There's probably about 1.1 million people in federal, state, and local custody right now based on drug charges. That's more people than live in Rhode Island — or in seven of our other states. The federal government spends about $20 billion a year on the War on Drugs, and the states spend about another $30 billion. (That's not counting the cost of incarcerating all those people, by the way — that costs a rough average of $70 per prisoner per day — try to multiply that by 1.1 million prisoners and 365 days and watch your calculator flash ERROR.) Granted, $50 billion doesn't sound like as much money as it did before the last six months, but it's still a fair piece of cash.
Despite all of this, the notion that we may want to reconsider the War on Drugs is, apparently, an occasion for giggles in the highest circles of power.
When President Obama encountered numerous questions about the potential legalization of marijuana in his online outreach today, he — and the people surrounding him, and the media reporting on it — responded like they were watching a Cheech and Chong movie:
Given the opportunity to say what’s really on their minds without going through the filter of the mainstream media, people “buzzed up” a series of questions that seemed to suggest broad interest in legalizing marijuana and taxing it.
That's Politico writer John Ward Anderson going for the rather lame pot joke. To his credit, he goes for the rest of the article without mentioning Doritos or bongwater.
After taking questions lower on the list, Obama addressed the pot issue head on, noting the huge number of questions about marijuana legalization and remarking with a chuckle, “I don't know what that says about the online audience."
"Hyuck hyuck! This new technology that got me elected is FILLED WITH HIPPIES! Hyuck!"
The answer is no, I don't think that is a good strategy to grow our economy," he said, as the audience in the room applauded and joined him in a laugh.
There are perfectly good reasons to be skeptical about whether legalizing marijuana and taxing it would have a substantial revenue impact. But there's no excuse for treating the subject of drug legalization as a joke. Obama can at least be credited with not reacting with mock OMG NO THINK OF THE CHIIILDRUUUN outrage, which is the standard response among mainstream politicians. But so long as he treats the issue as a joke, he's part of the problem. Drug legalization will remain a fringe issue until politicians have the courage to address it directly and seriously. Until then, we will continue to spend untold billions on an utterly hopeless war and incarcerate a sizable portion of the populace without significant reflection on whether it makes sense to be doing it. It's entirely possible that society will decide that the right answer is to continue criminalization. But right now, that's the decision by default, an unreflective reaction. The issue deserves more than that. It deserves more than jokes.
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