The Ken Burns series The National Parks: America’s Best Idea got me thinking about one of America’s worst ideas: the War on Drugs. Particularly ill-conceived is the crusade against marijuana.

Froma Harrop

Froma Harrop

That bad idea is now threatening the good idea, as Mexican drug cartels — hampered by a tighter border — swarm over large swaths of U.S. public land to grow pot. They dump toxic chemicals, dam streams, clear natural vegetation and leave piles of trash. Marijuana growers building a campfire set off the recent La Brea Fire, which scorched 90,000 acres of Santa Barbara County.

Businesses serving tourists warn visitors against armed drug gangs protecting their crops. Last June, for example, hikers in southwest Idaho came upon a marijuana operation with a street value of more than $6 million.

Pot farms have been found in, among other places, Redwood National Park, North Cascades National Park in Washington and Pike National Forest in Colorado. An operation in Sequoia National Park was discovered just a half-mile from a cave popular with tourists. (Part of the park had to be closed as rangers swooped down from helicopters.)

Federal and state governments spend $8 billion a year enforcing the ban on marijuana — and they can’t even keep the cartels out of Yosemite. The National Park Service, meanwhile, frets about diverting its limited resources from ranger tours to stopping the marijuana growers.

What purpose does all of this spending serve? A new Gallup poll shows that nearly half of all Americans want to legalize marijuana and tax it like alcohol or tobacco. Solid majorities favor permitting medical marijuana, which is now legal in 14 states.

So the Obama administration’s decision to ease up on medical marijuana is not so much leading public opinion toward more enlightened drug policy as following it. Under the new policy, federal agents will not bother users or sellers operating under their state medical marijuana laws.

While model conservatives (William F. Buckley, Milton Friedman and George P. Schultz) have declared the war on drugs a dismal failure, the Republican leadership can’t seem to get its mind around ending even the struggle against marijuana. Already widely used, pot doesn’t cause the serious health problems associated with cocaine or heroine and often alcohol.

Condemning the new directive, Rep. Lamar Smith, R-Texas, said, “If we want to win the war on drugs, federal prosecutors have a responsibility to investigate and prosecute all medical-marijuana dispensaries and not just those that are merely fronts for illegal marijuana distribution.”

Under the old rules, Drug Enforcement Administration agents raided the backyards of cancer patients permitted by California law to grow pot to ease their discomfort. Millions, however, are still spent ruining the lives of kids caught smoking a joint behind the bleachers.

End the ban on pot, and the drug gangs go away. American farmers find a new business, and government a handsome source of tax revenues. Turning marijuana into a controlled substance could raise $6.2 billion in taxes, according to Harvard economist Jeffrey Miron.

Those who worry about exposing Americans to dangerous drugs would actually sleep better at night. Concern that today’s marijuana is much stronger than the pot smoked in the 1970s is warranted, but legal products are regulated for potency and purity. Alcoholic beverages became much safer after Prohibition ended, and so would all drugs.

Taking away the illicit profits in pot will make the national parks cleaner and less dangerous. Not many of our problems can be solved by spending fewer taxpayer dollars, but legalizing marijuana is an example. That would make it one of contemporary America’s better ideas.

Froma Harrop is an independent voice on politics, economics and culture, and blogs on She is also a member of the editorial board at The Providence (R.I.) Journal. Click here to contact her at