me and ordered me off my own public lands during a national forest raid I was trying to cover. He did so what seemed to me apologetically, with the posture of someone punching in and punching out. Blaming that fellow for the drug war would be like blaming the corporal slogging it out in a Southeast Asian rice paddy in 1973 for the Vietnam War. I felt bad for him. I hope he can find other work, perhaps going after prescription pill mill operators, when the exorbitant travesty of cannabis prohibition ends.

Throwing their hands up at congressional and White House refusal to put cannabis to work for the American economy (Harvard economist Jeffrey Miron suggests that lost tax revenue was $6.2 billion in 2011) while crippling the cartels (70% of whose revenue derives from cannabis trafficking, according to some studies, though even 50% would mean cannabis legalization would cripple them), cannabis activists at national organizations like the Marijuana Policy Project are chipping away at outdated cannabis laws, one state at a time. In fact that organization’s slogan is, “27 medical marijuana states by 2014.”

Eventually, drug peace activists believe, we will reach a tipping point. The number of people who believe that America’s health and children are more threatened by legal cannabis than by illegal, cartel-controlled cannabis will continue to wither down to nothing as the truth, as it tends to do, eventually gets out.

Congress will have to act, they say. It will be forced to shut off the tap, or at least redirect the massive flow of Drug War, Inc. Hope they hurry. We’ve got an embarrassingly world-leading 2.3 million Americans locked up today, to which New York City makes its little stop-and-frisk racial profiling contribution. Federal funding trickles down to local police coffers based directly on arrest numbers.

On the producer/farmer end, sometimes law enforcement budgets are actually dependent on seizing Americans' property. California U.S. Attorney Benjamin Wagner unilaterally “awarded” Stanislaus County law enforcers $154,875 following one 2011 raid. Federal law doesn’t even mandate property return if charges are never filed. This is why former Seattle Police Chief Norm Stamper says, “the drug war’s most serious collateral damage has been to undermine the role of civilian law enforcement in our free society.”

Without question, the economic data show that cannabis should immediately be put to work for the American economy. That’s what, in the end, makes it a top-tier-important issue at a time of debt crisis, currency crisis and Middle East dictator crisis: not only are the enforcement billions better spent elsewhere, but revenues from the cannabis plant economy itself will impart billions into our economy every year.

It’s already happening with nutritive and industrial cannabis in Canada (still illegal to grow here). Smokable cannabis might one day be a niche industry, like cigars, one venture capitalist suggested to me. As North Dakota’s agriculture commissioner Roger Johnson (no liberal) put it in 2007, “What an opportunity we’re throwing away, not being a part of this [industrial cannabis] industry…We really ought to be in this business. It’s economics.”

What then? I just spent a year witnessing what one promising model for the Pax Cannabis era looks like. It was that experiment in local governance put forth by tiny Mendocino County on California’s North Coast – the one that had all of Matt Cohen’s plants wearing permitting bracelets. Here’s a paraphrase of the local Board of Supervisors’ thinking: “Look, cannabis isn’t going away. It’s like 80% of our economy. We can regulate it and tax it, or we can let the criminals reap all the profits, increasing crime locally and everywhere.”

Their crop’s local value, easily more than $3 billion annually, a bit outpaces number two grapes, at $74.9 million in 2010. Up until now, untaxed and unregulated. If you were a young 4H member in those emerald hills, which would you choose?

And thus Ordinance 9.31 was passed. Locals call it the “zip-tie program.” Ninety-five local farmers, some third-generation, bravely came aboveground in 2011 to declare, “I am an American small farmer. Please tax me, don’t arrest me.”

Only no one told the feds. A team of DEA agents, in his words “machine guns blazing,” came to chop down Matt Cohen’s plants at dawn on October 13, 2011. They also held him incommunicado from his wife and lawyer for eight hours. “It was pretty scary,” Cohen’s wife, Courtney, recalls of the raid. “As we ran downstairs to meet these guys I remember shouting, 'Please don't shoot our dogs! Please don't shoot our dogs!'"

Matt Cohen had paid about $8,500 in permitting fees to Mendocino County that spring. “Gladly,” the Farm Bureau member told me. “We aren’t fighting the Man. We are the Man.”

Local law enforcers had come to Cohen’s birthday party that summer. He was a poster child for cannabis farming done right. His 3,300 patients loved him for the reliable source of organically grown medicine his farm provided. One is AARP member Bill Harney, a liver cancer battler. When I visited with him in the “Valle Vista Senior Subdivision" home where he had for more than a year received deliveries from Cohen’s Northstone Organics Cooperative, he told me, “A year ago I weighed 118 pounds. Now I’m up to 155. My doctor recommended cannabis to me because he knew if I didn’t eat I would die.”

Cohen’s permit fees were part of the $605,000 raised by Ordinance 9.31 in 2011, which zip-tied thousands of samples from the county’s leading crop in those yellow bracelets, and directly saved seven deputy jobs that were slated for elimination in county budget cuts.

Cohen himself had made about $50,000 in salary in three years as a -- as far as Mendocino County was concerned -- perfectly legal farmer. As legal as if he had been growing corn or tomatoes.

A recent soundbite you’re sure to hear spouted by those who benefit from the “heck, let’s give it another 40 years and trillion dollars” view about the war on drugs claims that California’s not-for-profit medical cannabis system is being abused by profiteers. Or that medical cannabis activists really want full legalization. To these folks I say, “It’s called an economy. Tax it.”

The feds are, thus far, saying, “no thanks.” Under direct threat by Justice Department attorneys of not just more constituent raids but of personal prosecution themselves, Mendocino County supervisors canceled the 9.31 zip-tie program shortly after the raid on Cohen’s farm. For now. What a blow against the cartels, Uncle Sam! You just forced a retiree liver cancer patient to become another of their dissatisfied customers.

And yet Matt Cohen remains unflaggingly optimistic that good policy will win out. “December 5, 1933,” he told me again, when I visited his decimated and bankrupt farm after his raid. “One state at a time.”

His now-stumpy acreage, still flanked by a framed local cultivation permit, a huge American flag and a local Chamber of Commerce membership certificate, looked like something out of The Lorax. Close to a million dollars of medicinal American agricultural production had been carted away in a dump truck.

On the ground, 56% of Americans believe this policy must change. Since Cohen’s raid, Connecticut has bid adieu to the drug war, and 15 other states have already decriminalized the plant for all uses. The 17 medical programs are extremely varied, from California’s broad, voter-approved, “any…illness for which marijuana provides relief” plan, to Colorado’s tightly regulated for-profit model, to Montana’s federally meddled-with program, to my home state of New Mexico’s legislature-created, humming-right-along one. That program serves, among thousands of others, a 63-year-old Vietnam War veteran neighbor of mine named Carl Reid. “Got me off pain killers,” he told me of his new medicine. “Gave me my life back.”

And that state-by-state regulatory variety is how it should be: Provos’s alcohol laws are different from Reno’s, because Utah is different than Nevada. What the programs have in common is that they work. They generate revenue while serving patients and improving public safety. Consequently, more and more state governments are requesting that the feds get out of the way because a) Americans have shown that they want cannabis, one way or another; b) Americans, not foreign cartels, should produce it; and c) the drug war, after raging 10 times longer than World War II, doesn’t work anyway.

Sometimes our chief drug warriors defensively pretend that they understand this. Memo to Drug Czar Gil Kerlikowske: saying that you’re focusing drug war funding on education while devoting the highest amount ever to domestic enforcement -- $9.4 billion for fiscal 2013 -- isn’t fooling anyone. Nor is the ridiculous argument that children will have more access to cannabis when it’s regulated for adult use like alcohol. I gave a talk at a high school last week during which I asked the question, “How many of you in this auditorium believe it’s easier to get cannabis than alcohol?” Every hand went up. This confirms the obvious: regulated cannabis will lead to a decrease in cannabis use, as a recent Brown University study concluded.

In the course of my research, I came across some surprising (to me) states that have been at least debating the cannabis decriminalization issue or medical programs: Florida, Kansas, Oklahoma, Indiana, Ohio and Alabama. Note to candidate advisers: ending the drug war is a politically safe issue in the heartland. Maybe they’ll wake up when they see the election returns in a few weeks.

Perhaps that’s because ordinary Americans sense that a drug peace would improve American health and public safety. De facto legal cannabis sure has been good for Mendocino County, California. “Got my first-ever homicide tip after 27 years,” a Mendocino sheriff’s sergeant named Randy Johnson told me during the zip-tie program’s mercurial rise. “The growers are open members of the community now.”

When the drug peace tipping point is reached, the Mendocino model, which was such a success that several surrounding counties were planning to emulate it, and which even included sustainability guidelines, as well as all kinds of zoning and property fencing requirements, is one that can and hopefully will be implemented nationwide on the production side.

It will put a cadre of American farmers back to work on medicinal, industrial and even fuel-producing cannabis fields (hemp has several times the per-acre biofuel yield of corn). America will benefit to the tune of billions every year when we end one of our worst domestic policies since, well, Prohibition. As twice-elected Mendocino County Sheriff Tom Allman, no Cheech and Chong law enforcer (he willingly goes after cannabis growers he or his narcotics team believe are breaking local or state law), puts it: “We have real problems in our county. Meth. Domestic violence. Marijuana isn’t even in the top three. I just want to get it off the front pages. This is my biggest dream.”

Doug Fine

Doug Fine is the author of "Too High to Fail: Cannabis and the New Green Economic Revolution." He blogs at


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