Tuesday, June 22, 2010

A Critical Look at the American War on Drugs

By Ron Ridenour

I am Ron Ridenour, a 55-year-old Flathead County and Canyon resident of Montana. I stood before a federal judge on June 25th, 2004, the most critical reckoning day I had encountered in my lifetime. In order to reduce a 5 to 20 year prison term and a two million dollar fine to livable amounts, I was advised to plead guilty to a federal charge of conspiracy to distribute marijuana. My prison term was 23 months in addition to the seizure of nearly half a million dollars by the Whitefish Police Department and the Northwest Montana Drug Task Force. Seized items included my home, a collection of automobiles, a motorcycle, a ski boat and some firearms. To initiate my arrest, a girlfriend with momentary objections to our personal situation dialed 911 and I walked away from the life I knew in handcuffs. The purchase of this property was made possible because of 35 years employment in the railroad industry, construction trades, employment within my family’s business and with legitimate entrepreneurial endeavors. The money made from sales of marijuana paled by comparison but task force warriors rushed to seize nearly all assets of value.

Regarding marijuana, I humbly appeal to all who judged me then, judge me now and judge other people, to consider what I have learned through personal inquiry, observation and experience:

Cannabis sativa/marijuana/pot/hemp originated early in the history of the world. It was a product of evolution, intelligent design, or a compilation of both. The plant has existed and has been utilized by people and cultures for a long time. The oldest piece of fabric known to man was made from hemp—cannabis sativa—and dates to 8000 years before Christ.

At some point early in the history of man or his predecessors, the plant was discovered for its mood altering and medicinal effects. Ancient China and India provide the earliest records of its use. At the turn of the 20th century, as many as two thirds of the world’s cultures used marijuana for pain relief and its euphoric qualities.

In 1937, the U.S. legislated marijuana illegal with the passing of the Marijuana Tax Bill. Although doctors had been prescribing cannabis for a hundred years, the bill was rushed through Congress with no testimony by the American Medical Association. A clique of wealthy individuals and corporations employing and controlling the influence of newspaper and banking interests along with friends and relatives in high levels of government were able to manipulate views of the American public. This scheming would reap billions in personal and corporate income for the parties involved because there would be no competition from the hemp plant.

When I was in my teens and going to school in Columbia Falls, alcohol was, as it still is, the drug of choice for the community and area; it was only natural that consumption would find its way into the social scene of the youth. Binge drinking has probably been inherent with alcohol use since fermentation was discovered. My first contact with marijuana occurred when I was 18. Older friends returning from Vietnam brought their observations of war and they told me about the enjoyable and relaxing effects of marijuana. Some brought samples smuggled in their duty-free stereos. We were compatriots in life and in another taboo. I tried the stuff and I liked it. It didn’t make me ill, I wasn’t obnoxious when using it and my friends and I weren’t drunkenly racing our cars and forgetting what we had done on a previous evening.

Throughout history, warriors have been returning to their homelands with plunder and different ideas. The introduction of cannabis to western civilization is believed to have occurred when Napoleon’s troops invaded Egypt. This is the way of warriors—of people—of the world.
The primary argument for marijuana’s illegal status is the belief that it provides a gateway to more harmful drugs. Perhaps it is a gateway. Aren’t alcohol and tobacco also gateways? Which gateways are most harmful and which are less harmful? Which ones kill more people? If in living, we walk through a gate into a dangerous situation but can find our way back to the relative safety of the gate, are we always to be condemned?

Lurking in a dark area well beyond this “gate” is a frightfully addictive drug called methamphetamine. If the increasing use of meth, a poison made from poisons, could be reduced by offering de-criminalized, and in this light, medical use of marijuana, wouldn’t we benefit from the experiment? If the hemp plant could help our society decrease its dependence on foreign oil and forests of timber while providing farmers a durable, fast growing, drought resistant crop, and industry a widely useable product, wouldn’t we benefit from the experiment?

The reason most people move from alcohol to marijuana is because an herb gives them a safer and more interesting experience than booze. Marijuana doesn’t put its user over a toilet in the morning vomiting their guts out with a headache. Most people find marijuana more pleasurable than alcohol and easier on their lives. While under the influence of marijuana, an individual rarely loses control of his or her actions or becomes obnoxious, mean or violent. These undesirable behaviors are common with the consumption of alcohol or methamphetamine. The reason people move from alcohol or marijuana to methamphetamine is because meth has more kick than either and is more readily accessible; it can be made from easily obtainable ingredients in the basement. But the methamphetamine users I interviewed while incarcerated with them said a big reason for their use of meth is because a product they prefer—marijuana—is illegal. Many people who try meth would be delighted if they could legally return to the relative safety of marijuana use. The reason the government of the United States continues to wage a war on marijuana is shrouded in hypocrisy, deception and lies.

Study the issue. A good place to start is a book by Jack Herrer called The Emperor Wears No Clothes. It tells the ironic story of how a few greedy, self-serving individuals, managed to outlaw a plant that threatened their foreseeable wealth and their personal “moral values.” A plant that had been prescribed by doctors for years, utilized by our nation and the world for paper, fabric and food, was demonized. William Randolph Hearst ran the smear with yellow journalism in his newspapers. The Dupont Corporation discovered how to make a resilient plastic fiber and fabric with petroleum. Until then, the country and military were reliant upon hemp for durable rope and fabric. The oil-based process was patented and called nylon.

A combined effort of several key players organized the outlawing of marijuana and hemp. There was Hearst’s media smear along with the racially motivated ranting of Harry Anslinger, basically our nation’s first drug czar. Anslinger had been appointed to head the newly formed Federal Bureau of Narcotics and Dangerous Drugs by Andrew Mellon. Mellon was Herbert Hoover's Secretary of the Treasury and the Mellon Bank was the banking choice for the Dupont family. This self-serving pack of opportunists presented their information to Congress and convinced the government to outlaw marijuana and hemp. They all profited immensely.

Another illuminating book about marijuana and its effects was the result of a study commissioned by Richard Nixon and his administration. They assembled a panel of scientists and doctors to analyze the entire spectrum of information, the fiction and fact surrounding the marijuana issue that had spread throughout the 60’s. The book from this study, Marihuana, A Signal of Misunderstanding, is likely the most comprehensive study of the plant and its effects in history. The 1972 report summarized, “The evils of marihuana,” they spelled it with the harsher h, “are the result of 30 years of instilled fear,” and that the plant was “incorrectly classified as a narcotic and should have fallen into the same category as alcohol and tobacco.” One simple but poignant comment from the study said a reason for people to experiment with drugs is because America’s social system “no longer inspires in people a feeling of purpose and meaningfulness.” They concluded that the plant was not a significant problem and that the government should consider regulating the product like alcohol and to re-evaluate the process of criminalizing people and destroying lives because of its use. Nixon and his group didn’t like what they heard and the study never made the light of day. A follow up report was also overlooked. Americans certainly weren’t going to vote for a politician promoting decriminalization of a drug and the tobacco, alcohol and pharmaceutical interests wouldn’t be donating to political war chests if their incomes were challenged.

Richard Nixon was caught because of his Watergate burglars and resigned. When the idea of decriminalizing marijuana came before Jimmy Carter’s administration, the fear based hysteria prevailed. They realized the situation was out of control but couldn’t be seen as “soft” on drugs. The economy was driven into failure and America elected an optimistic actor. Incarceration was Ronald Reagan’s answer and he ushered in the seizure of assets for drug offenders and the process of sentencing guidelines resulting in rampant prison growth. Central Intelligent Agency spawned George Bush wasn’t soft on drugs either. With his zero tolerance policy, asset seizure and prison population growth continued. Bill Clinton had smoked but he didn’t inhale. Bill couldn’t be soft either and an affair with an intern diminished whatever chance he might have had for addressing essential progress in the smear and blacklisting of marijuana and its users.

Prison construction prevailed—five to six federal joints a year—every year throughout the 90’s along with countless state and local holds. Locking people up was providing America’s most significant growth in jobs and revenue. The raging smear against marijuana and drugs went on while America’s dependency on oil escalated into what a younger George Bush and America’s current president has admitted as an addiction. This unfortunate phenomenon might not have come upon the world and our country if we had been growing the hemp plant and deriving a significant amount of our needs—food, fabric, oil, fuel and biomass—from hemp.

In George Bush Junior’s most recent State of the Union address, he said the United States has to do something about its dependence on oil. He announced an advanced energy initiative. He said we will fund research in “cutting edge methods of producing ethanol, not just from corn but from wood chips and stalks or switch grass” and that “our goal is to make this new kind of ethanol practical and competitive within six years.” He said that by “applying the talent and technology of America this country can dramatically improve our environment, move beyond a petroleum based economy and make our dependence on Middle Eastern oil a thing of the past.” The answer to America’s needs does not lie in fields of “switch grass”. The answer is to reintroduce a plant that was used by people of the world for their primary and basic needs for more than ten thousand years. The answer is hemp and cannabis sativa.

George Washington advised farmers to grow the plant. He and Thomas Jefferson, Ben Franklin and their perceptive cohorts might have taken some puffs from the mentally stimulating herb while contemplating a Declaration, Bill of Rights and Constitution for a great nation. Wouldn’t that have been a hoot?

Dismally as moneyed interests and bought off politicians have written the laws, America is sprouting little seeds of hope. More and more states are voting for medical marijuana privileges. Cities are voting to allow medical use, to decriminalize, or reduce marijuana regulation to a lowest priority.

Even a growing number of law enforcement officers realize America’s prohibition on drugs is wrong. They call their group LEAP, Law Enforcement Against Prohibition. The following is an excerpt from their web site: “After nearly four decades of fueling the U.S. policy of a war on drugs with over half-a-trillion tax dollars and increasingly punitive policies, our prisoner population has quadrupled over a 20 year period making building prisons this nation's fastest growing industry. More than 2.2 million citizens are currently incarcerated and every year we arrest an additional 1.6 million for nonviolent drug offenses—more per capita than any country in the world. The United States has 4.6 percent of the population of the world but 22.5 percent of the world's prisoners. Every year we choose to continue this war will cost U.S. taxpayers another 69 billion dollars. Despite all the lives we have destroyed and all the money so ill spent, illicit drugs are cheaper, more potent, and far easier to get than they were 35 years ago at the beginning of the war on drugs. Meanwhile, people continue dying in our streets while drug barons and terrorists continue to grow richer than ever before. We would suggest that this scenario must be the very definition of a failed public policy. This madness must cease!”

Inform yourself. Watch a TV show called Hooked: Illegal Drugs, which aired on the History Channel and discusses the reasons drugs were made illegal. Read The Emperor Wears No Clothes by Jack Herrer and Marihuana, A Signal of Misunderstanding by government study and your taxes. The latter is out of print but copies can be found. Read Smoke and Mirrors, The War on Drugs and the Politics of Failure by Dan Baum and America’s Longest War, Rethinking Our Tragic Crusade Against Drugs by Steven B. Duke and Albert C. Gross. Go online. The address for Law Enforcement Against Prohibition is www.leap.cc. Discover why an ever-growing number of lawmen and judges are realizing prohibition has failed America once again. Truth about America’s involvement with drugs is available. Law enforcement personnel, judges, prosecutors, voters and the public at large need to know it.

My analysis of this information prior to my arrest, caused me to think a sense of understanding and decreased urgency concerning marijuana was beginning to prevail in our society, and consequently, in the courts and the minds of jurors. Even Montana’s conservative legislature had voted 40 percent for allowing medical use of marijuana. While I was incarcerated, an initiative referendum to allow medical use was passed by a 62 percent approval when this measure was placed before the voters of Montana. I think an argument can be made that a large percentage of marijuana use is medical in nature. Mine was—pain reduction and relief from stress and depression. Some of my customers were cancer patients. They received good deals on their choice for medicine from me.

I broke the law and was arrested. I knew I risked imprisonment and financial loss if caught selling marijuana. I sold only to adults and advised my group of customers to do the same. I didn’t think my entire life’s income would be at stake and had I known this would occur, I would not have taken the risk. Because I disobeyed the law of this land, I’ve had to accept the seizure of my possessions and serve my allotted time in prison.

I apologize to my family, friends and community for the pain, embarrassment or monetary loss caused by my actions. I still hope I can be a valuable contributor to our country’s beneficial existence and I think saving 70 billion a year on the drug war would be a good start. Ceasing to destroy the lives of those arrested would be a better start.

It is beyond time for America to critically analyze the costs associated with the drug war. A U.S. Department of Justice/Bureau of Justice Statistics webpage titled “Direct expenditures by criminal justice function, 1982-2003” lists the amounts of money tax payers spent for police, corrections and judicial costs between 1982 and 2003. Police expenses went from 19 billion to 83.1 billion per year. The cost of corrections jumped from 9 billion to almost 61 billion and judicial costs rose from 7.7 billion to 41.5 billion. Taxpayer outlay for these three departments between 1982 and 2003 was 2.241 trillion dollars. The driving force for this increase was the drug war. If these trends continue, costs for police, corrections and judicial will amount to 152 billion, 120 billion and 80 billion in the year 2025 and 240 billion, 191 billion and 130 billion in 2050.

These figures represent amounts the U.S. will spend to arrest, judge and incarcerate all offenders—murderers, child molesters, corporate raiders, thieves, drug users, drug dealers, etc. What percentage of these people will be influenced by the use or sale of drugs? Educated guesses range from 40 to 60 percent, depending on which professional you ask. Drug offenders surpassed violent offenders in 1990.

One million, 678 thousand and one hundred ninety two people were arrested in America in 2003 for drugs. I was one. It won’t be long before this nation will have fought and lost a hundred year war against drugs. As a result of our government’s aggressive campaign to control the lives of its citizens, we have the fastest growing imprisonment rate in the world. In the last five years we have arrested 9 million people for nonviolent drug offenses—far more per capita than any country in the world. The people of this country, financially and morally, cannot afford the fight. If America wants its problem with methamphetamine to decline, it will have to allow its citizens something more than alcohol to stimulate their lives. If allowing adults access to marijuana reduced this country’s meth habit, significantly reduced our prison population and provided farmers a plant that lessened the nation’s demand on petroleum and wood products, wouldn’t our society benefit? Isn’t it time for this experiment?

How long can America continue to pay for this war? How long can all of the broken lives be justified? Isn’t there a better path in the “land of the free”?

Legalize marijuana. Let folks have their pot. Regulate and tax it like alcohol and cigarettes. Encourage responsible use and in the process, fuel the nation and the world. See what happens. The experiment could not be worse than where we are or where we’re headed. It’s time to call a truce in America’s longest war—the war against the people—the drug war and it’s time to allow amnesty for its millions of casualties.