D.A.R.E. America Chairman Skip Miller writes in his Jan. 28 Times Op-Ed article, "Don’t legalize marijuana," that his organization has been successful in its efforts to reduce illegal drug use in the U.S. by educating schoolchildren. Indeed, protecting young people has long been used to justify marijuana prohibition. But in reality, our drug laws have failed to stop marijuana use among American youth but have succeeded in punishing them with damning criminal records, loss of financial aid for college and removal from after-school activities. As a graduate of D.A.R.E., I know all too well about the shortcomings of this program and of America's war on marijuana.
Correction: Due to an editing error, a previous version of the article incorrectly stated that the initiative on the 2010 ballot to legalize, tax and regulate marijuana in California would impose a tax of $50 per ounce.
The simple truth is that prohibition doesn't work, and regulation and education do. Most young people will tell you that marijuana is easy to buy despite nearly a century of prohibition that has cost billions of tax dollars and put thousands of people behind bars.
Anti-drug groups such as D.A.R.E. refuse to acknowledge that today's marijuana prohibition causes the same problems as alcohol prohibition did in the 1920s. It's no wonder, then, that D.A.R.E. has been called ineffective by the National Academy of Sciences and, in 2001, was placed under the category of "ineffective programs" by the U.S. surgeon general. The Government Accountability Office reported in 2003 that there are "no significant differences in illicit drug use between students who received D.A.R.E. . . . and students who did not."
The fact is that legalizing, taxing and regulating substances reduces the harm caused by those drugs. A University of Florida study provided statistically overwhelming evidence that raising taxes on alcohol reduces consumption. Some proposals to legalize marijuana in California would not only institute a tax of $50 per ounce, but would also channel that money into drug abuse education and prevention programs.
Nicotine is one of the most addictive drugs on the planet, yet thanks to aggressive taxation in many areas and education efforts, cigarette use in the U.S. has declined sharply over the last few decades. We didn't have to arrest, incarcerate or impose prohibition to achieve those results; we merely had to tell the truth to young people about the very real harms caused by cigarette addiction while imposing taxes and age restrictions. The most recent Monitoring the Future Survey, which asks students about their drug use, shows that more 10th graders now use marijuana than cigarettes.
Legalizing and taxing marijuana won't cure California's chronic budget woes. But should we really be cutting from education while spending all the money it takes to enforce our failed prohibition policies? Furthermore, the California Tax and Regulate initiative on the November ballot would not allow the use of marijuana by people under 21. I certainly don't want more young people smoking marijuana. But some of the teens I helped as a substance-abuse counselor told me that it was easier to purchase marijuana inside their own schools than it was to buy beer or cigarettes from a convenience store. This is not what a successful policy looks like.
Many Americans are coming around to this view. Depending on the poll, either a majority or near-majority of Americans say that marijuana should be taxed and legalized. Even the American Medical Assn. has called for the federal government to review its absurd classification of marijuana as a Schedule 1 drug, which puts cannabis right alongside heroin and PCP.
D.A.R.E. can warn people all day about the harm associated with marijuana use. What it refuses to acknowledge is that these arguments only support ending prohibition. If marijuana is so dangerous, D.A.R.E. and its allies ought to support efforts to remove control over distribution from black-market drug dealers.
It's time for D.A.R.E. to take a back seat to evidence-based drug prevention programs that don't use scare tactics. It's time to legalize marijuana.
Jonathan Perri is the Western regional director of Students for Sensible Drug Policy.