Legalize It

Photo by Rick Proctor on Unsplash

As millions of Americans and people across the world celebrate 4/20, we should all be able to recognize that our current drug laws are ineffective and inhumane. It’s time to legalize marijuana and end the failed war on drugs.

The majority of Americans already support legalizing marijuana. Today, it’s especially important to contextualize cannabis and recognize both how far we’ve come and how far we still have to go to normalize marijuana policy.

There are no doubts about some of the origins of the criminalization of weed, and their roots in social stigmatization of marijuana users. Conservative politicians, armed with cash from big tobacco and other industries, have criminalized marijuana, originally aiming to disrupt communities they felt were threats — particularly young liberals and communities of color.

The results have been painful and clear: racial prejudice and mass incarceration. Black people are four times more likely to be arrested for marijuana possession than white people, in spite of roughly equal use across both populations. Criminal records due to drug possession hinder individuals’ ability to find jobs, apply for housing, and get loans. The U.S. has the highest incarceration rate of any nation in the world with 716 out of every 100,000 residents behind bars.

Just this week, a Florida State University student and quarterback, Deondre Francois, had his apartment raided after being surveilled for months for supposed distribution of marijuana. Police officers found less than an ounce of weed — exactly as much as people reading this might have at home. As a result, another promising life has been derailed by our misapplied criminal justice system.

For what? Who is benefiting? Not everyday people — that much is obvious. Not the police, who have wasted countless hours analyzing whether a college kid smoked pot with his girlfriend in his apartment. No, the dollars from cannabis convictions go to private for-profit prisons and other special corporate interests, who are only too happy to continue making money off of our most vulnerable communities.

The best scientific studies we have — and there are not enough, thanks to efforts to suppress research by (you guessed it!) special interests — indicates that cannabis is, at the very least, not as bad for you as alcohol. Other studies suggest it has clear medical benefits, and there may be even more benefits that researchers could discover if only Congress would allow them.

Marijuana legalization may even be a powerful weapon in the fight against the opioid crisis. We already know based on natural experiments that states where cannabis has been legalized have seen opioid overdose deaths decline by nearly 25%. At the very least, legalizing marijuana is a serious and extremely cost-effective way to help fight this dangerous health crisis.

In the absence of federal action, some cities have taken matters into their own hands. In Philadelphia, the district attorney just dropped all minor pot charges retroactively. There’s no reason why this policy shouldn’t become the law of the United States, and it’s both pathetic and an indictment of Congress’s apathy that this is still an issue in the 21st century.

There are hundreds of billions of dollars to be gained in revenue over the next decade — tens of billions every year — if the Federal government were to act. In places that have legalized marijuana, the tax revenue is funding new schools, local healthcare options, affordable housing, and substance abuse prevention programs. It’s clear that marijuana is an effective revenue stream that could help fund critical government programs at all levels.

Instead, lawmakers have taken generations of young Americans out of classrooms and put them in prisons cells over a one-thousand-year-old plant. Our Founding Fathers sold a form of it. Presidents and politicians across the country have smoked it despite its prohibition, with no consequence to them. They should be so bold as to afford that same protection to every American, white or black, rich or poor.

About two out of every three Americans now support legalizing marijuana. That’s more than ever before, and every day Congress fails to act fully legalize marijuana is another day wasted sending promising young people to prisons instead of schools.

It is a modern tragedy. Those who have power to change our laws, yet remain silent, are complicit. Marijuana should never have been criminalized in the first place — and it is far past time to legalize it. An entire generation of Republicans and complicit Democrats created our mass incarceration problem; it’s incumbent upon a new generation of leaders to right those past wrongs.