In the history of the city of Lafayette, Colo., my resignation probably went down as one of the more memorable. I left my position as a municipal court judge in protest of a proposal to increase the penalties for marijuana possession in the city. Some people agreed with my stance, some disagreed, but I suspect the majority of people probably found it frivolous: Did this guy really give up such a powerful position just so he could smoke a doobie in the afternoon?
Six years later, those folks are no longer laughing. In fact, most of them probably voted “yes” on the initiative to legalize marijuana in Colorado that passed with a wide margin this past November.
That’s because voters in Colorado (and in Washington state, which also voted to legalize marijuana) finally had a long-overdue, serious conversation about the harms the prohibition of marijuana has had on this country. Sure, for some people, their vote was about preferring marijuana over other drugs, such as alcohol and tobacco, that kill millions each year but remain perfectly legal. But for the vast majority of folks — the Democrats and Republicans and cops and teachers and grandmothers who supported this legislation — it wasn’t about that.
It was about collapsing budgets, overcrowded prisons, misspent law enforcement resources and gang violence in our streets. It was about funding organized crime when we should be funding schools. And it’s about important questions about the kind of society we all want to live in.
For my own part, I quit my job as a judge because, working within the court system, along with my private criminal defense practice, I saw just how much court and police time was spent on such matters, how little this did to stop the supply of marijuana and how much it did to promote violence in the community. Not only does marijuana finance our street gangs and the deadly cartels who’ve killed an estimated 60,000 people in Mexico in the past seven years, but prohibition is often the direct cause of this violence. For every time police arrest a dealer, they create a vacancy in the extremely lucrative drug marketplace. The scramble to fill this vacancy is certain, swift and often bloody.
The law enforcement approach doesn’t work. The drug war has lasted more than four decades, cost more than $2 trillion nationwide, yet addiction rates remain about the same. The difference is that, because sellers are unlicensed, they willingly market to children. Because drugs are unregulated, users don’t know what they’re putting into their bodies nor what constitutes a dangerous dose. And because they can be prosecuted, they’re less likely to seek help if they overdose.
Why are we ruining so many people’s lives for something that even the president has admitted is a problem of public health rather than a matter for law enforcement?
For 40 years, the gloves have been off when it came to prosecuting drug crimes. Largely because of the drug war, we not only have the highest rate of incarceration, we have the highest number of people incarcerated in the world — more than half a million people more than China, our nearest competitor, even though they have more than four times our population. That’s not a sustainable way to run an economy, nor a desirable way to run a democracy.
Maine has a strong tradition of political independence and innovation. In honor of that tradition, it’s time we realize that the direction of our current drug policies is leading the herd over the cliff. In honor of that tradition, it’s time to forge a new path and seriously discuss the failure of drug policy in America today.
Leonard Frieling is a former municipal court judge for the city of Lafayette, Colo., and a member of Law Enforcement Against Prohibition, a group of cops, judges, prosecutors and other law enforcement professionals calling for an end to the prohibition of marijuana. He has practiced criminal defense for 37 years.