Societies across the world use police forces to fight crime, but oftentimes police enlist the help of ordinary citizens in this effort. British police (partnering with the anti-crime charity Crimestoppers) have recently initiated a new tactic in this strategy. Households all over the British Isles are being sent scratch and sniff marijuana cards in an attempt to enable citizens to identify growing marijuana plants. The program, partly motivated by a recent rise in the number of marijuana farms in the country, offers approximately $1,500 to informants whose information leads to an arrest. While involving citizens in the active protection of their communities is a laudable practice, this particular policy will only continue the damage and waste of drug criminalization.
Of all illegal drugs, marijuana is perhaps the least problematic. Marijuana use does not cause anything like the damaging effects of heroin, cocaine, or alcohol; in fact, there is some evidence that marijuana possesses medicinal properties. It is true that the underground nature of marijuana production increases safety risks, but it is for this exact reason why legalization would make what is already a relatively safe product safer. A legal product can be regulated, and it is more likely that independent quality-assessment agencies will become involved.
Furthermore, marijuana farmers are not necessarily your stereotypical criminal thug. On the contrary, many see themselves as gainfully employed entrepreneurial businessmen who want to provide a quality product to their customers, much like craft brewers. Of course, brewers and others in the alcohol industry did use violence, but only during Prohibition. There is a clear relationship between legal status and lack of violence.
One might be tempted to conclude from this that the British police should focus their efforts on other drugs, but it is the criminalization of drugs, not drug use itself, that causes most of the social problems relating to drug use. Drugs' illegality means that participants in the drug trade cannot use courts and attorneys to settle their disputes, so they resort to violence and intimidation. Thousands have died as a result of this violence.
The increased risk due to illegality artificially raises prices, making theft more likely, as users seek to fund their habits. A drug arrest leading to a criminal record limits a person’s ability to obtain a well-paying job. Then there is the massive amount of money spent fighting what is essentially an inevitable human desire; the U.S. alone has spent around one trillion dollars enforcing its drug laws with very little success.
Finally, this initiative, like the rest of the drug war, is likely to undermine respect for the law. Respect for the law is an important part in both crime deterrence and encouraging citizens to help when crime is suspected. But respect is only deserved when the laws are just — that is, when they respect individual rights and prevent people from wronging others. But by encouraging citizens to report marijuana farmers, the British police are asking citizens to harm individuals who are not violating anyone’s rights and who are not harming or wronging anyone. The program might thus encourage more general hostility to the law, which is undesirable.
There may be hope for the British; a recent report from the Home Affairs Committee encouraged Parliament to fund research analyzing the costs and benefits of legalizing drugs. While Parliament considers what to do, the British should wake up and smell not pot plants, but the odious stench of government attempting to reward citizens for violating the rights of others and contributing to the continuation of a futile policy.