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A Needless Tragedy 

Why did Sgt. Futrell have to die in the futile war on pot?

At his funeral, they called Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police Sergeant Anthony Scott Futrell a hero. But Futrell, who died in a plane crash two weeks ago while scouting marijuana plants in the fields of Chowan County, was more than a hero: he was also the latest victim of this country's increasingly absurd war on illegal drugs. That this gifted, multi-talented individual who served on the SWAT team, was an EMT, a pilot and a member of ALERT (a terrorist attack emergency response team), should perish the way he did seems even more tragic. Had Futrell died diffusing a hostage situation, saving a drowning woman, or combating a terrorist attack, his death might have served a nobler purpose, something more in line with his level of dedication. But the reality of the situation is that Futrell lost his life in a futile attempt to stop some aging yuppies from lighting up after a hard week at the office, and what that accomplished, I don't know. Futrell and the two other officers who died in that terrible crash were soldiers on the losing side of the most senseless facet of the drug war: the battle against marijuana. It's a battle that, among other flaws, has jammed our prisons so tightly, states are releasing hardened criminals to make room for pot dealers who get mandatory long sentences.The same week we buried Futrell, the San Francisco Board of Supervisors voted to put a measure on the November ballot that would allow the city to grow pot on city-owned land and distribute it to seriously ill patients who have permission from their doctors to use it for medical purposes. City leaders want the program to double as agriculture job training for the unemployed. San Francisco Supervisor Mark Leno told the media he drafted the proposal because the Drug Enforcement Administration remains determined to close down "clubs" that distribute medical marijuana in San Francisco and across California, the first of eight states to approve the use of medical marijuana with the passage of Proposition 215 in 1996.

In Nevada last week, where a constitutional amendment to legalize the possession of three ounces or less of the drug will be on the November ballot, a poll was released that showed voters evenly divided on the issue, with 44 percent of them backing the initiative and 46 percent opposed to it.

While Futrell scanned the fields from his plane, riders on New York subways were reading National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws (NORML) ads featuring a quotation from New York Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg, who, when asked whether he had ever smoked marijuana replied, "You bet I did. And I enjoyed it."

So why are politicians like Bloomberg still fighting the war on drugs? And why is so much of that war focused on marijuana rather than on the harder, actually harmful drugs?

Most Americans would probably be surprised to learn that according to FBI statistics, in 2000, nearly half of the 1.57 million drug arrests in this country -- 734,497 --were for marijuana. Of those, 646,042 people were arrested for possession.

And these aren't hardened street thugs who are, shall we say, in possession. In a recent survey by Partnership for a Drug Free America, 15 percent of couples with children admitted to smoking marijuana in the last year. Their children are smoking, too, and in greater numbers than they are. According to a recently released Monitoring the Future study conducted for the government by the University of Michigan's Institute for Social Research, a survey of 44,300 high school students revealed that 49 percent of 12th graders had used marijuana at some time.

This isn't to suggest that smoking marijuana is a good idea, or that anyone should try it. But it's pretty obvious that, try as we might to stop its cultivation, distribution and use, the drug is here to stay. And with Canadian officials poised to decriminalize possession and loosen their drug laws, Asa Hutchinson, the director of the US Drug Enforcement Administration, predicted that more Canadian-grown pot would end up south of the border in the coming years, which is not to say that it isn't popular here already. According to media reports, a spokesman for the Drug Enforcement Administration last week singled out the potent Canadian bud as particularly prevalent in the United States.

British officials who recently relaxed their country's marijuana laws have finally figured out that pursuing marijuana arrests is a waste of the valuable time of talented law enforcement officers and prosecutors who are already stretched thin. I'd rather their time be spent on rapists, burglars, pedophiles, terrorists and other miscreants whose crimes truly damage the innocent people they prey upon.

A sane reaction to Officer Futrell's tragic death would be for us to take a hard look at the prices being paid for this completely futile battle. This latest death, one more death in our supposed war against drugs, is finally one too many.

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