Forest fires: another harm of prohibition

For the past 17 years, I have, as a sitting judge, been trying to call everyone’s attention to the failures of our nation’s policy of drug prohibition. In fact, the truth is that we are “taking it on the chin” in every way imaginable, such that we literally couldn’t pursue a worse policy if we tried. But even I was not aware of the additional harm that is being caused by this failed and hopeless policy, as represented by the huge forest fire that has been burning east of Santa Maria in Santa Barbara County.

Newspapers report that authorities believe this La Brea fire, which has burned about 90,000 acres, was started by growers of illegal marijuana at a hidden farm in the Los Padres National Forest. The trigger for the fire was a propane-fed outdoor camp stove.

How was this fire caused by our policy of drug prohibition? Well, obviously, fires like this do not occur where companies like Phillip Morris or Ligget and Myers are growing tobacco. First of all, these companies aren’t forced to grow their crops in remote and desolate regions, and secondly, they are much more careful in what they do, because if by chance they do start a fire, they are held responsible for the damage.

On the contrary, illegal growers are forced out into remote areas, and usually onto public lands, because if their operations are discovered, the land can’t be forfeited. In fact, this particular camp is in a steep, overgrown canyon more than a mile from the nearest road. The workers unlawfully diverted streams to use for irrigation, polluted the ground with stacks of propane tanks and melted irrigation tubing, empty fertilizer canisters and large mounds of trash. Of course, even if there hadn’t been a fire, the workers never would have removed any of these items because, being an illegal operation, they are not held responsible for any of the damage they cause.

Once authorities located the camp, they found about 30,000 top-grade marijuana plants that ranged from two to six feet in height.

The workers had gone to the trouble of building terraces for the marijuana plants and installing a drip irrigation system, and probably would have been camping in the area for about four to five months to allow the plants to mature enough for harvesting. But with a street value in the millions of dollars for the marijuana, all of their efforts and inconveniences would have been well compensated.

Authorities also reported that so far this year, they have seized about 225,000 marijuana plants from six different sites in the area, including this one, with a street price of about $675 million.

They further stated that all of the workers they had found so far had been illegal immigrants from Mexico, but that really is a false issue. Why? Because, as any economist will tell you, if the demand for marijuana is here, and there is that much money to be made, someone will supply it. And if it is not illegal Mexican immigrants, it will be people like your next-door neighbor.

Marijuana has been illegal in this country since 1933, yet it is still fully available to anyone who wants it. And that includes our children, who report that it is easier for them to get marijuana than it is alcohol. And if you don’t believe me, ask them yourself.

Today, no one offers a free sample of Jim Beam bourbon or Budweiser beer on a high school campus. Why? Because if they were to get even close to doing that, they would be in a world of trouble. But illegal dealers offer free samples of marijuana and other illicit drugs to students on their campuses every day. Why does this happen? Because, just like with the La Brea fire situation, as soon as we prohibit a substance, we give up all of our ability to regulate or control it. That means that we concede all of the controls about quality, age restrictions, places of sale, price and everything else to the illegal dealers. And they are the ones who want to glamorize the use of all of these drugs and get our children hooked — so they can make more money off them. That is really stupid of us.

There is now pending in Sacramento Assembly Bill 390, which is being sponsored by Assemblyman Tom Ammiano from San Francisco. This measure would treat marijuana like alcohol in California, with the proviso that it would only go into effect 30 days after the federal law would be changed to allow this to occur legally. AB 390 would regulate and control the sale of marijuana for adults — and then tax it! That act alone would, according to the chair of the State Board of Equalization, bring in additional tax revenue to California of about $1.3 billion each year.

Today, marijuana is already the largest cash crop in the state, the seizures of those 225,000 marijuana plants this year notwithstanding, so this measure certainly will not make it more available than it is now.

But passing AB 390 will raise additional revenue for the state, while at the same time reducing the gross revenues of Mexican drug cartels by taking away their market.

And it will also reduce violence and corruption in this country, and, most importantly, make marijuana less available for children than it is today.

So what’s not to like? Accordingly, please call anyone you can vote for in Sacramento and urge them to vote for AB 390. This situation is far too dangerous to leave up to illegal growers and sellers.

Judge Jim Gray (Ret.)