(Authors note: this essay will be published tomorrow in the Johns Hopkins Newsletter. Since it was written for publication, I had to omit many statistics and important sources which quantified the impact of the arguments I cite here. These stats will follow in a separate post.)
Earlier this week, Colorado and Washington made international headlines by becoming the first states to legalize marijuana for recreational use. These measures contradict existing drug policy at the federal level, and many pundits anticipate a legal showdown that goes all the way to the Supreme Court. But the short-term outcome of these battles will do little to change the long-term necessity of ending the war on drugs. Legalizing marijuana across all 50 states is long overdue, and whenever it inevitably comes to pass it will make our nation richer, safer, and freer.
In times of recession and massive debt, the fiscal savings and economic benefits of legalization cannot be overlooked. State and federal governments spend tens of billions of dollars every year to find, arrest, prosecute and imprison non-violent drug offenders. Legalizing marijuana would decrease these costs while simultaneously increasing tax revenues (both from taxing the sale of marijuana itself and from the income taxes levied on the new industry). The cannabis industry also has tremendous growth potential due to the plants’ many industrial uses. A distinct variety of cannabis called hemp can be used to make dozens of everyday products in a cheap, efficient, and environmentally friendly way. Cannabis itself can be fermented to produce energy, and is already a useful biofuel with the potential to reduce our dependence on oil. Finally, by removing artificial restrictions on supply and enabling competition, legalizing marijuana would bring the price of pot closer in line with the cost of production, increasing economic efficiency in general.
Legalizing marijuana would also make us safer, for at least three reasons. Firstly, it would defund organized crime. Prohibition gives a monopoly to those willing to break the law by shielding them from competition and taxation. This inflates the price of pot and sends lucrative profits to gangs and cartels – including the same Mexican drug cartels that have killed an estimated 60,000 people in drug related violence since 2006. The profits from this underground empire are used to fund activities far more sinister than hitting the bong; these cartels are known to dabble in kidnapping, extortion, weapons smuggling, child sex slavery, and hired assassination. Legalizing marijuana would divert money away from these thugs by eliminating the underground demand for their most popular product.
Secondly, legalization would make the marijuana trade itself safer by turning a violent black market into a transparent and regulated one. Consumers would no longer need to buy their weed from professional criminals, and bloody turf wars between rival distributors would disappear as the demand for their services dried up. And not only would the process of selling pot be safer, but the pot itself would be safer; the street practice of lacing weed with more addictive drugs or filler substances would be replaced by the quality controls and business accountability of a regulated market.
Thirdly, legalization would decrease crime by rebuilding America’s poorest and most desperate communities. Imprisoning peaceful people for victimless crimes destroys families and inhibits economic advancement, which in turn actually increases crime. When poor fathers are thrown in jail or killed in an unnecessarily dangerous drug world, their families become even more desperate and dysfunctional. Studies show that children growing up in these broken households are more likely to demonstrate aggressive behavior, to be delinquent, suspended or expelled from school, and to turn to crime themselves. Additionally, having a criminal record decreases one’s employment opportunities and lowers one’s earnings potential going forward. This ensures that people convicted of drug crimes have fewer places to turn besides crime upon their release. And by making the illegal drug trade so lucrative, prohibition has only increased the temptation to engage in illicit activities. Legalization would reverse both of these incentives. Firstly, it would reduce the appeal of crime by removing the underground marijuana trade as a profitable option. And secondly, it would reduce the necessity of crime by decreasing incarceration and increasing the legal employment opportunities of would-be convicts.
Finally, the most compelling benefit of legalization is that it asserts our fundamental human freedom to do as we so choose. For patients with debilitating diseases, that freedom would finally grant them access to the painkilling and nausea reducing medicine they need. For millions of black Americans, that freedom would mean they are no longer discriminated against by an abusive drug war that targets their neighborhoods and ignores their civil rights. And for hundreds of thousands of prospective inmates, that freedom would be realized in the most literal sense imaginable: they would be free from prison. Legalization would reaffirm the individual liberties of all Americans, and remove the threat of arrest or worse for our personal lifestyle decisions. Deciding to smoke a joint is every bit as much of a personal choice as deciding to drink a beer or to eat a greasy hamburger. On such matters, it’s not the governments place to protect us from ourselves. Free people should be allowed to do whatever they please to the extent that it doesn’t harm others, and private marijuana consumption in the comfort of one’s own home simply does not do that.
Marijuana certainly isn’t nearly as harmful or addictive as legal drugs like alcohol or tobacco. But as a recent editorial in The Seattle Times put it, the relevant question isn’t whether marijuana is good: “It is whether prohibition is good. It is whether the people who use marijuana shall be subject to arrest, and whether the people who supply them shall be sent to prison. The question is whether the war on marijuana is worth what it costs.” The answer is a clear no. No one knows exactly how the showdown between state and federal law will play out over the coming months. But in any case, prohibition is far too costly, dangerous and oppressive to last much longer.