Suthers on drugs
by Ari Armstrong
The following article originally appeared at Boulder Weekly on January 13, 2005.
Most everybody loves John Suthers. Nobody questions his motives; indeed, he's taking a pay cut to serve in state political office. The Denver Post predicted his confirmation as attorney general would meet with "little resistance," even though he is a Republican replacing Democrat Ken Salazar, who is headed to the Senate.
There is one tiny little problem with Suthers becoming Colorado's top legal official: He promotes existing legislation that dramatically increases crime. Even though the main job of the attorney general is to fight crime, the policies Suthers endorses cause horrendous crime. Even if he works every hour of every day for the rest of his life, the crimes Suthers stops will be as an anthill compared with the mountain of crime that his politics creates.
Of course I am talking about drug prohibition. Economist Jeffrey Miron reviews in his new book, Drug War Crimes: The Consequences of Prohibition, "eliminating drug prohibition would reduce homicide in the United States by 25-75 percent."
The theory is pretty simple: Prohibition creates a large underground market in which conflicts are resolved by violence rather than by the courts. People who don't use drugs pay through higher taxes, national interference in medicine, increased suffering of loved ones who do use drugs, expenses associated with the violence and illegality and a higher risk of getting caught in the crossfire.
Last year, Suthers and I debated drug policy on KBDI. We discussed The New Prohibition, a book to which Miron and I contributed. Suthers made it clear that he is a hardcore prohibitionist.
Suthers also testified against a 2002 bill in the Colorado legislature that limited asset forfeiture. Most forfeitures of property involve some allegation of a drug crime. The bill, which passed under the guidance of Republican Shawn Mitchell (now a State Senator from Broomfield), required a criminal conviction in most cases prior to forfeiture. Mitchell debated much of Suthers' testimony but tweaked the bill based on the complaint that an alleged criminal might die prior to conviction.
Christie Donner of the Colorado Criminal Justice Reform Coalition (ccjrc.org), whom I joined to support Mitchell's bill, expressed the concern that local agencies might simply bring in the feds for the purpose of evading the Colorado law by pursuing federal forfeiture. As Attorney General, Suthers should verify that Colorado agencies do not bypass the requirements of Colorado law.
Last year, the Drug Enforcement Agency raided the home of Dana May, an Aurora man who grows marijuana in accordance with state law for medical purposes. The raid occurred under Suthers' watch as U.S. attorney, even though the raid was apparently initiated by local police and the DEA. On May 27, around 20 armed agents stormed the sick patient's home and stole his medicine and growing supplies. Thankfully, May successfully sued to have his growing supplies (but not his medicine) returned.
In a letter printed in the Dec. 17 Rocky Mountain News, May claimed, "When asked about my case, Suthers said medical marijuana is nothing more than a smoke screen, an excuse for lifelong pot smokers to get high." Peter Blake, a columnist for that paper, followed up by reporting Suthers will "'absolutely uphold the state law' permitting medical marijuana, even though he may not like it. At least that's what he said... through spokesman Jeff Dorschner."
Still, it seems clear that Suthers will resist any break with strict prohibition, and he will follow popular reforms only grudgingly. This is troubling, especially given the office of attorney general is one that can influence policy and launch its holder to higher office.
Suthers could not unilaterally repeal prohibition even if he wanted to, so the harms of prohibition cannot be pinned on him alone. Nevertheless, the policies he promotes massively increase crime, violate individual rights and cause a host of related problems. As an enforcer and propagator of unjust laws, Suthers bears some of the responsibility for them.
Miron's book is a concise review of the history and economics of prohibition, published by the Independent Institute of California (not to be confused with the similarly named think tank in Golden). Miron concludes, "Prohibition increases violent and nonviolent crime, fosters corruption... reduces the health and welfare of drug users... destroys civil liberties, distorts criminal justice incentives... transfers billions of dollars each year to domestic criminals and enriches foreign revolutionaries who foment terrorism... [and] denies medicine to seriously ill patients and prevents doctors from alleviating the pain of the suffering." Meanwhile, Miron finds, "prohibition reduces drug use only modestly," a goal that can be met more effectively through other means and without the harms of prohibition.
When I debated Suthers, I got the feeling he was stuck in the echo-chamber logic of the drug warriors who mistake solidarity for sound argumentation and good evidence. But if Suthers is going to be Colorado's top lawyer, he owes it to the people of the state to learn about the effects of the laws he promotes. Miron's book would be a good place to start. To adapt a refrain that should be familiar to Suthers, ignorance of the consequences of the law is no excuse.