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July 1, 2008 -- Sacramento Bee (CA)

Column: As Fires Rage, The Law Protects Us From Marijuana

By Peter Schrag

Return to Drug War News: Don't Miss Archive

Almost anybody who's lived in California for even a few years knows from where that acrid smell in the air and the yellow haze in the sky have been coming. And we know the scary feeling that comes with them. The only exceptions are the narcs, state and federal, who think it's marijuana smoke.

As California's wildfires overwhelm the resources to fight them, federal and state agents -- hundreds of them -- have been sweeping through Humboldt County and a sliver of Mendocino County in pursuit of commercial pot growers.

An FBI spokesman was quoted in the Eureka Times-Standard last week as saying that 450 agents from the Drug Enforcement Administration and other federal agencies would be executing 27 search warrants in what they called "Operation Southern Sweep." But, he said, they wouldn't be going after medical marijuana dispensaries or their patients. "We're not here to set policy or interfere with California's compassionate use."

There's good reason for that forbearance. The investigation of the pot growers, as in the past, was initiated by the California Justice Department's Bureau of Narcotic Enforcement and involved state drug agents as well as the California Highway Patrol, county sheriff's deputies, and local cops. Years ago, Attorney General -- later governor -- George Deukmejian, wearing a flak jacket, himself choppered in to lead one of the raids.

But ever since 1996, when voters passed Proposition 215, which authorizes the dispensation and use of marijuana for medical purposes, the raiders have to make distinctions between commercial pot and medical pot.

When the feds act alone, they don't have to bother with fine lines, or worry about whether the cancer, multiple sclerosis and glaucoma patients they bust or whose property they seize will now live with even more pain and difficulty negotiating their already tough lives. Federal law pre-empts state law, and federal law, still stuck in the absolutism of the G-man era, says pot is a terrible drug now and forever.

The link between the wildfires and the pot raids is more than symbolic. That's a no-brainer. If more resources were diverted from the drug wars to things that really endangered the community, firefighters would have gotten some of the help last week they were begging for.

You'd think that the 800-plus fires that scourged California would qualify as endangering the community. So would the through-the-roof homicide rates in American cities. So would the shaky levees in New Orleans or, for that matter, in the Central Valley.

And so would the ports, refineries and chemical plants that remain vulnerable to attack.

There's no accurate accounting for what the nation spends on a "drug war" whose most tangible results are millions in profits for drug bosses, a huge enforcement bureaucracy, billions in annual prison costs, free-fire zones along the Mexican border and countless lives that, if the priority was treatment rather than punishment, might now be engaged in constructive work rather than decades in the slammer.

With the passage of Propositions 215 and 36, which offers treatment rather than incarceration for many drug offenses, California took two major steps toward reason. But as last week's pot raids on the North Coast made clear again, the nation still lags far behind.

For the moment leave aside hard drugs such as cocaine and heroin, the latter now grown in record quantities in Afghanistan, a nation theoretically under U.S. control, and focus just on marijuana. Does anyone believe that last week's sweep in Humboldt County will have the slightest impact on the price or availability of the stuff?

More fundamental still, who other than drug policy bureaucrats can seriously argue that pot is dangerous enough to justify existing policy? More dangerous than tobacco or alcohol, both of which (unlike pot) really do kill thousands of people and damage the health of many thousands more? More destructive than the prison terms to which, in many states, marijuana users are still sentenced?

A month ago, voters in Mendocino County, reacting to the stench and disturbances created by its $1.5 billion pot industry, tightened the limits, until then the most liberal in the country, on the number of pot plants a grower can cultivate. Even with the acknowledged nuisance of pot growing, it was a close vote. Pot, far and away the biggest cash crop in the county, represents two-thirds of its entire economy.

But the pot industry is largely a creature of a cockamamie federal drug policy that makes production and distribution of marijuana so profitable. If pot were decriminalized, its distribution regulated (and limited to adults), its sales taxed, there'd be a very different market and the harm to health and lives significantly reduced.

No one has satisfactorily solved whatever is meant by "the drug problem." But the Europeans, in treating it primarily as a health hazard, have sharply reduced the cost of law enforcement and its unintended social side effects. Here it could make a lot more resources available to fight wildfires -- and a lot more besides.

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