Note from the author: This article was originally published in March of 2012. With attempts to legalize marijuana on ballot measures in three different states this November– Colorado, Oregon, and Washington– here are ten reasons to legalize marijuana in the United States right now. If you agree, please “Like” and share! If you disagree, please feel welcome to discuss why in the comment thread below or even submit your own article to IVN!
1. Marijuana prohibition violates liberty.
America has a long and proud tradition of believing in, and increasingly upholding, the right of its citizens to make their own choices about their own bodies, their own property, their own finances, and their own lives. On the progressive left, activists have worked hard for decades to guarantee that civil liberties are respected in America and a common self-description among progressives is “pro-choice.” On the conservative right, activists abhor what they deride as “the nanny state” and its proclivity to regulate every aspect of our personal decisions down to the kind of light bulbs we use, the amount of water in our toilets, and even our food choices. If liberty is a principle most Americans value, and their typical rhetoric is more than just lip service, then the government should stop prohibiting marijuana for the same reason it doesn’t prohibit alcohol use, cigarette smoking, birth control, certain kinds of foods, and other choices that Americans make about their own bodies every day: because in America we believe in liberty.
2. Marijuana is safer than its legal alternatives.
According to former US Surgeon General Joycelyn Elders, the active drug ingredient in marijuana, THC, is not physiologically addictive the way nicotine and caffeine are, and it’s not fatally toxic to the brain and body in high amounts the way alcohol is, yet these alternatives are legal and marijuana is not. It’s not even a gateway drug. The argument for prohibition from the standpoint of health and safety then, is curiously suspect. In a rigorous twenty year study of over 5,000 men and women published just this January by the American Medical Association, researchers found that casual marijuana use (defined as smoking up to a joint a week for twenty years or even a joint a day for seven years) not only doesn’t harm lung function, but “was associated with increases in lung air flow rates and increases in lung capacity.” Seriously.
3. Marijuana prohibition harms addicts.
While marijuana is not physiologically addictive and users are not subject to physiological withdrawal symptoms if they discontinue prolonged marijuana use, those users who suffer from a psychological addiction to the drug are stigmatized and marginalized by a policy that treats them as criminals, not as sick people in need of medical help. Prohibition discourages them from seeking help for their addiction should they want it. According to David Linden, professor of neuroscience at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine and the chief editor of the Journal of Neurophysiology, “When you look at the biology, the only model of addiction that makes sense is a disease-based model, and the only attitude towards addicts that makes sense is one of compassion.” Dr. Linden also says, “Simple possession should never be dealt with predominately in the penal system. It is a medical phenomenon.”
4. Marijuana prohibition is unconstitutional.
5. Legalizing marijuana would actually make our streets safer.
Many critics of drug legalization worry that lifting the prohibition on illegal drugs like marijuana will increase crime and make our streets less safe. A study released last year by the prestigious nonprofit, RAND Corp., indicates that just the opposite might be true. Counter-intuitively, stricter drug policies might actually lead to an increase in crime. The study found “that when hundreds of medical marijuana dispensaries were closed last year in Los Angeles crime rates rose in surrounding neighborhoods.” Neill Franklin, the retired Baltimore narcotics cop who now leads Law Enforcement Against Prohibition (LEAP), argues that “If we legalized and taxed drugs… we’d make society safer by bankrupting the cartels and gangs who control the currently illegal marketplace.” If we legalize the sale of marijuana, law-abiding corporations will sell it instead of criminals. You could buy a pack of marijuana cigarettes at the 7-Eleven down the street. Against their massive economies of scale and base of capital investments, the violent drug dealer on the sidewalk would be put out of business overnight and our cities and suburbs would start becoming a lot safer.
6. Legalizing marijuana would also make the world safer.
This January, the Mexican government updated its death toll figures from the war on drugs, “reporting that 47,515 people had been killed in drug-related violence since President Felipe Calderón began a military assault on criminal cartels in late 2006.” Critics of U.S. drug prohibition argue that the violence in Mexico is a direct result of U.S. prohibition measures, which create a black market for marijuana, a black market that Mexican criminal cartels have found lucrative, using their profits to purchase more weapons and engage in more criminal– often violent– activity. To borrow a common argument from Second Amendment activists: If you outlaw the sale of marijuana, only outlaws will profit from the sale of marijuana. And they will use those profits to fund other criminal activities and to protect the profits themselves, violently if necessary. It’s becoming a national security issue.
7. Legalizing marijuana is fiscally smart.
In June of 2010, Philadelphia effectively decriminalized marijuana with the SAM (Small Amount of Marijuana) program, which turned possession of 30 grams of the plant, or less, into a summary offense instead of a misdemeanor. Before the SAM program, Philadelphia spent thousands of dollars prosecuting each case of $10 or $15 worth of marijuana in someone’s pocket. Taxpayers were footing the bill for trials, judges, court-appointed defense attorneys, prosecutors, lab tests to confirm that the seized plant was in fact marijuana, and overtime pay for testifying police officers. Now, offenders simply pay a $200 fee to attend a 3-hour class on the dangers of drug abuse, and their record is expunged. DA Williams said “We were spending thousands of dollars for when someone possessed $10 or $15 worth of weed. It just didn’t make sense,” estimating just 12 months after the SAM program started, that decriminalization had already saved the city $2 million. Add to all the costs listed above, the severe and growing cost of America’s record incarcerations– many of them due to non-violent drug use– as well as the foregone tax revenues of legalized marijuana in this country, and it’s not hard to extrapolate that the country is wasting billions of dollars at every level of government at a time when its finances are at the point of crisis.
8. More Americans than ever support legalizing marijuana.
Evangelical minister Pat Roberts isn’t the only one supporting the legalization of marijuana (though it certainly says something that he does). This last October, a Gallup poll found that 50% of Americans say that marijuana should be legalized, the largest ever percentage since Gallup started asking the question in 1969. Gallup‘s figures through the decade suggest a recent exponential growth in the percentage of legalization advocates, which has promising implications for the legalization movement over the next decade. It took ten years for the percentage of legalization supporters to jump ten percent from 30% to 40%, and only two years to jump another ten percent to Gallup‘s most recent figure. And that’s just if polling organizations ask respondents point blank if marijuana should be legalized. A 2010 AP/CNBC survey found that when asked if marijuana should be treated like alcohol, 44% say it shouldn’t be treated any differently than alcohol, and another 12% say it should be treated even more leniently than alcohol, making a total of 56% of the population that believes marijuana should be treated as or even more leniently than alcohol. That’s more Americans than there are who approve of the President or Congress right now.
9. The War on Drugs isn’t working.
An FBI report released last September brims with startling figures about the forty-year-old War on Drugs. Shockingly, in the United States, there is a drug arrest every 19 seconds, making for a total of 1.6 million drug arrests in 2010 alone. The FBI report also includes data which show that 81.9% of all drug-related arrests in 2010 were for simple possession, not drug dealing, and 45.8% of all drug-related arrests were for possession of marijuana. After this many decades, this many arrests, this many wasted dollars, and this many ill-effects of the War on Drugs, does any serious policy analyst, pundit, or politician actually claim that the world’s half-century experiment in drug prohibition has worked? Last year, a 19-member panel of a Global Commission on Drug Policy released a 24-page paper arguing that the “global war on drugs has failed, with devastating consequences for individuals and societies around the world.”
10. Legalizing marijuana has worked everywhere it’s been tried.
But everywhere drugs, including marijuana have been legalized or decriminalized, the effects have been stellar. After a year of decriminalization in Philadelphia, the city saved $2 million and crime did not increase. Philadelphia police have told the Philadelphia Daily News “that there has been no noticeable impact on the quality of life in Philadelphia since the [SAM] program went into effect.” In an even more significant case, Portugal decriminalized all drugs— including hard drugs, not just marijuana– over ten years ago. A decade later, Portugal has not only managed to avoid becoming a trainwreck of rampant drug addiction– its drug situation has actually improved. According to TIME Magazine, when Portugal made its sweeping drug reform in 2001, it “had some of the highest levels of hard-drug use in Europe.” Only five years later, “illegal drug use among teens in Portugal declined and rates of new HIV infections caused by sharing of dirty needles dropped, while the number of people seeking treatment for drug addiction more than doubled.” And: “Following decriminalization, Portugal had the lowest rate of lifetime marijuana use in people over 15 in the E.U.: 10%. The most comparable figure in America is in people over 12: 39.8%. Proportionally, more Americans have used cocaine than Portuguese have used marijuana.”