By Brian Davis
What if I told you a drug was involved in more homicides than any other, and by an eye-popping 40 percent of those incarcerated for violent crimes? The same drug was used in nearly half of drownings and just under 10,000 vehicular homicides annually.
One might assume the government would ban the drug and dish out exorbitant sums to enforce its prohibition. Yet alcohol is still legal in the United States for those 21 and older, while an arguably less harmful drug remains banned for recreational use in all but nine states (and the District of Columbia).
The federal government ended alcohol prohibition in 1933, but continues to pursue a costly war on marijuana which has proved both ineffective and destructive. Marijuana was effectively criminalized in 1937, yet Americans have always found ways to obtain the drug illegally.
Enforcement of marijuana laws does not reduce marijuana use, and law enforcement has demonstrated astounding racial bias: Black Americans are 3.73 times as likely to be arrested for marijuana possession as whites, despite using the drug at similar rates.
Black Americans also face more frequent convictions and longer sentences than white Americans for marijuana possession. Marijuana also remains grouped in the dangerous schedule-I drug category, along with unsafe substances such as LSD and heroin.
Schedule-I substances, drugs and chemicals are distinguished as substances with a high potential for abuse and dependence, and no medicinal use. Some more harmful substances such as cocaine, OxyContin, and methamphetamine fall into the Schedule-II category.
Enforcement of marijuana prohibition has proved to be quite costly. The American Civil Liberties Union estimates that states spent approximately $3.6 billion dollars on enforcement of marijuana possession laws in 2010.
Legalization would also generate significant tax revenues. In Colorado alone, such revenue totaled a staggering $210.4 million in 2017.
Such sizable revenues could be used for any number of noble causes, such as increased funding for public schools, soup kitchens and domestic violence shelters, humanitarian aid for persecuted groups abroad such as the Yazidis and Rohingya, repaving streets, and building baseball fields in low-income areas. Why should governments sacrifice so much potential revenue in addition to wasting tax dollars on ineffective enforcement?
The time saved from ending prohibition would allow law enforcement to shift their time and resources to more dangerous drugs and violent crime.
Despite the potential benefits, American politicians continue to fight against the drug’s legalization. Only one of the notable candidates running for the Republican nomination in the 2016 election, Rand Paul, supported legalization.
After Obama-era directives eased enforcement of marijuana laws, U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions released a memo last January rescinding this guidance, returning to the full prohibition, cultivation, distribution and possession of marijuana rules. The former U.S. Senator from Alabama said “good people don’t smoke marijuana” and that weed was almost as dangerous as heroin.
Republican politicians’ strong stance on the drug reduces their credibility and is out of touch with the views of most Americans. The tide of public opinion has turned, with 51 percent of Republicans now supporting marijuana legalization, along with 64 percent of respondents overall.
Critics of marijuana legalization had predicted doomsday for the affected communities, yet that does not appear to have materialized in the states that have legalized marijuana for recreational use. Teen marijuana use actually decreased in Colorado following legalization of the drug, while no adverse impact was found on traffic fatality rates in Colorado and Washington.
Moreover, opioid deaths dropped by 6 percent in the two years following marijuana legalization.
This is not to say marijuana legalization has gone smoothly in every respect in states such as Colorado. The state’s attorney general, Cynthia Coffman noted that, while she believes legalization has been more of a success than a failure, a black market still exists. Legalization would also demand the proper regulation, which would take time.
Some critics continue to point to health issues such as respiratory problems and potential anxiety or psychotic symptoms. Marijuana users can certainly still get sick, so it should not be viewed as a perfectly safe substitute.
However, a plethora of health risks are associated with tobacco and alcohol use, yet these substances remain legal. There is no logical justification for the continued prohibition of this drug if the same critics would not push for prohibition of those substances.
Given prohibition’s racist outcomes, the impossibility of eradicating marijuana use, and the financial benefits from tax revenue and reduced enforcement costs, it seems more beneficial to communities to legalize marijuana.