When The New York Times editorial board recently called for an end to the federal ban on marijuana, you could hear a collective gasp from law enforcement agencies that have been hauling in pot smokers for more than four decades.

James Anthony, former Oakland deputy attorney, had a different reaction.

"It's about time," he said. "It makes a lot of sense."

Ten years ago, Anthony was prosecuting drug crimes. He now is in private practice and a spokesman for Law Enforcement Against Prohibition, a nationwide association of former cops, prosecutors and judges who have seen the folly of perpetuating President Richard Nixon's so-called war on drugs.

For one thing, he said, it's a colossal waste of money: "$70 billion a year that the government spends on something that's unsolvable." For another, it's a waste of police manpower: "The primary mission of law enforcement has somehow evolved into dealing with drugs. Meanwhile, crimes of violence and crimes against property go unsolved."

All to what end? Overcrowded prisons? Street-corner trafficking? Neighborhood drug wars?

LEAP's contention, Anthony explained, is that legalization, regulation and taxation would bring control and order to an industry that's run amok -- just as it did 81 years ago, when Prohibition ended. ("Nobody is standing on the street corners of Oakland selling beer or whiskey," he said.)


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The fundamental illogic in the war on drugs was spelled out years ago, Anthony said, by famed economist Milton Friedman: "He warned Nixon when he signed the Controlled Substances Act that you cannot repeal the law of supply and demand. One thing about drugs is there's a steady demand."

If the demand is not met through legal outlets, then criminal dealers fill the void. When police shut down a trafficker, that merely creates a vacancy to be seized by another ambitious thug. With each arrest comes another replacement. This process never ends, like a dog chasing its tail, except that tail-chasing generally isn't violent.

There's no succession plan in the drug-trafficking business, Anthony said. "Instead, there are people shooting each other, not only in the streets of this country but throughout the world.

"We see this problem of 50,000 undocumented child immigrants at our borders. A lot of that is driven by the violence in Honduras and El Salvador. That violence is linked to drug cartels who are supplying the United States market."

Anthony estimates that marijuana accounts for 80 percent of U.S. drug-war activity.

What horrible things would happen to a community if the drug were legalized for consumers over 21 and sold through regulated outlets?

One test case is Colorado, which made pot legal this year.

In the first six months, the FBI reported overall crime in Denver decreased by 10 percent compared with last year.

The Denver Business Journal reported that marijuana sales generated $25 million in state taxes in that time.

Plus, not everyone got stoned. Gov. John Hickenlooper, who originally opposed legalization, told Forbes magazine as much: "It seems like the people who were smoking before are mainly the people smoking now."

There are two differences, of course. Now, you don't need to find a dealer on the street. And you don't need worry about getting arrested.

Contact Tom Barnidge at tbarnidge@bayareanewsgroup.com.