Boston Marijuana Seizure Shows Gravity of Wasted Resources: Millions In Tax Revenue Up In Smoke

Media Reports that Boston police seized almost a ton of marijuana earlier this week, will be seized on by marijuana opponents as dramatic evidence of a serious problem in our society – one that must be eradicated no matter what the cost to taxpayers, no matter what the waste in police and prosecutorial resources. From these corners, I’ve heard comments that say this is “Proof of how much of a problem we’ve got.”

I’ll agree we have a problem: But it isn’t the amount of pot that’s stored or circulating in Massachusetts, and isn’t Massachusetts crime – it’s the wasted financial and human resources that we spend trying to punish something that, when carried in modest amounts, isn’t even criminal anymore in this state. It has always struck me as amazing, how diehard opponents of marijuana can neither see nor learn from the lessons of this country’s failed, regrettable and ultimately tragic efforts at Prohibition in the 1930’s. That ill-conceived effort created more collateral crime, and caused more loss, deaths and heartache than had ever been conceived before its passage.

Criminalizing alcohol only spawned more crime, in the form of “protection money” to hide alcohol supplies; extortion to keep public officials and others silent about the use and location of it; and smuggling rings operated by organized crime (ever wonder where the name “Smuggler’s Notch” in ski country came from? It was a route alcohol smugglers used to illegally bring the product down from Canada, into New England.) These collateral activities resulted in violence, shootings and death on a shocking level. Police raids were conducted of ‘Speakeasies” where otherwise lawful people had to hide in basements just to socialize with a drink; “Dealers” came to prominence, who used violence to keep their territories and supply intact; Gang and turf wars were created, by competing underworld networks who battled to control the supply and availability of alcohol. Prohibition gave birth to Al Capone, fertilized and nurtured organized crime, and cost the nation and the states enormous money and law enforcement resources. The entire effort was a massive public policy failure, costing untold amounts of money and ruining many lives in the process. The federal government finally realized this failure, and made the sound decision to legalize the substance, regulate it, and tax it. Officials finally saw that any substance can be abused, that as human beings we are somehow pre-disposed to to seek relaxation from various natural substances, and that regulation and taxation of these products is the far wiser, more rational course than fighting something that cannot be defeated.

Why can’t opponents of marijuana legalization see obvious lessons learned here? In this recent pot bust of almost a ton of marijuana, many law enforcement officials see evidence of a widespread problem. I see evidence of millions of dollars in tax revenue lost to the state of Massachusetts, had we the intelligence to see that this substance is no more harmful than alcohol, and had the common sense to regulate its commercial sale, and tax it. As to the issue of harmfulness, it is a fact that, on a level of addiction potential – marijuana is far less harmful than alcohol. I see evidence of law enforcement resources that are wastefully re-directed to “combating” a substance that has been decriminalized by public referendum in Massachusetts, when carried in small amounts (an ounce or less.) I see police officers that could be combating serious crime – Massachusetts murders, Massachusetts rape and sexual offenses, robberies, sexual abuse of children, and truly serious Massachusetts drug offenses such as heroin and crack distribution (which, without a doubt, should be illegal.)

I see District Attorneys’ offices and staff prosecutors across Massachusetts who could be spending their time and talents (and tens of millions of dollars) on prosecuting violent crime and domestic abuse. While many law enforcement and District Attorneys’ offices will point to the sheer amount of pot found in this seizure and cite this as evidence of the ‘enormity’ of a ‘problem’, I see that amount being distributed (as alcohol is now legally) to a lot of recreational users across the state, largely in small quantities. Do the same people who dramatize that it was “a ton” of marijuana seized, realize how much all the alcohol sold in Massachusetts just this very day would weigh or amount to, if it were measured? Far, far, more than a ton – yet alcohol is legal, regulated, and taxed. And in this ton of marijuana, all I see going up in smoke is critically needed tax revenues that could be used to fight serious, violent crime. It is these tax dollars that could instead go to house the homeless, feed hungry kids, protect victims of domestic abuse, provide greater access to health insurance programs, and a host of several other laudable objectives. Instead, this money is used to prosecute users of a largely harmless substance that has been decriminalized in this state.

And in case opponents of this opinion think this view is without support, I’d suggest they review the opinions of a widespread (and widely respected) national association of major retired law police and enforcement officials, who share this view and advocate legalization, regulation and taxation of marijuana. Their organization: Law Enforcement Against Prohibition (LEAP).

In the interests of full disclosure, I think I should make it clear: I personally do not smoke marijuana. But based on over 35 years of observing others who have used marijuana (whether in college years, or afterward,) I do not believe this substance is especially harmful; I have yet to see anyone become “addicted” to its use in the widespread manner that I have seen alcohol addict countless people I know and have known. I simply view this as a civil liberties issue. In my professional career as a Boston criminal defense lawyer over 20 years, I have seen more examples of police and court resources wasted on marijuana prosecutions than I care to recall. I’m confident that if I were ever considered for a judicial appointment in Massachusetts, marijuana opponents would cite this post as a reason against my appointment to the bench. My position as an attorney and officer of the court in Massachusetts has always been clear: Criminal law must be adhered to, and I remain committed to that view. But the legislature should wake up to the public referendum approving decriminalization of marijuana, wake up to our deteriorating state revenue posture, and use common sense on this subject.