The Case for Legalization: A Frank Discussion

Last Friday two men, dressed as ninjas and wielding batons, robbed a medical marijuana delivery-man in California. The ninjas remain at large, and since the sale of medical marijuana is legal (at the state level) in California, the driver probably won’t be hit with the felony he would otherwise receive under federal law. While humorous, and perhaps deserving of leniency considering the sheer comedic value of the crime, the ninjas (for the lack of a better identifier) are indisputably criminals. Less apparent is the fact that, by virtue of the labyrinthine mess that passes for drug policy here in the United States, millions of citizens are also criminals operating at large and participants in perhaps the largest black market in human history – the trade in marijuana.
Marijuana is classified in the United States as a Schedule 1 controlled substance – and along with cocaine and heroin is purported to be amongst the most dangerous drugs subject to abuse. This would be funny except for the fact that it condemns thousands of nonviolent offenders to mandatory prison time every year. Bearing in mind that there are virtually no reputable reports of fatalities (or even serious injuries) connected with cannabis (remarkable considering Aspirin kills a few hundred people a year), this classification is extremely questionable at best. In short, the policy is stupid, and for that reason is highly suggestive. When intelligent people, the kind who become top bureaucrats in the Drug Enforcement Agency, maintain ignorant policies that contradict both the findings of the scientific community and the shared experience of popular culture, invariably something is afoot.

The early history of the criminalization of marijuana was a confused mixture of racism and the noble but unsophisticated attempt by state government to reign in the sale of toxic, impure substances. No body of research existed to differentiate the effects of marijuana from the more odious controlled substances, or even from the snake-oil sold in contemporary pharmacies. Further, in the Southwest, marijuana use was associated with Mexican-American immigrants, beginning to be exploited and despised in much the same way as today. As such, marijuana use, even before it became associated with the counter-culture of the 60’s, became a political act.

In this way, study of the social and political aspects of marijuana use sheds light on the aforementioned question – why do the presumably intelligent people in national government uphold, despite potentially enormous increases in state revenue from taxation, a policy soaked with anachronistic fears and the insidious racism of decades long past? The answer is as boring as it is simple. Marijuana laws in the United States, after producing decades of crime statistics inflated with legions of non-violent offenders, have justified a similar inflation of law enforcement and the drug enforcement bureaucracy. The law enforcement community, on some level, understands the threat of legalization – not a threat to society as they claim but a threat to their jobs as drug related convictions plummet to a sane level.

Predictably, police unions, the DEA, and breweries are the most consistent opponents of legalization – in short, everyone who stands to lose by ending a practice that accounts for a huge percentage of non-violent convictions every year. In defense of law enforcement, some have come forward in favor of reforming drug laws, forming the group Law Enforcement Against Prohibition. These officers recognize the obvious fact that the illegality of marijuana does nothing except to provide criminal organizations with a steady and lucrative source of income, accomplishing the opposite of the law’s stated intent. Sadly, the larger share of the police unions here in the United States display their utter intransigence by advocating the vision of a never-ending, ever-escalating war on drugs that will keep them all employed.

The economic projections for the upcoming year, insofar as I understand them, are up. We may soon see a return to the relative prosperity we enjoyed before the housing crisis. The time to end the foolish prohibition on marijuana is now, both to lock in an economic recovery and to end the selfish policies of the federal drug bureaucracy before complacency buries the issue until the next recession – an intervening period in which thousands more would have to be sacrificed on the altar of prohibition. This would amount to the continuation of injustice, and deepen the moral weight that, when marijuana is eventually legalized, will bear down on its perpetrators with the weight of history.