This opinion piece was originally published on Nov. 15, 1981, in the Miami Herald.
In its recent series of articles, The Herald clearly set forth the hypocrisy, frustration and stupendous waste of money and energies resulting from the state and federal governments’ attempts to stem illicit marijuana trafficking in South Florida. Although the series made numerous references to the “supply and demand” basis for the industry, there was hardly any serious discussion of the “demand” aspect of this formula. Such misdirection is endemic to both the media coverage and political rhetoric regarding this issue. Because of the possible political consequences, political leaders and elected officials in Florida and throughout the United States stubbornly refuse to realistically consider the demand and desire of millions of otherwise law-abiding Americans to use marijuana.
Although the last several paragraphs of The Herald drug-enforcement series did discuss the enormous domestic demand for marijuana and the fact that the market will never dry up with or without laws prohibiting it, several short paragraphs, unfortunately, constituted the extent of the discussion. Politicians have become so concerned with demonstrating how tough their stance is on the drug problem, that they are afraid to step back from the problem to address the very essence of the laws on which we spend so many millions attempting to enforce.
Although studies have shown that marijuana use is not without its health hazards, there is little question among medical authorities or law-enforcement officials that the problems of alcohol and tobacco far exceed any such dangers. Yet both the state and federal governments have demonstrated an unbending refusal to face the inevitable, that marijuana is a slightly harmful, but nevertheless permanent, fixture of American life.
The effects of marijuana prohibition are so similar to that of alcohol prohibition, that it is inconceivable how blind politicians and the public are on this point. Just as alcohol prohibition was largely responsible for a widespread boom in organized crime in the 1920s, marijuana prohibition has likewise resulted in a ubiquitous organized crime boom in South Florida. In Florida, however, the supply and demand is so overwhelming that even novice criminal entrepreneurs can make several hundred thousand dollars in a single weekend. More significant, however, than the millions of dollars that marijuana prohibition is making for organized crime, are the millions of dollars that marijuana law enforcement is costing the taxpayers. This of course does not take into account the vast amount of tax revenue Florida is losing as a result of prohibiting, rather than taxing, marijuana.
Another deleterious effect of marijuana prohibition is the deepest and pervasive disrespect for the law that it has engendered. Marijuana is commonplace enough in America that its dangers and benefits are widely known by millions of Americans. Therefore the attempts of politicians to save American youth from the dangers of marijuana appear not only ineffective but also hypocritical. It is difficult for young Americans to accept the concept that alcohol is the permissible intoxicant of their elders, while marijuana is the danger and potential ruin of their own generation. It is readily apparent that the drug laws have failed miserably to discourage the use of marijuana in America, and it is this widespread use of the drug over the past 15 years that unquestionably demonstrates the deepest lack of respect for the marijuana laws.
As the Herald articles so accurately portrayed, marijuana enforcement is a game that the smugglers are winning handily. There appear to be only two possible approaches to which the government can resort in order to turn the game in favor of the enforcers, and thereby effectively deal with the problem.
▪ The first approach, increased drug penalties and aggressive prosecution of drug crimes, has been tried before without affecting any appreciable change in the overall situation. Enhanced penalties and aggressive prosecution do not deter marijuana smuggling simply because the potential rewards from smuggling are so great. An individual who has the chance to make several hundred thousand dollars for a single week’s worth will continue to engage in such activities even when faced with the death penalty. Mandatory life sentences for heroin trafficking in New York State have done little to alleviate that far more serious problem. Similarly, the harsh sentences given to defendants in some local cases have had no visible effect on marijuana trafficking in South Florida.
▪ If stricter prosecution and more severe penalties will not deter individuals from attempting to smuggle marijuana, the government’s only alternative approach is to increase its efforts to thwart the physical act of importation. Although an astronomical expenditure of public funds could conceivably bring an end to marijuana importation, it is unlikely that the nation’s taxpayers would be willing to bear this enormous expense. It is equally unlikely that Colombia, the major marijuana exporter in Latin America, will voluntarily terminate its largest and most lucrative business in the foreseeable future. As a result, diplomatic efforts with Colombia toward that end appear doomed from the start.
The futility of the above two approaches leads to one conclusion: legalization, severe regulation, and taxation of marijuana is the only solution to the problem of illicit marijuana trafficking in Florida or anywhere else in America. Legalization will have the following immediate and significant beneficial results:
(1) It will eliminate the expenditure of millions and millions of tax dollars for the completely ineffective and counterproductive enforcement of marijuana prohibition.
(2) Organized crime will lose a major source of revenue used by it to control other legitimate and illegitimate businesses throughout the nation.
(3) Legalization will result in a regulatory network generating thousands of jobs and millions of dollars per year in tax revenues.
(4) South Florida‘s economy, which already depends in part on the marijuana industry, will experience a boom and South Florida banks will no longer face the constitutional and ethical problems of excepting deposits of “marijuana money.”
(5) Much of the violence throughout Florida stemming from marijuana deals gone sour will end and state and federal law enforcement officers will be able to devote their time to other crime problems facing South Florida.
This writer recognizes that the legalization of marijuana is a complex issue that may in turn result in other problems relating to regulation or possible cultivation of marijuana in America. In addition, the illicit drug traffic in South Florida includes not only marijuana but also cocaine and methaqualone. The legalization of these latter two substances presents some more difficult problems because of their known side effects and addictive tendencies. There is little question, however, that the present situation is causing a completely unacceptable waste of our money and human resources, and that no other possible solution exists. When one considers the historical example of alcohol prohibition, it becomes apparent that the lifting of marijuana prohibition is inevitable. The only question is how much more money and resources will be wasted before our legislators and current power structure recognizes that legalization of marijuana may be a more politically expedient position than they had once imagined.