Printed on: June 17, 2013

Spokesman-Review: Feds should read report on pot data


While the Obama administration ponders what to do about two states that have legalized marijuana, it ought to peruse a recent report on the cost of enforcement and the racial disparities in arrests. Members of Congress should read it, too.

Perhaps then the federal government will realize that Washington and Colorado are the adults in this debate, not the problem children who must be managed.

The American Civil Liberties Union dug into a decade's worth of federal data and uncovered some uncomfortable truths. Government on the federal, state and local level is spending colossal sums on law enforcement without discouraging use, and African-American citizens are bearing the brunt of this misguided war on marijuana. In 2010, the nation spent $3.6 billion arresting, prosecuting and incarcerating people who possessed marijuana. The marketing of this war focuses on dealers and criminal syndicates, but don't be fooled. Of the nearly 8 million pot-related arrests between 2001 and 2010, 88 percent were for possession.

Though a similar percentage of black and white Americans smoke pot, black users were 3.7 times more likely to be arrested in 2010. In all but 12 states, this disparity has increased over the past decade. In Illinois, President Barack Obama's home state, African-Americans make up 14.9 percent of the population but account for 58.3 percent of all arrests for possession. That difference - 43.4 percent - leads the nation. In Washington state, the difference is 6.9 percent. In Colorado, it's 4 percent.

In states that legalize marijuana, the racial disparity will diminish, because arrests for possession should drop dramatically. The amount spent on enforcement and incarceration should also plummet.

The feds could still upset this progress by imposing the fiction that marijuana is as dangerous as heroin. It was placed in that category - as a Schedule 1 drug - when Richard Nixon was president, and it remains there because members of Congress are afraid to be portrayed as soft.

One offshoot of this outdated classification is that banks, which are federally insured, cannot legally serve marijuana-related businesses. This presents an unnecessary complication for Washington and Colorado, where pot is legal, and the states with medical-marijuana laws.

Recent polls show that American attitudes on pot have changed dramatically, which should embolden politicians to join the 21st century. For instance: Seventy-two percent of Americans say the costs of pot enforcement outweigh the benefits, according to a Pew Research Center survey in April. Sixty percent say federal law should not be enforced in states that have legalized marijuana.

When asked in December whether his administration would pursue states that had legalized pot, Obama said he had "bigger fish to fry." So far, the feds have not intervened in Washington and Colorado.

Hopefully, that's tacit acknowledgment that these two states are leaders, and it's the rest of the country that needs to catch up.