California recently voted down a groundbreaking proposition that would have legalized marijuana for recreational use. Already, California is one of several states that permits marijuana for consumers with a medical prescription. Medical marijuana has become big business, which is in fact one of the best reasons why the drug should be legalized. In need of economic stimulation, the American economy would benefit from opening up a whole new job sector. Proposition 19 would have controlled cannabis (the name of the marijuana plant) “like alcohol,” free up valuable law enforcement funds for fighting violent crimes, and also lead to the generation of “billions of dollars” in taxpayer revenues. Even though the Proposition was voted down, the initiative being on the ballot raised awareness about the potentially positive effects of legalizing and therefore normalizing marijuana. Marijuana is relatively harmless, especially when compared with legal drugs including pharmaceuticals. Moreover, marijuana does have proven medical benefits. The War on Drugs is costly both in terms of financial and human resources. Drug cartels and other organized crime syndicates flourish because of the black market in illegal drugs like marijuana. Furthermore, the restriction on marijuana use is an offense to American civil liberties and should ultimately prove unconstitutional.
As Cooper and McCullagh point out, “By historical standards, today’s federal ban on possession of marijuana may eventually be viewed as something of an aberration,” (1). Marijuana was far from demonized; it was often celebrated as a medicinal herb much like chamomile might have been viewed. The initial outcry over marijuana use arose around the same time as public consternation over alcohol and opiate use around the turn of the last century. “The net effect of this Prohibition-era provision was to deter — and stigmatize –recreational use of these substances for more than the next couple of generations,” (Cooper and McCullagh 1).
Moreover, marijuana use was associated with people of color: namely African-American and Mexican-Americans (Cooper and McCullagh 1). The criminalization of marijuana can be viewed as a means of deliberately targeting non-white populations. “The domestic political debate over opiates had unmistakable racist overtones,” (Cooper and McCullagh 1). The effect of racist drug laws in the early 20th century is roughly similar to the way that crack cocaine came to warrant far stricter sentencing than powdered cocaine. After all, crack cocaine is cheap and mostly used by poor ghettoized Americans who happen to also be non-white, while powered cocaine is more expensive and thus within the domain of privileged Americans.
Furthermore, low-income and non-white Americans would have had little access to legal services that would have prevented incarceration related to drug offenses. It is for this reason that a large proportion of prisoners in the United States are serving time for drug use instead of violence offenses. The United States appears to be a draconian society with its deplorably high rates of incarceration for non-violent drug offenses. As the “Legalization of Marijuana” Web site points out, “In 2000, more than 734,000 people were arrested in this country for marijuana-related offenses alone….Driven by the Drug War, the U.S. prison population is six to ten times as high as most Western European nations.” The imprisonment of non-violent drug offenders can be framed as a human rights issue and is one of the most important reasons to legalize marijuana, if not all recreational drugs.
Opponents of legalization claim that marijuana is dangerous and that it should be criminalized to protect citizens from its ills. This was the same argument used during the Prohibition of alcohol, which led to the passing of a Constitutional Amendment that was later repealed because of how ridiculous it was. The War on Drugs is a proven failure, one that has torn apart communities because of the high rates of needless incarceration and ruined lives. Drugs and alcohol can be potential problems, and so can sugar and saturated fat. The government cannot and should not ban alcohol again in spite of its toxic effects and potential to cause death in users. Similarly, the government cannot and should not ban trans-fats or sugars. The American people need to start taking more personal responsibility for their actions rather than expecting the government to coddle them.
The Marijuana Legalization Organization frames the marijuana issue plainly as a matter of personal liberty. Moreover, the Marijuana Legalization Organization points out that “prohibition is expensive and ineffective; education and regulation are better solutions. Regulating sales of marijuana and teaching people the truth about its health effects will allow us to minimize the harms and costs to society.” In other words, the money that is currently being funneled into law enforcement to persecute, prosecute, and incarcerate could be channeled instead into helpful institutions like anti-addiction medical services. Public awareness campaigns, education, and reasoned discourse could take the place of hyperbole, hype, and misinformation.
Prohibition of alcohol failed, and Proposition 19 in California shows that Americans already know that the prohibition of marijuana and other drugs has also failed. Prohibition has not just failed; it has failed miserably. In the interests of protecting public health and safety, prohibition has created more problems and actually worsened public health and safety. This is mainly because drug use is a natural human instinct; human beings have used drugs and alcohol even before civilization began. To warn the public about the dangers of drug abuse is one thing, but to criminalize drugs is quite another. In fact, criminalizing drugs makes the subject so taboo that patients will be afraid to tell their doctors that they do drugs. This inhibits quality of care delivery, as patients cannot fully disclose information to people they should be able to trust.
Another reason why criminalization is the wrong answer to the problem of marijuana use or abuse is that prohibition has led to a thriving black market. Just as the mafia and organized crime were primary beneficiaries of the 18th Amendment to the Constitution, the drug cartels like the ones in Mexico are the primary beneficiaries of drug prohibition. “As prohibition is apt to do, it has driven the production of a commodity into the hands of unregulated, unknown dealers, driven up the potency of the commodity, and in doing so created a scenario where the consumer is faced with a potentially greater health risks than they would be had they simply had the legal choice to use the product they actually desired, in this case cannabis,” (Armentano).
If marijuana is legalized, intelligent and rational discourse will replace the current atmosphere of bias and misinformation. Marijuana is not nearly as harmful or dangerous as the Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) would like the public to believe. “Marijuana does not cause brain damage, genetic damage, or damage the immune system. Unlike alcohol, marijuana does not kill brain cells or induce violent behavior. Continuous long-term smoking of marijuana can cause bronchitis, but the chance of contracting bronchitis from casual marijuana smoking is minuscule,” (“Legalization of Marijuana”). No known overdoses have been attributed to marijuana, and yet numerous people die from alcohol toxicity and from overdose on legal prescription drugs.
The pharmaceutical industry peddles potentially dangerous drugs while relatively harmless ones like marijuana are deemed illegal. Marijuana is also a drug that is wholly natural; cannabis grows wild like weeds which is why the word “weed” is slang for the substance. Banning marijuana is like banning coffee. The criminalization of marijuana is illogical also because of the way some drugs like alcohol or Xanax are considered safe enough to be legal, whereas other drugs like marijuana and psychedelic mushrooms are judged to be dangerous. Nadelmann notes, “Prop 19 both elevated and legitimized public discourse about marijuana.” The criminalization of marijuana is keeping the public ignorant about the effects of drugs.
If marijuana were legalized, the drug could be regulated and taxed. Users could have access to cannabis from recognized and reliable sources rather than from potentially dangerous ones. The drug cartels in Mexico would lose a vast amount of their income, so much so that they might dismantle and make the general public safer. If marijuana were legalized, doctors could prescribe it to patients who needed it for certain medical conditions, while recreational users could sit on their porch and smoke instead of hiding in their basement from the police. Those who used too much of the drug might have at their disposal more mental health resources, instead of fearing the stigma and retribution that would come from confessing their habit to a doctor.
Legalizing marijuana should also be framed from a civil rights perspective. The Marijuana Legalization Organization states, “Responsible individuals in a free society should be allowed to choose whether or not they use marijuana. Individual liberty is a fundamental value.” In a nation founded on the principles of liberty and freedom, it is anathema to criminalize a drug — and a plant, no less.
Fear has replaced sensibility in the War on Drugs. The War on Drugs is costly. According to the Drug Policy Alliance, the War on Drugs costs American taxpayers “$40 billion per year and climbing.” This is money that should be spent on (a) preventing and healing drug addiction and related issues; (b) more effective, and smarter, law enforcement. Legalizing marijuana would also generate much-needed tax revenues that can be spent on precisely those two things. From an economic or financial perspective, the legalization of marijuana will also help grow small businesses and thus can alleviate the problems associated with the current economic crisis. Low start-up costs for a marijuana grow operation also mean that low-income families and entrepreneurs can earn extra income in a legitimate way. Marijuana should be made legal because Americans value personal freedoms, too. It makes no sense for alcohol and Xanax to be legal but not marijuana. Marijuana, when made legal, can be regulated in the same way that alcohol and prescription drugs are. Police will not be wasting their time busting people for possessing a plant. Instead, pharmacists can dispense good quality marijuana to people to desire it because it is their right to do so. Finally, marijuana does have proven medical benefits and the harms associated with the drug are highly exaggerated.
Armentano, Paul. “DEA Moves to Ban ‘Fake Marijuana’ Products.” NORML. 24 Nov 2010. Retrieved Nov 25, 2010 from http://norml.org/
Cooper, Charles and McCullagh, Declan. “America’s Love-Hate History with Pot.” CBS News. 13 July 2009. Retrieved Nov 25, 2010: http://www.cbsnews.com/stories/2009/07/13/national/main5154550.shtml
Drug Policy Alliance. Economic consequences of the war on drugs. Retrieved 25 Nov, 2010: http://www.drugpolicy.org/library/factsheets/economiccons/fact_economic.cfm
“Legalization of Marijuana.” LegalizationOfMarijuana.com. Retrieved Nov 25, 2010 from http://legalizationofmarijuana.com/
Marijuana Legalization Organization. Retrieved online: http://www.mjlegal.org/
Nadelmann, Ethan. “Marijuana Legalization: Not if, but When.” Huffington Post. 3 Nov, 2010. Retrieved online: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/ethan-nadelmann/marijuana-legalization-no_b_778222.html
Sanchez, Ray. “California’s Proposition 19 Rejected by Voters.” 3 Nov 2010. Retrieved online: http://abcnews.go.com/Politics/proposition-19-results-california-votes-reject-marijuana-measure/story?id=12037727
“Yes on Prop 19.” Web site retrieved 25 Nov 2010 from: http://yeson19.com/
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