Today is 4/20 and for those of you who aren’t aware (who isn’t aware at this point?), we are in the midst of a day dedicated to celebrating cannabis. That’s right: weed, marijuana, bud, green, ganja. While I will not be personally celebrating this auspicious occasion, I want to take the chance to talk about one of the political issues I’m most polarized on. Many who know me or who read the blog are aware that for the most part, I’m pretty moderate on almost any issue. Not so when it comes to legalization of cannabis. For all the -ahem- “herbalists” out there, I’m sure you already have plenty of reasons you support legalization. Therefore, this post is directed at those who might say “I don’t smoke marijuana, so this doesn’t affect me”. To you all I would say “actually, it affects you a lot”
Let’s begin with some of the more “surface level” reasons to legalize. First of all, one of the great things about the legalization of cannabis (whether medical or recreational) is that it is, for the most part, a bipartisan issue. There are plenty of people on both ends of the American political system who support the legalization of cannabis. In other words, it’s a winning issue. It’s something that we can actually make meaningful progress on because there is a lot of support for it, and that support stems from any of the several reasons we’ll get into a little later in this post. For another thing, it’s a great way to get a younger generation, often consumed by social media and technology, interested in our political system. Talk to almost any high schooler or college student about their political opinions, and they actually might be ready to give you an earful. That being said, not many young people actually understand the system, nor are they involved in any meaningful ways to enact change. Giving them an easy point to rally behind is a great way to ensure that the body of voters does not become an entirely mindless and uninformed mass.
What’s more, we’ve already seen that legalization can work. 5 jurisdictions in the United States have already legalized weed, and in many others, medical marijuana is legal. Contrary to what some fear-mongers might have you believe, these areas have not devolved into apocalyptic wastelands. This is certainly not to say that there aren’t important issues to consider when regulating any substance. However, just because something requires unique regulatory considerations, doesn’t mean we just make it illegal and call it a day. The problem requires a scalpel, not an ax.
Now on to some more substantive arguments…
Cannabis is currently a Schedule 1 controlled substance. According to the DEA that means that it has no current accepted medical benefits. This is absolutely untrue and is totally dissonant with the 23 states and D.C. which have legalized marijuana for medical purposes. That means almost half of the states in our republic considered marijuana to have enough medical merit to go through the legislative struggle that was legislating this partial legalization. Yet still, the federal government outright denies this. Cannabis was placed on the schedule 1 list in the 1970s. That’s right, the whole “no medical benefits” thing is based on 40 year old science. In the years since, evidence of benefits in treating nausea, appetite loss, cancer, HIV, inflammatory illness, seizure disorders, and numerous other ailments have come to light. These benefits are even listed on several .gov websites about drugs and drug abuse!
Of course, in addition to just using cannabis therapeutically, there is the potential to develop new, better, or more effective treatment options from studying the plant and its molecular constituents. Did you know there are even cannabinoid (some of the active components in cannabis) analogs which work like a more powerful and less toxic Tylenol? I’m serious, click the link. This is not some seedy D-list science. It’s published in Nature, one of the most prestigious scientific journals in the world.
Nonetheless, the fact that cannabis remains schedule 1 severely restricts researchers’ access to the substance. It makes studying cannabis expensive, precarious, even taboo. By doing this, we are blocking scientific progress and potentially the treatment of millions of people with any of the aforementioned ailments. These alone are plenty of reasons to legalize, but I should mention that the other criteria for schedule 1 substances is that they are “extremely dangerous and highly addictive”. This puts cannabis on the same level of danger and addictiveness as heroin. Take a moment to think about your concept of the average heroin addict, and now think about that pothead in the back of your 11th grade Spanish class. Equivalent? Hardly. Cannabis is far less addictive (both physically and psychologically) than heroin, along with a few other, legal, substances I can think of like maybe…nicotine or alcohol.
Enough about the schedules and the bureaucracy though, let’s talk about people.
Let Our People Go
The United States incarcerates more of it’s population than any other country in the world. Our prisons are overcrowded, packed with people who are locked up for non-violent offenses. Between 2001 to 2010, over 7 million people were arrested on cannabis-related offenses. Yes that’s 7,000,000. What’s even more ridiculous is that the majority of the offenses are related to possession of small amounts of pot; they aren’t out there busting 7 million drug lords. They’re out there busting your fellow citizens, people just like you whose only offense was possessing a little cannabis. There is no good reason for a country to imprison this many of its citizens other than to benefit a corrupt prison-industrial complex. These laws are not in service of the governed.
Not only are anti-cannabis laws unfair (with minimum sentencing laws after three strikes ensuring exorbitant sentences for possession) but when it comes to their execution they are actually extremely racist.
Despite self-reported use hovering around 25% for both white and black populations, and despite the nation being about 3/4 white by numbers, black people are incarcerated 3.75 times as often as white people for drug-related offenses. Of course, this issue extends into a gender bias as well, considering the overwhelmingly higher incarceration rates for black males.
In other words, everyone is breaking this law equally but one racial and gender group is being punished for it way more than others. That’s institutional persecution at its finest, folks. Legalization would start to empty out prisons which are operating on taxpayer money, stop the government from flagrantly imprisoning its population, and fundamentally change the layout of minority populations. It’s hard to support a family and raise children from behind bars, after all.
Get Money, Get Paid, Get Safe
Another strong argument in favor of legalization deals with the economics of the issue. Let me preface by saying that I’m not an economist, I’ve only taken a few classes in economics throughout my years of education, but these matters are clear even to a layman like myself. Prohibition era history and modern day experience can attest to the fact that making a substance illegal does little to control access to it. Indeed, during prohibition, the rise of organized crime was tightly correlated to bootlegging of alcohol and illegal speakeasies. The same is true of marijuana, where the sale of cannabis supports gang activity both in the United States and immediately south of our border, in Mexico. If we legalize cannabis, state and federal governments will be able to tax the substance, and the money from these taxes can reduce tax burdens on the average American, support infrastructure, and fund schools. That’s right, the same money which was once supporting gang violence can instead be redirected to keeping students in schools.
The RAND Drug Policy Research Center estimates the potential for a 90% price drop in cannabis prior to taxing if it is opened up for commercial production and sale. Using the numbers in the above graph, if government taxes were to be set at 400%, and the government was making 4 times the actual retail price in taxes, an ounce would cost $190, which would still be a 50% drop in price from the current illicit market. To put this in perspective, even states with the highest sales taxes charge less than 10% on everyday purchases. That’s how profitable it could be. This whole argument doesn’t even take into account the jobs that a cannabis industry could create, even though that contribution to the economy is no small matter either.
Lastly, if cannabis is legal we can keep it safe. We can regulate what gets put into the product, we can keep it out of the hands of children, and we can make smart, informed decisions about the use of this plant. We are fighting a losing battle by trying to control this via legislation and incarceration.
In my freshman year of high school I can recall 4 distinct occasions on which someone attempted to sell me cannabis completely unsolicited (imagine if I was actually looking for it!). At the same time, I lived in a house with a parent who smokes tobacco and I can say confidently that it would have been easier for me to get my hands on cannabis than on tobacco. It’s not protecting children to keep marijuana illegal. If there are benefits to the current legal situation, the numerous detriments surely outweigh them. This is a political issue which is beneficial to this country, regardless of your relationship to cannabis.
To that I say: Happy 420. Blaze it.