Nearly 17 years ago I challenged the Atlantic County prosecutor to a debate regarding America’s longest running war, the War on Drugs. Our opposing perspectives were published side by side in The Press of Atlantic City.
On Oct. 19, former Cape May County prosecutor and current Ocean City prosecutor Donald Charles authored a guest commentary, “Myths and money behind push for legal marijuana.” In it he demonized cannabis and the attempts to legalize it.
Regrettably the arguments supporting prohibition have not changed since writing my opinion 17 years ago. What I wrote then is, sadly, just as relevant today.
One major change since 2000 is the number of American prisoners, which has increased from 1.5 million to 2.3 million, with the same percentage of drug-related prisoners, 33 percent.
Another difference is that many states have legalized medical marijuana. The problem is U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions refuses to respect those state laws, maintaining the fear of federal agents making arbitrary arrests of patients.
The prosecutor’s commentary was filled with unsubstantiated medical assertions such as: “Pot is a Schedule I drug because of its high potential for harm.”
The truth is that when Alcohol Prohibition was ended, the alcohol czar at that time, Harry Anslinger, needed to justify his budget. Cannabis use was mainly confined to Mexicans, and by making it a Schedule I Controlled Substance — same as heroin — Anslinger’s prohibition warriors were back in business. Arresting and imprisoning Mexicans was in full swing and without any concern by the majority of ordinary Americans or politicians.
It is a racist and class war on African Americans and Hispanics.
African-Americans make up 14 percent of New Jersey’s overall population, but make up more than 50 percent of the state’s prison population, according to a report on criminal justice reform from the Fund for New Jersey. African-Americans are also nearly three times as likely to be arrested for possessing marijuana in New Jersey than whites, even though nationally more whites report using marijuana than African-Americans.
In my view, Schedule I is all about politics, and nothing to do with a “high potential for harm.” Writing for a N.J. Appellate Court ruling Oct. 31, Judge Michael Guadagno stated “the state should at least consider removing the drug from its list of the most dangerous controlled substances.”
The Ocean City prosecutor claims that “an overwhelming percentage of drug addicts started out smoking pot. A senior probation officer said pot is ‘socially addictive.’” This unfounded assertion based on the observation of someone whose livelihood depends on maintaining prohibition is meaningless. Continuing with unfounded assertions, he states: “Pot use often leads to meth or cocaine use, which often leads to heroin use.”
Scientists long ago abandoned the idea that marijuana causes users to try other drugs. As far back as 1999, in a report commissioned by Congress to look at the possible dangers of medical marijuana, the Institute of Medicine of the National Academy of Sciences wrote, “There is no conclusive evidence that the drug effects of marijuana are causally linked to the subsequent abuse of other illicit drugs.”
People who work in the criminal justice system have a vested interest in demonizing cannabis. According to the Fund for New Jersey report, “N.J. state spending on corrections has jumped from $241 million in 1985 to over $1 billion in 2015.” Affordable housing, health care, transportation and education are a more constructive alternative.
America today has more than 2.3 million prisoners, many of whom are black and hispanic non-violent drug offenders. How does the fact that America incarcerates more people per capita than any other industrialized nation in the world square with the myth that we live in a land of freedom where people may pursue life, liberty and happiness?
Andre Gide, French author, gives me the best insight to the drug warriors: “The true hypocrite is the one who ceases to perceive his deception, the one who lies with sincerity. They have told themselves so many rational lies about their deception, that they deceive even themselves. “
Those who lose track of their hypocrisy, especially who begin to consider it virtuous, are the most dangerous hypocrites of all. Alas, when it comes to consensual crimes, they are the most prevalent form.
Dr. Steven Fenichel, of Ocean City, for two decades has worked for drug enforcement reform in the courts and at the local government level.