This is a research paper that I did for an undergraduate writing class at Michigan State University. Enjoy.
American Marijuana Policy and the Illogic Behind it
By Sam Ryan
All over the United States in prisons there are men and women serving multiple year sentences for marijuana related “crimes.” According to Mauer and King, “of the 450,000 increase in drug arrests during the period 1990-2002, 82 percent of the growth was for marijuana, and 79 percent was for marijuana possession alone” (1). Across the country people suffering from afflictions are forced to break the law to relieve their chronic pain. Suffering is all that prohibition and the “War on Drugs” has succeeded in. Over time the American public opinion has been mangled and morphed by government propaganda and policies to condemn marijuana as socially immoral. This view on marijuana needs to be changed though, a new light must be shed on the matter. With our economy spiraling down towards the next Great Depression, new means of income need to be found. If we can succeed in changing the public perception of marijuana through education, so it is more in line with that of tobacco and alcohol, then the United States may be able to assume its position as the leading economic power in the world. The United State’s economic, hegemonic status is constantly being challenged with the boom of economies in China and India. This is where we must take action; we must embrace new policies that will end the suffering of millions of people. When looking at the pure, objective facts about marijuana it is more than clear that the current policies are backed by irrational, illogical, and outright false information, thus these laws must be changed or eliminated to help benefit millions of people to lead better lives.
History of Marijuana, from the Ancients to the Contemporaries, and how Public Perception Evolved in America
Cannabis sativa is one of nature’s most robust creations, it has a propensity to survive. From Abel’s book, Marijuana, The First Twelve Thousand Years, he describes how marijuana “sprouts from the earth not meekly, not cautiously in suspense of where it is and what it may find, but defiantly, arrogantly, confident that whatever conditions it has the stamina to survive” (ix). But marijuana is not totally selfish in nature, it does give back and allows humans to reap the benefits of its qualities. There exist nonpsychoactive varieties of the plant, which have been used for thousands of years. Use of hemp is dated back to around 10,000 years ago on the island of Taiwan. They found the characteristics of hemp advantageous to life. It could be used for a variety of applications including tempering pottery, making clothes, and making paper (4). From the historical record, there is evidence of the utilization of hemp plants in ancient China, Japan, India, Persia, Mesopotamia, Egypt, Greece, and Rome (3-35). Even in these ancient times, the medicinal properties of marijuana were recognized. In the self-proclaimed “land of mulberry and hemp,” as the Chinese called it, cannabis was an ingredient for herbal medicines used to treat a wide array of afflictions (10-11). The psychoactive properties of the plant were also eventually discovered. In India these properties are discussed in Hindu doctrine. “Written some time between 2000 and 1400 B.C., the Atharvaveda (12:6.15) calls bhang [marijuana] one of the ‘five kingdoms of herbs … which release us from anxiety” (19). These early examples of the use of the marijuana plant demonstrate how it is has been a staple of life long before it was made illegal by governments throughout the world.
Cannabis and hemp have proven time and time again to be a vital commodity for governments over the world. When the Americas were being taken over by the European powers, the prospect of riches from undiscovered gold and silver never materialized. But there were other riches to be found. These riches were found in the production of hemp. Hemp provided the earliest settlers of the New World self sustenance. These settlers were even advised and ordered to grow hemp by the English Crown (77). The British recognized the potential revenue that could be generated through this product, thus they promoted the growth of it to every colonist. When the fight for independence finally came to the American Colonies, the demand for hemp increased substantially. Before the Revolution “hemp sold for about twenty-seven to thirty-five shillings per hundredweight. Between 1780 and 1782, the price soared to three hundred shillings” (87-88). Congress encouraged hemp production to reduce American reliability on English manufactured clothes (91). Hemp can be directly attributable to the success of the American Revolution, so how did it disappear from the landscape, and how was it eventually demonized to result in its illegal status? The first question can be answered by looking at the circumstances and results of the American Civil War. The major production centers for hemp were in the south, so when the Civil War broke out “trade broke off with the north [and] suppliers in the south lost a major market for bagging and cordage.” The war resulted in a fatal blow to the hemp market. Competition arose “in the form of iron wire cables and bands, and cheaper jute bagging, [so] many farmers simply gave up on hemp and turned instead to other agricultural staples such as wheat.” To give a better understanding of the second question, one must take into account that hemp plants in America did not obtain high amounts of the psychoactive, sticky resin that induce intoxication. When these effects were discovered, American policymakers eventually began giving it labels such as a “depraver of youth” and a “provoker of crime” (96).
At the turn of the 20th century, “about one million Americans were addicted to drugs such as opium and morphine.” These drugs, and a variety of others, were “dispensed [by physicians] at the sound of the faintest moan.” These habits were perfectly acceptable at the time, an addict would be appalled at the suggestion of him being a degenerate, a deviate, or a criminal (189). Marijuana use was not as prevalent as these other drugs in the early 1900s. Under all of these circumstances, how was marijuana made out to be the evil substance that it is now viewed as? This can be explained first by looking at the negative visages that associated certain racial groups with certain drugs. Chinese immigrants were the first victims of this racism. Eventually “the opium den became a visible symbol of the Chinese presence on the West Coast and as such became the target of anti-Chinese sentiment” (191). Laws were eventually passed that restricted the use of opium because young white boys and girls began to smoke it. African Americans, a long oppressed minority in America, were also subjected to this racism. Abel states that “cocaine was reported to be inciting southern blacks to mayhem” (192). Thus racism became a justification for the prohibition of drugs. As a result of anti-Chinese sentiment in America, the Chinese put a trade embargo on American made manufactures. To try to reconcile with the Chinese and gain back its vital market, American politicians began to try to help the Chinese with their opium problems, and to not appear as hypocritical, they passed The Harrison Act in the United States. This piece of legislation required that all narcotics be obtained from a physician. A tax stamp system was instituted so the federal government could keep track of all legal dispensations. The enforcement agencies of this act “began to feel the need to justify their existence… and they began to look for ways to expand and prove their worth” (196). To do this they issued propaganda about the alleged evils of narcotics and gave addicts the label of criminals. “Branded a criminal, faced with soaring costs for drugs… addicts were forced to commit petty crimes to pay for their habit… [and they] began to live up to the bureau’s labeling of him as a degenerate and a parasite” (197). As Abel eloquently puts it, marijuana got “caught up in the furor and fears of the drug menace scare that was sweeping the country” and became associated with the same things as opium (199). There was an element of class conflict that was established, once the addict population became predominantly lower class as opposed to middle class.
Racism and marijuana came hand in hand with the influx of Mexican immigrants coming to America for work. There were already set notions and prejudices against Mexicans, as there were against African Americans. First of all, Mexicans were Catholic, which did not work towards their advantage in Protestant America. The general perception of the Mexican was that he was a “thief, an untamed savage, hot-blooded, quick to anger yet inherently lazy and irresponsible.” The Mexican Revolution broke out in 1910, and anti-Mexican sentiments rose in America. As the Great Depression dealt a lethal blow to American economy and society, “the Mexicans bore the brunt of the scapegoat mentality in the southwest… marijuana, in fact, became the pretext for vexing the Mexicans just as opium had been the pretext for vexing the Chinese years before” (201). Marijuana became known as a Mexican herb. This herb was claimed to incite violence in Mexicans, as cocaine had been for African Americans. Various state laws were passed restricting or prohibiting marijuana use, but the federal prohibition came in 1937 under the Marijuana Tax Act, which instituted a similar tax stamp system that the Harrison Act enacted. The American government had successfully demonized marijuana and other drugs by this point. Further regulations and prohibition of drugs were enacted, but their case was firmly established.
The Opposition and Current Regime Politics
So what are the professed concerns about marijuana now? In an age now where racial equality is a given and class conflict is a less than prevalent, how does the opposition justify the continued criminalization of marijuana? Main concerns about marijuana use now seem to be about its role as a gateway to other harder drugs, the health consequences and the impact on adolescent development, user behavior while intoxicated, and the difficulty of quitting. Each of these issues can easily be addressed and each concern can be assuaged.
The first issue to be discussed is the gateway theory. “The gateway notion has served as a major rationale for sustaining (or escalating) cannabis prohibition since the mid-1960s” (MacCoun and Reuter, 346). These are seven different ways of interpreting the evidence and data about the gateway argument:
The First Step
This approach to the gateway argument is the most typical and simplistic of the seven. The basis of this approach is that “almost all cocaine and heroin users first used cannabis… so cannabis must be a stepping stone toward hard-drug use” (346). There is an overwhelming correlation between cannabis use and hard-drug use, but correlation does not constitute causation.
The Spurious Correlation
The correlation between cannabis use and harder drug use may be attributable to a third factor. As MacCoun and Reuter state, “it has long been known that behaviors like smoking, drinking, and using illicit drugs tends to cluster in adolescence, along with other problem behaviors like truancy, poor grades, fighting, property crime, teenage pregnancy, and depression” (347). Thus the “link between marijuana and hard drug use is reduced, but not eliminated.”
The Early Warning
This approach professes that early cannabis use can be used as an early indication of future, harder drug use. With this approach cannabis use “reliably precedes [harder drug use] and predicts it.” In fact most cannabis users rarely go on to try harder drugs, and of those that do, they do not become addicts. Of those that proceed to harder drugs, there are other factors to consider, such as “a higher propensity toward criminality, job losslessness, and so on” (347-348). The facts just do not seem to support this argument.
This approach claims that cannabis use traps the individual into harder drug use. This argument is rebutted by the fact that most who try marijuana do not move onto harder drugs. In fact, “most who start using illicit drugs desist of their own volition, without treatment or coercion, within five years” (16).
The approach that most hawks take is that the effects of cannabis use tantalize and tickle the curiosity of the user, so that they are lead to experiment with more, harder, intoxicating substances. But where does alcohol fit in this picture?
“In fact, alcohol is a bit of a red herring here. With respect to temporal precedence, the evidence that almost all hard drug users first tried alcohol is also overwhelming; moreover, for most of them, alcohol preceded cannabis” (349).
Hardliners of this approach propose that science proves that neurological and chemical processes in our brains heavily influence our decisions while intoxicated with cannabis. The thing is though that “no serious psychologist rejects that notion that neurochemical processes are involved in everything psychological or sociological.” With science exploring the biological effects of cannabis use, most studies are done on rats. This can askew results and bring up the question of credibility and the “applicability of the ‘rat model’ to human behavior” (349).
The Toe in the Water
The “Toe in the Water” takes a sociological approach, rather than the physiological and psychological approach that the “Tantalizer” takes. Use of marijuana, an illicit substance, may result in a reduction of the perceived health and legal riskiness of harder drugs like heroin and cocaine. Because marijuana is viewed in the same light as hard drugs, users may “discredit warning messages about the dangers of cocaine and heroin” (350). A solution to this is to clearly distinguish between soft drugs, such as marijuana, and hard drugs, such as cocaine and heroin, in campaign messages. The opposition claims that one may begin to undermine the legal risks because they had not been caught before. The gateway can altogether be averted “by largely or completely depenalizing marijuana, to take it out of the realm of illicit behavior” (350).
The Foot in the Door
This last approach suggests that one may have a higher tendency to try harder drugs after marijuana because they are brought into contact with hard drug sellers. This approach was essential for the Dutch, who used the argument “to permit low-level cannabis sales in coffeeshops and nightclubs; the Dutch argue that this approach separates the soft and hard drug markets, weakening the gateway” (350). Because of the availability of cannabis in the Netherlands, most people do not turn to the black market to obtain the product. In a “recent study of 216 experienced Amsterdam cannabis users, Cohen and Sas (1998) reported that 75 percent of those still using cannabis reported one or more coffeeshops as their primary source of cannabis” (259-260). In this study Cohen and Sas even found that none of the users reported purchasing from street dealers. Almost all hard drugs users across the board say that they had tried cannabis, but most cannabis users have not tried hard drugs. It is paradoxical that “evidence… indicates that U.S. cannabis users are more likely than Dutch cannabis users to also try cocaine” (350-351). This is because of the black market. With depenalization and possible legalization of cannabis, the functionality and need for the black market would disappear.
Health Implications and its Relation to Legal Substances
The next concern to be addressed is the impact of cannabis use on one’s health. The lack of studies done on cannabis really inhibits the information we know about the health risks of marijuana. Not much study has been done because of its legal status in most countries over the world. The Lancet, a “premier” British medical journal, stated that “the smoking of cannabis, even long term, is not harmful to health” (352). At the other end of the spectrum there have been claims made that “probable chronic effects” may occur. The key word there is probable. There is a lack of knowledge on both sides. Many reviews of cannabis’ effects come to the same conclusion that “the available evidence is not nearly complete enough to permit an identification of the full range and frequency of occurrence of adverse effects from cannabis use” (MacCoun and Reuter, 352). There are possible impacts on cognitive development in adolescents. These impacts can be kept to a minimum by requiring users to be age 18 or older in a depenalized system.
According to Kubby and Rosenthal, marijuana “is one of the most benign substances known to humans” (48). Opponents of marijuana claim that it has adverse health implications and they cite laboratory experiments to support this case. But the problem with these experiments is that the researchers start with “preconceived notions” that they wish to fulfill and finally come to the specific results that they wanted. This is evident in researchers who try to find mental disorders or diseases caused by marijuana. The government has known for quite some time that marijuana is relatively harmless. It is known not to cause physical dependence. Even the National Institute of Drug Abuse admits that “marijuana does not directly cause mental problems,” but they use slippery slope to argue that “it appears to bring to the surface emotional problems and can even trigger more severe disorders, particularly schizophrenia.” The claims are lacking any real, solid evidence, and the support that they do have is flimsy at best. The research they cite is “rejected by [the scientific community] because it is unreplicable” (49). It has been found (or not been found) that there is “no definitive neurological study of humans [that] has turned up evidence of marijuana related permanent brain damage.” Also, another shocking bit of information is that there is “no direct evidence so far that marijuana can cause cancer in humans” (Kubby and Rosenthal, 51).
If our government was lead by logic, they would come to the conclusion that because “tobacco causes greater harm than cannabis, [then they] should treat tobacco more restrictively than cannabis” (MacCoun and Reuter, 357). What is the opposition’s justification for keeping cannabis illegal and having alcohol and tobacco legal? MacCoun and Reuter “strained to come up with examples” (357). They say that one could argue that alcohol deserves legal status because it is used easier without guaranteed intoxication, for some though this is a difficulty. And for tobacco they propose a justification that tobacco “imposes a smaller share of its vast harms on nonusers than do other drugs” (358). But neither of these arguments are very convincing. The latent reason for continued prohibition relies on political agendas and the fact that “alcohol and tobacco have much larger and better organized constituencies than do cannabis” (358). It also stems from racial inequities that were used to justify early legislation. In relation to legal drugs, cannabis is a godsend. “No evidence exists that anyone has ever died of a marijuana overdoes.” Tests on mice demonstrate that “the ratio of canabinoids necessary for overdoes to the amount necessary for intoxication is 40,000 to 1,” whereas the ratio for alcohol is generally between 4 and 10 to 1 (Kubby and Rosenthal, 55). In a typical year tobacco claims 390,000 lives, alcohol 80,000, secondhand tobacco smoke 50,000, cocaine 2,200, heroin 2,000, aspirin 2,000, and marijuana 0. Even with the overwhelming evidence of the relative safeness marijuana, it still remains the focus of the failing “War on Drugs.”
User Behavior While Intoxicated
Many negative side effects are wrongfully attributed to marijuana use. Such side effects include increased riskiness, which is supported by the “Toe in the Water” approach, and increased violence, which stems from racism in late 19th and early 20th century America.
Driving under the influence of alcohol is a serious and dangerous offense. Alcohol is a legal substance. The National Highway Transportation Safety Administration stated, in a study of the effects of marijuana on driving performance, that marijuana intoxication “is in no way unusual compared to many medicinal drugs.” They go even further saying that “unlike alcohol, which encourages risky driving, marijuana appears to produce greater caution, apparently because the users are more aware of their state and [are] able to compensate for it” (Kubby and Rosenthal, 58). A study of fatal accidents found that 13 percent of the drivers tested positive for marijuana, but a majority of them also tested positive for alcohol. This is hardly a basis for the argument that claims that marijuana causes reckless driving. The argument loses even more legitimacy when you consider the fact that the substance has a very long half-life and can be tested for up to 30 days after use. MacCoun and Reuter admit that although “drivers are more likely to make errors under the influence of marijuana, such as departing from their lane, they also drive more slowly and keep a greater distance from the car in front” (353).
The last concern to be addressed is the issue of marijuana dependence and the difficulty of quitting. As stated earlier, most people desist of their drug using habit within five years of starting it. “This represents a very different pattern from that for the legally available psychoactive drugs, alcohol, and cigarettes; most of who use alcohol and tobacco even occasionally have lengthy careers, measured in terms of decades” (MacCoun and Reuter, 16). It has been found that “self-report data suggest that about 10 percent of cannabis users become dependent at some time” (353-345). To reiterate what was said earlier, cannabis has shown to not cause physical dependence, as do tobacco, alcohol, and harder drugs. Dependence on cannabis is much less harmful than dependence on tobacco, alcohol, cocaine, and heroin. The definition of dependence needs to be stated though. The “Sydney study of long-term users found that… the most common symptom [of marijuana dependence] was [a] ‘strong urge to use marijuana.” Another common symptom was “intoxication during daily activities” (354). The treatment of marijuana “dependence” is also an under-reported phenomenon. This may be because of less severe withdrawal symptoms. A leading marijuana researcher reported that some “patients smoke[d] cannabis, as many as 20 cigarettes daily for two or three weeks, and showed only minimal tolerance and no abstinence syndrome.” This same researcher reported that “physical withdrawal symptoms… were mild and typically passed in a few days. Tolerance and dependence were declared not to be ‘major issues,’ especially in the United States with a large population of marijuana users (355). Thus we can come to the conclusion that dependence on marijuana is not an issue to become concerned about.
Health Benefits and Medicinal Uses of Marijuana
The medicinal properties of cannabis have been known since the time of the ancients. Truly adverse to what the opposition claims about impacts on health, marijuana helps our bodies more than it hurts them. Currently there is an increased awareness of these medicinal properties and they are constantly being explored and researched throughout the world. Jonathon Green, in his book Cannabis, has compiled a long list of afflictions that cannabis is known to positively effect. They range from asthma and the common cough, where cannabis is known to be one of the best dilators of the bronchioles, to AIDS wasting syndrome and eating disorders, where cannabis induced “munchies” increase the user’s appetite. The pain relieving qualities of the drug are also sought after by people with Crohn’s disease, cancer, and migraines. The cognitive and neurological effects of the drug also are found to help with schizophrenia, epilepsy, depression, and multiple sclerosis. For people with insomnia, cannabis can induce that long awaited sleep that they have needed. With such a long list of afflictions that can be treated with cannabis, how is it that this wonder drug is still illegal?
Concrete Concerns with Marijuana Prohibition
Now that the oppositions concerns with marijuana use have been addressed and rebutted, we must identify our concerns about the impacts of continued prohibition. They are as follows: the infringement on guaranteed Constitutional rights and the economic impact of the failing “War on Drugs.”
The Constitutionality of Marijuana Laws and Enforcement
“The marijuana laws and their enforcement violate the First…Fifth… Eighth, Ninth, and Tenth Amendments.” How can the American public idly sit by while our rights are trampled over by unjust and unconstitutional laws? These laws must be eliminated or changed based on these facts alone.
The First Amendment states that Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceable to assemble, and to petition the government for a redress of grievances. The Free Exercise Clause is one of the most highly regarded lines of text in legal documentation, but this right is being infringed upon. Free exercise of religion is one of the main foundations that the United States was built upon. This is why this right must be so vehemently protected. Cannabis has been used for centuries in “Hindu, Buddhist, and various tribal celebrations.” In India, “during holiday periods, some higher-caste Hindu men are required to drink bhang, a cannabis-milk infusion, to bring them closer to Shiva” (Kubby and Rosenthal, 10). Marijuana is also used in practice by contemporary religions, such as Stephen’s Farm in Tennessee, Rastafarians, and the Ethiopian Zionist Coptic Church. Prohibiting the use of marijuana violates rights guaranteed by the First Amendment.
The Fifth Amendment contains the clause that states that no person shall be subject for the same offense to be twice put in jeopardy of life or limb. Citizens are frequently prosecuted under federal and state laws for the same offenses under current marijuana laws. This violates our right to protection against double jeopardy.
The Eighth Amendment states that excessive bails shall not be required, nor excessive fines imposed, nor cruel and unusual punishments inflicted. This Constitutional right seems to be in violation constantly when “people are being jailed for 25 years without the possibility of parole for having a joint” (16). High status marijuana dealers and growers are being sent to prison for life without parole, even as “murderers and rapists rarely get life without parole” (17). President Jimmy Carter has been quoted with the following:
“Penalties against a drug should not be more dangerous to an individual than use of the drug itself; and where they are they should be changed. No where is this more clear than in the laws against the possession of marijuana.”
The dangers to worry about do not come from marijuana itself, but from “criminalization, expensive and intrusive enforcement, inequity, shock to the conscience from disproportionate sentence[s] and a substantial black market” (MacCoun and Reuter, 356). Although marijuana use does have its potential harms, that should be a matter of choice on the user’s behalf. It ought to be everyone’s Constitutional right to use marijuana as they see fit.
The Ninth Amendment states that the enumeration in the Constitution, of certain rights, shall not be construed to deny or disparage others retained by the people. This means that rights not defined by the Constitution are not excluded. The right to administer drugs on one’s self was not a right that the framers had concern about “because those rights weren’t being threatened… anyone could grow or buy drugs at that time” (Kubby and Rosenthal, 17).
The Tenth Amendment states that the powers not delegated to the United States by the Constitution, nor prohibited by it to the states, are reserved to the states respectively, or to the people. The federal government wrongfully has domain over the legality of drugs, which should be a state power. We are faced with a powerful adversary, backed by a “Supreme Court that has a political agenda” (18).
All in all, there is a long list of grievances that should be brought to the public’s eyes, just as propaganda was brought the public’s eyes to skew perceptions of drugs in the wrong direction.
Economic Costs and Impacts of Continued Prohibition
One of the biggest downfalls of cannabis prohibition is the negative impacts on our economy. These impacts come from continued enforcement of prohibition, processing and incarceration of thousands of “criminals,” and missed out revenues not being generated because of its current illegal status.
The “War on Drugs” is one of the biggest failures in the history of American policy. As previously stated, King and Mauer have found that “of the 450,000 increase in drug arrests during the period 1990-2002, 82 percent of the growth was for marijuana, and 79 percent was for marijuana possession” (1). There has been a huge increase in drug related arrests, mostly marijuana related, since the start of this war, so in that sense it has been a success. But increased enforcement of marijuana laws “diverts efforts [and money] away from more significant criminal activity while having no appreciable impact on marijuana cost, availability, or use” (2). In the period of 1990-2002 the amount of marijuana trafficking arrests actually declined as a proportion of all drug arrests. If they want to fight the availability of the drug, then they must focus their attention on the growers and traffickers, not the users. The evidence clearly shows that they are not doing it in that manner. If the government’s aim was to halt the use of marijuana, they did not succeed. In fact, as King and Mauer have found, there has actually been a slight increase in the use of illicit drugs from 1990-2001 (5). In MacCoun’s and Reuter’s findings, they report that from 1992 to 1996, “all three nations [the Netherlands, Norway, and the United States] have seen similar large increases” in the use and prevalence of marijuana (258). “After 30 years of aggressively pursuing marijuana, arrests have grown at a rapid rate while use patterns fluctuate, but remain near the same level” (King and Mauer, 7). In 2000, only 1 of every 18 marijuana arrests resulted in felony sentence (22). This means that funds and enforcement are being used towards arresting a high amount of low level offenders. These resources could be used much more efficiently in enforcing other, more serious laws. To reduce the amount of wasted resources, it should be recommended to move marijuana enforcement to the lowest priority level. This would allow police and enforcement agencies to focus on more serious offenses.
It is estimated by King and Mauer that there are over “68,000 people… under correctional supervision for a marijuana offense” and this number rises to more than 75,000 people when considering people on parole. To put this number in perspective, it is estimated that at least one in four persons in prison are serving time for a low-level marijuana offense (28). With such a huge population of people in prisons, one must take into account the cost of housing and providing for them. “The cost to arrest, prosecute, and jail a single drug dealer can run as high as $450,000.” With just $150,000, treatment or education could be provided to 200 people (Kubby and Rosenthal, 43-45). It costs more to send a person to prison for four years than it does to send a person to a private university for four years (including tuition, fees, room and board, books, and supplies). If that many people were being sent to universities instead of prisons, productivity in America would drastically increase. This is taking a huge toll on American prisons, courts, and taxpayer’s pockets. A huge influx of marijuana arrests clog up the courts, not allowing for speedy trials. For the unlucky few who do get caught, a simple possession charge can account for “$1,500-$10,000 in legal fees” (40). This unlucky few also are not able to contribute to society anymore because they are in prison.
In a groundbreaking petition initiated by Milton Friedman, he has assembled a list of 500+ professional economists calling for the legalization of marijuana based solely on the economic advantages it would bring about. In our current position, with the possibility of another economic depression on the level of the one in 1929, new sources of revenue are vital. In Friedman’s report, it is speculated that if marijuana was made legal federal and state governments would save a combined total of $7.7 billion per year just from enforcement of prohibition. Another $6.2 billion is speculated to be generated if marijuana was taxed at similar rates to that of alcohol and tobacco (Miron, “The Budgetary Implications of Marijuana Prohibition,” par. 5-6). These numbers seem astonishing, and they are, but the possibility is there. The current pressure on our economy could easily be relieved. If marijuana was made legal the cost would drastically decline, as was seen when alcohol prohibition ended. Liquor’s cost “plummeted to about a third of its black market cost” (Kubby and Rosenthal, 38). Kubby and Rosenthal even go as far to say that the “marijuana industry could gross $50-$53 billion a year” (39). Rising unemployment is also a spreading scourge in our society. Marijuana legalization could help relieve that problem also. Even as marijuana is illegal, “at least 1.5 million people are employed full or part time in the marijuana industry” (40). If this industry was made public and legal, it could provide thousands of jobs for individuals who have lost their jobs because of our declining economy. The potential economic assets that could be reaped from this industry are lucrative. A garden of marijuana of less than 100 square feet can yield enough product to earn that individual up to $30,000-$50,000 a year, “it would seem that allowing farmers to grow marijuana would not only help save many small farms but also provide many new jobs, since marijuana farming and preparation are very labor intensive” (41-42).
Another major mistake and obstruction of freedom that our government advocates is the criminalization of the cultivation of nonpsychoactive varieties of the hemp plant. These plants are “outlawed in order to enforce the marijuana laws.” Hemp has many characteristics that are advantageous to industrial and commercial applications. It contains the longest fiber in the plant kingdom and one of the strongest and most durable, it can be used for insulation, cloth, clothing, and rope. The fiber and pulp can be used to manufacture nondeteriorating paper using a relatively pollution free process. After pressing the seed, the remaining mass becomes high protein animal feed. The list of applications goes on and on (42).
Changing Policy and Potential Legalization
We have now seen how marijuana was deemed socially immoral through government endorsed racism and propaganda, how the opposition’s arguments are backed with close to no solid evidence, how marijuana is not detrimental to our health, but actually benefits it, and how continued marijuana prohibition has allowed for our rights to be forgotten, for our economy to decline, and for the loss of potential industrial and commercial uses of hemp production. So what must be done? Some call for depenalization and others for outright legalization. Luckily we have a few examples throughout the world where marijuana has been viewed as socially acceptable and beneficial. The first, obvious example is that in the Netherlands and the second is in Alaska.
The Netherlands Model
In 1976, after multiple changes in policy, Dutch politicians gave marijuana another chance. It gained a status of “de-facto legalization.” It became strictly regulated and was only obtainable at specific coffeeshops and nightclubs. Why was it reconsidered though? As stated earlier, they justified more lenient cannabis policies using the “notion that separating the soft and hard drug markets might actually weaken any gateway effect” (MacCoun and Reuter, 261). Also stated earlier, use of cannabis increased in many Western nations, not just the Netherlands. Thus it is safe to say that the 1976 depenalization was not a cause for increased cannabis use in the Netherlands. But there was an increased prevalence, so what can it be attributed to? This can be explained through the commercialization of the product (259-260). Thus if marijuana was legalized here in America we could expect to see an increase in use and prevalence because of commercialization. But as regulation of tobacco and alcohol has shown in America, it can be done with marijuana.
The Alaska Model
When the Framers wrote the Constitution, federalism and the separation of powers stand out as two ingenious concepts and aspects of our government. Federalism is demonstrated through Alaska’s decision to depenalize marijuana. In Alaska there are no “sanctions against possession of small quantities and production for own consumption and gifts,” but there are penalties for the sale of the drug (364). Home production is a major factor in the Alaskan system. But not all users are as devoted as the one who grows.
Cannabis depenalization calls for the elimination of criminal penalties for the possession of small amounts of marijuana. Depenalization seems like a rational and logical choice considering it has “no prevalence of cannabis use.” Using the “Tantalizer” approach, an increase in cannabis use will result in an increase in hard drug use, “but depenalization will not increase cannabis use in the first place.” With the “Toe in the Water” approach, depenalization would actually result in a reduction of hard drug use, this is because marijuana would be taken out of the realm of illicit behavior, as harder drugs are in, and the perceived riskiness of these harder drugs would not be diminished. People would be able to distinguish between the harms of hard drugs and the relative safeness of cannabis. Nothing would change under the “Foot in the Door” approach because there would still be a need for the black market. One problem with depenalization is that it “fails to provide any benefits of substitution; if cannabis use doesn’t increase, use of more dangerous substances can’t decrease” (MacCoun and Reuter, 358). One main difference between American policy and the policy of certain western nations is the way they define chronic drug use. In Italy and Switzerland “chronic drug use was redefined as illness rather than criminality” (232). This allows for their respective governments to take a different approach when dealing with addicts. Instead of being sent to prison, they are treated and rehabilitated. This redefinition of chronic drug use could result in a reduction of the costs of enforcement, as would the depenalization of cannabis would do. Depenalization would result in the reduction of the “government’s intrusiveness and infringements on liberty and privacy” (358). Because cannabis would be easier to distinguish from hard drugs, the government would gain more legitimacy and credibility when trying to control other illicit drugs. Through many comparative studies, MacCoun and Reuter have come to the conclusion that “there is reasonable, though not indisputable, evidence that the removal of criminal penalties for personal possession does not increase use of marijuana or more dangerous drugs” (360).
“That is, if we were to reverse the status of alcohol and cannabis – prohibiting alcohol while making cannabis as available as alcohol is now – the health and behavioral consequences (accidents, long-term physiological damage, aggression) from cannabis use would still fall short of those currently attributable to alcohol. It is a mistake to believe that depenalization of cannabis somehow introduces into the legal marketplace a uniquely noxious substance” (360).
In relation to alcohol abuse, marijuana may act as a substitute for alcohol. Evidence shows that “for high school seniors decreased availability of legal alcohol increased the use of marijuana; if the relationship is symmetric, then increased accessibility for marijuana might reduce alcohol consumption” (361). This suggests that the two substances act as substitutes to one another, not complements. This would hypothetically result in the reduction of alcohol related accidents and deaths.
Although the government would not have to worry much about regulation under a system of depenalization, maybe similar to that of the Alaskan model, there would still be no way of obtaining the product legally. Thus depenalization is not the best choice for America.
To get the best of both a depenalized system and a commercialized system, full legalization of cannabis would be required. MacCoun and Reuter claim that regulation would be difficult with American mass commercialization, but this is wrong (362-363). America has proven to be more than able to regulate and control tobacco and alcohol sales, so why can’t it be done with marijuana? With the determination and work ethic that this nation was founded upon, Americans can succeed in anything. Different from the Netherlands Model, regulation here would not have to be as stringent. As Walmarts and other grocery stores have isles specifically designated for alcohol, through enforcement of certain guidelines, it could be envisioned that some day marijuana would have its own isle.
Abel, Ernest L. Marihuana: The First Twelve Thousand Years. New York: Plenum Press, 1980. ix-201.
Green, Jonathon. Cannabis. New York: Thunder’s Mouth Press, 2002. 202-219.
King, and Marc Mauer. ”The War on Marijuana: The Transformation of the War on Drugs in the 1990s.” Washington D.C.: The Sentencing Project, 2005. 1-31.
Kubby, and Ed Rosenthal. Why Marijuana Should Be Legal. New York: Thunder’s Mouth Press, 1996. 10-58.
MacCoun, and Peter Reuter. Drug War Heresies. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2001. 16-364.
Miron, Jeffrey A. “The Budgetary Implications of Marijuana Prohibition.” The Marijuana Policy Project, 2005.