MY TURN By Chris Owney

| 23 Feb 2012 | 03:38

    Marijuana prohibition: there’s got to be a better way; A former NYPD narcotics detective explains why The United States outlawed marijuana in 1937 with the intention of preventing its use by the population. However, prohibiting marijuana has done virtually nothing to eliminate its use. In fact usage rates, which have fluctuated over the years, remain high. Currently, the World Health Organization estimates 42 percent of Americans have used marijuana. Prohibition only serves to overly burden law enforcement and create and empower violent drug gangs. Legalizing marijuana would alleviate the burden placed on law enforcement, weaken gangs and reduce crime and usage rates. Mexican immigrants and Caribbean sailors introduced marijuana to America in the early 1900s. In 1937, Congress enacted the Marijuana Tax Act that effectively began the era of marijuana prohibition. However, marijuana usage remained on the fringes of mainstream society until the 1960s. During the political unrest of the ’60s, marijuana usage took on a political element. Many users viewed its use as an affront to the establishment and a protest against archaic and unfair laws. Its usage peeked in the late 1970s when 55 percent of high school seniors reported using marijuana. Currently, approximately 33 percent of high school seniors report using marijuana within the last year. The ‘argument doesn’t wash’ Proponents of prohibition claim legalizing marijuana would lead to a huge increase of usage, especially among the young. They claim that, regardless of age restrictions and regulation that might be put in place, making legal will automatically lead to more usage. That argument doesn’t wash. Cigarettes are legal, age restricted and available, yet cigarette smoking is at its lowest levels since 1951. Bill Piper, national affairs director of the Drug Policy Alliance, says, “The number of people smoking cigarettes has plummeted and you didn’t have to arrest a single person.” It is education and awareness programs, not criminal penalties, that have driven cigarette usage to an all-time low. The Portuguese government, in 2001, decriminalized all drugs including marijuana. The Cato Institute reports that since decriminalization in Portugal, marijuana usage among the 15-19-year-old age group has drastically been reduced. Lifetime usage among high school students has also dropped by 6 percent. Closer to home, California has had the most liberal medical marijuana laws in the nation since 1996, yet has seen no drastic increase in usage. More than half of all arrests The continued prohibition of marijuana has only served to put a tremendous logistical and financial burden on law enforcement agencies. The Federal Bureau of Investigation’s annual Unified Crime Data Report indicates there were 1,663,582 arrests in the United States last year. Marijuana arrests accounted for a staggering 51.6 percent of those arrests. Read those numbers again. What a waste of law enforcement resources. It takes an average of three hours to process a typical marijuana arrest. Applying a three-hour average to the number of marijuana arrests last year equates to 2,575,224 hours. The amount of time gained by law enforcement officials by legalizing marijuana would be invaluable. Given today’s terrorism threat, 2.5 million hours of law enforcement’s time could be better spent focusing on security. Time is not all that’s wasted. Consider the money. Harvard economist Jeffrey Miron estimates the cost of enforcing marijuana prohibition to be roughly $13.7 billion annually. Clearly, legalizing marijuana would be a logistical and financial windfall for law enforcement and a tremendous benefit to security. Society is also being burdened by marijuana prohibition. The crime and quality of life issues facing many communities is directly attributed to illegal marijuana trade. Prohibition created a vacuum that was filled by criminal organizations, and its sale empowers gangs. According to the U.S. Department of Justice Gang Intelligence Center, marijuana is the primary drug sold by gangs, and gang members are the primary street level dealers. More than half of the law enforcement agencies in the country report gang involvement in drug dealing. In some areas, 80 percent of reported crime is directly related to gang activity. These violent gangs and cartels are the only groups that benefit from keeping marijuana illegal. They control its distribution and reap its immense financial rewards. Because they conduct their business outside the law, disputes are often settled violently on the streets of America with deadly results. Forty-two percent of homicides and shootings in the Bronx were related to the marijuana trade in 2009. Legalizing marijuana would remove a major revenue source from gangs. The result would severely limit their ability to function and recruit. Gang-driven crime rates would be greatly reduced. Portugal’s success Legalizing and taxing marijuana is an effective policy to reducing usage rates. Portugal, which decriminalized marijuana in 2001, has the lowest usage rates of all 14 European Union member states. The lifetime usage rate of the general population in Portugal is about 8 percent. By contrast, the United Kingdom and Denmark have lifetime usage rates of about 30 percent. Not surprisingly, both countries have strict laws banning marijuana. Part of Portugal’s success can be attributed to the fact that the country used the money that had gone into arresting and prosecuting users and, instead, funneled it into educational and treatment programs. The number of people seeking treatment doubled and usage rates declined. In the United States. it is estimated that taxing marijuana at the same rates as alcohol and tobacco would produce approximately $6.4 billion in revenue annually. This revenue, combined with the estimated $13.7 billion in savings from eliminating prohibition, would provide significant funding toward funding education, treatment and prevention programs. Criminalization of marijuana is obviously a failed policy. Legalizing marijuana is not condoning or conceding to drug use. To the contrary, it is the first step toward a responsible and effective national policy. Legalization creates revenue, frees up law enforcement resources and removes a significant source of income from organized gangs. Our nearly century long experiment in banning marijuana has failed as abysmally, just as alcohol prohibition failed. The time has come to end marijuana prohibition and institute a fair and sensible drug policy. Chris Owney of Orange County is a retired lieutenant with the New York City Police Department. For eight years, he was a narcotics detective squad commander in Washington Heights.