Marijuana legalization has been raised countless times by politicians, newspapers, hippies and, of course, college newspapers. Again and again it has come up, to the point that it has become somewhat trite — a cliché policy issue that is urgent for no one. But just as a reminder: Marijuana for personal use is still illegal.
Under the Obama administration, the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency has ceased federal prosecution of licensed medical marijuana clinics, ceding enforcement to state control. At the same time, though, Attorney General Eric Holder has said that legalization of marijuana as a commercial product was “off the table.”
Even so, the debate is not over. Information about the real effects of marijuana use, both sporadic and habitual, abounds.
But first, the debate must be put in context: It would be impossible to understand why a drug with relatively mild side effects remains illegal without looking at the history of drug enforcement.
The 60s were a time of social upheaval. Drugs were an integral part of youth culture, although LSD and ecstasy were relatively nascent. Lawmakers saw the effects of these drugs on their users — depression, memory loss, mental disease — and passed a flurry of anti-drug laws. For the most part, all drugs were conflated into one big evil — no distinction between the effects and severity of each drug was drawn by lawmakers.
The 80s and early 90s saw a spike in crime. Because much of it was drug-related, both federal and state legislatures passed stringent laws mandating minimum sentences and authorizing huge packages of money for drug-law enforcement.
Crime rates dropped again in 1993, but drug laws for the most part did not change. Although the Supreme Court struck down federal mandatory minimum sentences, many state courts did not. And the War on Drugs continued to grow in popularity and in budget. As of 2009, the federal government spends $50 billion a year on enforcement alone. That number ignores state enforcement costs, as well as the $150 billion spent on policing and courts and $68 billion spent on prisons.
And for all that money, what have we got in return? Nothing. The War on Drugs has not yielded any significant drop in drug use, yet money continues to flow into enforcement. Similar to Prohibition, rates of use have not dropped. Also similar to Prohibition, smuggling and related turf-wars have spiked.
The amount spent on prisons mystifies as well. Although part of a larger criticism of American prisons — a country that has 5 percent of the world’s population and 25 percent of its prisoners — the amount of money spent on keeping marijuana users in jail is ludicrous.
By rough estimation, if $68 billion is spent on prison upkeep annually, and one-third of those in prison are in for non-violent drug-related crime, and 47 percent of all those are in for marijuana arrests, then that comes out to about $9.5 billion dollars a year spent keeping pot-smokers in jail. For comparison, a fleet of F-22 fighter-jets was vetoed a few years back because it was too expensive. Its total proposed cost? $6 billion.
While on the economic track, let’s talk about potential revenue from harvesting marijuana; California’s growers bring in $14 billion annually. A 10 percent tax would bring the state $1.4 billion every year. For a state so buried in red ink, that proposal must look promising. If California alone could raise that much from a 10 percent tax, imagine the revenue Uncle Sam could raise. Saying the government shouldn’t profit from immoral activity is a specious argument — gambling, tobacco and alcohol industries are all taxed (and subsidized) by the government.
Another huge source of worry for the country is Mexican cartels — the cartels control large parts of the country, and the murder and kidnapping from drug wars that were once contained to Mexico have crept over the border into Texas and Arizona. Legalizing would cut 65 percent of their profits, and destroy a large part of their motivation for drug-fueled killings.
But all this would be meaningless if marijuana was truly detrimental. After all, legalizing something that kills or has a high rate of addiction would’t make any sense, would it? Yet an objective look at the short and long-term effects of marijuana are next to nothing. This is not new information: both Nixon and Reagan formed blue-ribbon commissions to study the effects of marijuana, but when both concluded that marijuana was far less severe than alcohol or tobacco, the results were dismissed.
First, addiction rates are tiny: Canadian government and RAND Corporation studies have shown that addiction rates for those who use pot regularly are a steady 9 percent, considerably less than alcohol and tobacco addiction rates.
Second, myths that marijuana leads to schizophrenia, depression or harder drugs have been disproved time and time again by virtually every objective research agency. While it may be true that those who do hard drugs started off with pot, that by no means proves that those who do pot automatically will go on to harder drugs. Given the rate of at least occasional use of pot — 15 percent nationwide — wouldn’t there be a lot more users of hard drugs if there was indeed a causal link between pot and hard drugs?
The mushrooming of medical marijuana clinics and the drug’s application for pain relief for a diversity of diseases is a convincing fact, as well. Surely a drug with virtually no one-time-use damages is better than the prescription painkillers now legally used. Among their side effects are vomiting, headaches, dizziness, liver and kidney failure. To me, it’s an easy choice.
Virtually every myth about marijuana’s long-term effects have been disproved, but one fact is undeniable: The damage from marijuana to the teen brain is noticeable. A brain still in formation is at much greater risk for short-term memory loss, among other symptoms.
Still, though, to say that kids may be affected is a specious argument. Alcohol and tobacco are legal, so how does law prevent kids from buying? Age restrictions. Very simply, there is no difference between allowing the marketing of alcohol and tobacco and allowing the marketing of marijuana. Fact clearly isn’t the barrier in the way of legalization — it is the outmoded beliefs of the past that hinder passage of more just, balanced drug laws.