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What the Devil Won't Tell You

Money and power drive DEA pot ruling

Arizona voters get to take their stand on marijuana legalization

Arizona voters will go to the polls this fall to decide just how illegal marijuana will remain in the state. The Proposition 205 vote follows a U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency refusal to budge on the question of pot's danger. The evil weed remains a Schedule I narcotic.

Some 23 states have moved on from the days of Reefer Madness but a bunch of others and the federal government have not.

To be fair to the suits inside the Beltway, the DEA's ruling declares pot is a drug without proven medical purpose. I know, I know. A nation of back-pain sufferers would heartily disagree. That's not my question, which is simple: Someone from the DEA needs to tell me the medical application of Sierra Nevada Pale Ale.

I'll give you one: it cures hangovers. That just leads to a bunch of other problems.

All the research and all the polling point to a future where sucking the smoke out of a bong is perfectly legal. Americans know all the answers but the question remains about how Arizonans will vote on Prop. 205. The last extensive national polling showed 54 percent of respondents thought pot should be legal and just 16 percent believed it should be illegal. When the Pew Research Center drilled down, the numbers changed and respondents were actually more inclined to support medical marijuana than full legalization. So voters are still struggling with the big question.

They are pretty settled on the rest of it: The drug war is a loser; pot, coke and heroin are medical issues; and users shouldn't do jail time. We say that we like change but it scares the hell out of us.

Even the U.S. Department of Justice knows the DEA is high. Attorney General Loretta Lynch, who oversees DEA, announced she will all but leave alone states with legal recreational pot use.

One of the challenges facing the Campaign to Regulate Marijuana Like Alcohol is to convince recreational drinkers that recreational toking is somehow a moral equivalent. It's not. I'm a casual drinker. In my day, I could go drink for drink with the USS Nimitz. I have family in Canada so, I am not going to acknowledge that I maybe, possibly coulda smoked in college. Still, even I know Americans are better served in edge-abatement by somebody sparking up a joint than that guy slamming down the eighth shot of Jägermeister.

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Maybe they — and the larger movement out there — have it backward. If beer were regulated as a controlled substance, it too would be Schedule I because it offers no proven medical benefit. Whiskey is as bad as pot, under federal definitions, so maybe lay off the non-drinkers who like to toke up.

Casual drinker vs. recreational toker

So what's the difference between alcohol and pot? Are you serious? I don't have the power to fire you so why are you acting like you don't know? I mean, come on. College? You never listened to "Dark Side of the Moon"? Snoop?

The Pew poll found that by 40 points Americans viewed alcohol as the more dangerous drug to the person and by 30 points more dangerous to society. For the uninitiated:

Alcohol is rock and roll. Marijuana is classical music. Beer is bold representationalism like Warhol's Campbell's Soup can. Pot is Renoire's Bal du Moulin Galette (you've seen it a lot) with rough strokes up close that paint a detailed picture from further away. Beer is football. Weed is baseball. Tequila is happy hour. A joint is a sunset. A shot is Matt Damon and Sarah Silverman. A bong hit is George Clooney and Tina Fey.

Bad drunks get violent. Bad stoners (ahem — not saying on account of Canada) are absolutely certain the GEICO gecko knows they're stoned.

Here's another difference: Pot is easier for kids to get because criminalizing it has radically decentralized the commercial side of it. Alcohol, which is legal, is much more centralized through retail outlets and bars that check IDs. When we were 20, we couldn't get beer in college but every fourth door behind our apartment complex was a future MBA who would load up a bong for us.

Alcohol is legal and not a controlled substance. Pot is illegal and therefore subject to bizarre federal scheduling that treats cocaine and the over-the-counter opiates as less harmful. Those would be the drugs that routinely terrorize America. The history of pot's criminalization is vast and somewhat racist with corporate overtones. So are a lot of things I'm not going to rehash. I will throw you a bone at the end.

The question is why did the folks at the DEA of all people not see the light? Why are state voters having to make these changes?

Two answers. One, that's kinda a better way to make it happen. It's better that political consensus fuels change when possible rather than edicts by high-level bureaucrats.

But the other answer I would posit is this: The drug war makes a lot of people a lot of money and gives them a lot of power.

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Power and forfeiture

Take civil forfeiture.

Police love them their civil forfeiture, the practice where the government sues personal property to confiscate it with obscenely lame due process. Simply put, the government can take cash, cars and houses from people neither accused nor convicted of a crime. Those who's property was seized then have the burden of proof to show the preponderance of evidence means they get to keep what was taken. And in Arizona — and because it's Arizona, the Dystopias 'R' Us State — the innocent better win. If they don't they have to pay the state, which is a fine on top of a fine for a crime that wasn't committed. Think about it, a conviction is a loss-before-the-fact of a challenge. So the only people suing for their rights are those not convicted.

There are two sides to this and Maricopa County Attorney Bill Montgomery defended the practice in an op-ed in the Arizona Republic. He included the following:

Forfeiture is designed as a civil action precisely because it targets illegal activity in which a criminal conviction would either be impossible or ineffective in stopping criminal conduct.

Now, I'm no expert in vigilantism. But the whole we-can't-convict-you-but-we'll-get-you-anyway endeavor probably shouldn't fall under the purview of county prosecutors.

America has the largest incarceration rate of any industrial democracy and a quarter of those inmates are non-violent drug offenders. Pot offenders aren't filling them specifically. How many corrections officers does the drug war employ? A quarter of them?

No, pot smokers don't crowd our prisons. That's a myth. But when non-violent drug offenders go to prison they increasingly end up in private prisons, which specialize in non-violent offenders. Companies like Corrections Corporation of America see their business model dependent on a drug war. Check out this little dandy confession in CCA's 2010 annual report under the heading Risks to Our Business and Industry:

"The demand for our facilities and services could be adversely affected by the relaxation of enforcement efforts, leniency in conviction or parole standards and sentencing practices or through the decriminalization of certain activities that are currently proscribed by our criminal laws. For instance, any changes with respect to drugs and controlled substances or illegal immigration could affect the number of persons arrested, convicted, and sentenced, thereby potentially reducing demand for correctional facilities to house them. [A]ny changes with respect to drugs and controlled substances or illegal immigration could affect the number of persons arrested, convicted, and sentenced, thereby potentially reducing demand for correctional facilities to house them.” 

Peace, prosperity and leniency is bad for business. At least the gun lobby isn't actively trying to shoot you.

Drugs of choice

Open Secrets also found the pharmaceutical lobby strongly opposed to decriminalization of pot because Big Pharma is opposed to legalizing pot, which is about as open a secret as a secret can get. A 2016 study by the Journal of Health Affairs found that in states where medical marijuana was legal, pain prescriptions cost pharmaceutical companies $165 million because doctors in those state prescribed 1,826 fewer doses of pain meds a year.

So, here's the question Mr. DEA man: What does Big Pharmaceutical have to worry about if there are no medical benefits? The thing about pain is that it hurts. It debilitates. Pain isn't like saying "I'm going to grow dreads and not shower to prove I'm off the grid, man. Free Hemp!" Pain is a very specific master. So why would companies worry? Those patients will come running back to have their OxyContin scripts filled in about four minutes if pot didn't do the trick. But they aren't. It looks like it does the job.

Open Secrets found that big pharmaceutical companies, correctional officers, police unions, private prisons and others who make money off of the drug war and gain power from it, would like it to continue (thank you very much).

That's not a good enough reason to deny Americans freedom and property. You know what else isn't? Righteous indignation. We all like to collectively tisk-tisk the others. Hell, it's my job. With the drug war, it's long been easier to make the whole shooting match illegal and then just throw up our noses and say, "They shouldn't have broken the law."

There's a lot of personal empowerment in moral superiority but none of it has anything to do with the question at hand. Should pot users go to jail for substantive reasons?

Think about how change really happens. It can be very slow or screaming fast. It's like plate tectonics. Pressure builds and builds and then long after people think the change is due there's an earthquake. Civil rights, the fall of Communism, the Arab Spring, gay marriage. The War on Drugs is nearing that tipping point.

On the right, the National Review and Reason.com are on a jihad against the War on Drugs. On the Left, what dirty stinking hippie, maybe in their well-groomed hearts, doesn't want to end the drug war? The Pew Center poll found momentum swinging to majorities who want to legalize pot. A Rasmussen poll showed 82 percent of respondents said the War on Drugs is a failure.

Pot is illegal and remains a Schedule I drug because when that first brick falls, the whole dang fortress comes crashing down.

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So, the question is: Is Arizona ready for the big change? Or is the status quo more comfortable? Or should our laws be informed by the days of Reefer Madness? It's the hallucination that continues to keep the money flowing and the power on.

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