The prohibition of marijuana has been a costly failure, one that has undermined police efficacy, wasted resources and made our communities less safe by empowering criminal gangs. But in the wake of Colorado and Washington voters’ recent passage of marijuana legalization initiatives, Congress has a unique opportunity to allow changes in this failed policy without officially endorsing legalization.
As police veterans from these two states, we write from the perspective of former believers who have lost their faith in prohibition. We have seen how, as a result of these laws, police officers — once seen as protectors and guardians — are now looked upon as invaders and aggressors by many in the communities we are sworn to protect.
We have seen that once we lose the support of that community, our jobs become impossible. More crimes go unreported. Witnesses are unwilling to talk; investigations go nowhere. We are looked on as the enemy.
We’ve spent billions of dollars and arrested millions of people trying to curb marijuana use in this country over the past 40 years. We’ve used our police and our courts’ time prosecuting petty dealers and users while serious crimes — murders, burglaries, rapes — went unsolved.
Meanwhile, by making marijuana trafficking extremely profitable by making it illegal, we encouraged street gangs and drug cartels to participate in that trade. Now these groups are stronger and more violent. According to the Justice Department, Mexican drug cartels have set up operations in more than 1,000 U.S. cities. In Mexico, an estimated 60,000 deaths have been attributed to these cartels since 2006.
Despite our worthy intentions and best efforts, there is no metric by which the current law enforcement approach can be deemed a success: marijuana use remains high, the product has increased in potency and the drug remains widely available to adolescents.
HR 6606, the Respect States’ and Citizens’ Rights Act, which would allow states to enact their own marijuana laws without federal interference, is a bipartisan solution that allows us to change this approach and is worthy of support. Passing this bill is both the right thing and the politically smart thing to do.
Recent polls by Gallup, Public Policy Polling and Rasmussen show that the majority of Americans understand these issues and now favor legalizing and regulating marijuana. More telling, CBS News has reported that 59 percent of Americans (including 65 percent of Republicans) believe marijuana policy should be decided by states rather than by the federal government.
This is a winning issue, one that continues to gain support over time. Whereas at one point supporting marijuana reform was seen as a legislator’s swift ticket to early retirement, the opposite is now true. As federal cuts force states to seek much-needed revenue elsewhere, congressional leaders will oppose reform at their peril.
Still, some in Congress quietly support a legalization strategy but are hesitant to make their views known. HR 6606 presents an opportunity to respect voter wishes and the tenets of federalism while allowing states to decide marijuana policy. Indeed, this is not a divergence from precedent, but a return to it. States have long been entrusted with their own police powers; federal enforcement of drug laws is one of the few violations of this long-standing principle.
Research suggests that states will benefit greatly from the new arrangement. The Washington State Office of Financial Management estimates revenue from legalizing and regulating marijuana in the state could amount to almost $2 billion over the next five years. And studies in Colorado and elsewhere show both decreases in adolescent use and a decline in traffic fatalities since medical marijuana has been regulated in the state. Many scholars believe these gains in fiscal and social responsibility will increase with heightened regulation.
The war on marijuana is this nation’s longest quagmire. We have earnestly devoted ourselves to a law enforcement approach to marijuana policy for several decades with little to show for it other than the world’s highest incarceration rates and staggering federal and state deficits. Voters are ready for a new approach.
Norm Stamper served as a chief of police for the Seattle Police Department (retired, 34 years in law enforcement); Tony Ryan served as a lieutenant with the Denver Police Department (retired, 36 years in law enforcement). Both are speakers for Law Enforcement Against Prohibition, a group of police, judges and prosecutors opposed to the war on marijuana.