Commentary: Legalization of Pot Leads to Resumption of War on Drugs?

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For years, civil libertarians have warned that the war on drugs have given license to police officers to use heavy-handed force to conduct raids on suspected drug dealers.  But critics such as Radley Balko have argued that most raids are not against high level dealers, but rather low level offenders.

Mr. Balko in 2016 notes a Washington Post review of 2000 warrants served in DC between 2013 and 2015, where 14 percent of them found “no evidence of criminal activity.”  Worse yet, in the 60 of 284 cases, “police executing the warrants found illegal items, ranging from drug paraphernalia to guns.”  Moreover, “The amounts of drugs recovered were usually small, ranging from residue to marijuana cigarettes to rocks of cocaine.”

And, “About 40 percent of the time — in 115 cases — police left empty-handed.”

We can add race to this mix: “The investigation found that nearly all such raids are conducted on black residents.”

While we are citing a survey of Washington, DC, the reality is that these same factors play out across the country.  That was the reality of the war on drugs – while the upper level drug dealers are villainized and become poster children of the movement, the reality is that the victims here are people who either were innocent or were small time drug users.

And so, as the fear of drugs fades, more and more residents are willing to try something different.  California became one of a growing number of states to legalize recreational cannabis.  While I think part of that is due to people increasingly believing that cannabis’ risks and dangers are overblown, part of that I think is that people are tired of the war on drugs.

And yet in recent years we have seen some ugly raids across the state.  In September 2016, a multi-agency, anti-drug task force known as TRIDENT conducted such a raid in Western Yolo County.

Ted Hicks and Ryan Mears started a legal medical cannabis business.  On the morning of September 14, 2016, dozens of officers, with assault rifles drawn and pointed at the men and their family, grabbed the men and put them into handcuffs.

“Easily, it was the worst day of my life,” Ted Hicks told the LA Times. “Every gun you can imagine was pointed at me. I was like, ‘Why is this happening?’”

Those were the days before Prop. 64 was passed by California voters.  Has that ended the raids?

No.  Heavy-handed raids. Multi-jurisdictional tasks forces. Nebulous and with overlapping legality.

It sounds a lot like the resumption of the war on drugs. And yet, here we are two years after marijuana was legalized in California and one of the most noticeable effects has been a crackdown on illegal grows.

In a recent press release from the Attorney General’s office they noted the arrest of 148 individuals as part of the CAMP Program – CAMP being the Campaign Against Marijuana Planting.

Remember, marijuana is legal now in California. They are calling this “the nation’s largest illegal marijuana eradication program.”

Indeed, they say, “This year, CAMP eradicated 953,459 marijuana plants from 345 raided grow sites across the state. A total of 168 weapons were seized throughout the raids.”

“Illegal cannabis grows are devastating our communities. Criminals who disregard life, poison our waters, damage our public lands, and weaponize the illegal cannabis black market will be brought to justice,” said Attorney General Xavier Becerra.

He added, “This year, our CAMP teams worked tirelessly across the state to vigorously enforce California’s laws against illegal cannabis activity. The California Department of Justice is extremely proud of our partnership with federal, state, and local agencies and we look forward to continuing this necessary work.”

We could cite similar quotes from five other officials from various agencies listed in the press release. They are all missing a critical point. While many Californians supported Prop. 64 because they wanted to legally consume cannabis, many others supported it because they believed the war on drugs was not only a failure, but morally wrong, especially in the heavy-handed tactics.

It is thus highly ironic that state officials are now using Prop. 64 as the impetus to reengage in the war on drugs.

It also our belief that the state of California screwed up the roll out of Prop. 64. Local jurisdictions and the state were greedy. They believed this would become a cash cow, and thus imposed huge regulatory restrictions – licensing, fees, etc.

The problem with that approach is it made it cheaper and easier to continue an illegal operation.

What they should have done is allow the legal market to coalesce, and thereby drive out the illegal black market. They didn’t. The result is that illegal sellers outnumber the legal and regulated businesses by a three to one margin.

“The real underlying problem is that there’s insufficient licenses to address market demand,” said the CEO of Weedmaps.

I disagree. I think the real problem is the licensing process is too expensive and onerous and thus it is easier and cheaper to be illegal.

Regardless, the resumption of the war on drugs by other means seems to be a waste of time and energy.  We are just now starting to hear of trickles of these raids getting into the criminal justice system.  Until these cases get to open court – if they ever do – it is hard to monitor the authorities to know exactly what is going on.

—David M. Greenwald reporting

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About The Author

David Greenwald is the founder, editor, and executive director of the Davis Vanguard. He founded the Vanguard in 2006. David Greenwald moved to Davis in 1996 to attend Graduate School at UC Davis in Political Science. He lives in South Davis with his wife Cecilia Escamilla Greenwald and three children.

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