Legalize Marijuana?



There’s growing sentiment that legalizing drugs (specifically marijuana) will solve some of our nation’s problems.  The consensus among people who feel this way is that the “war on drugs”, which costs about $30 billion a year between federal and state-level expenditures, is unwinnable.  And there’s some merit to the argument since it’s very difficult to prevent people from using and abusing chemicals for their own pleasure, particularly in the privacy of their own homes.  This was proven during Prohibition in our own country and there have been similar experiences in other countries.  However, I am not convinced that complete legalization is the right choice. 


Let me start by stating the most obvious fact: marijuana is completely legal in exactly zero countries on Earth.  Jamaica?  No, it’s still illegal there.  The laws are poorly enforced but you can still be sent to jail for possession.  The Netherlands, Amsterdam?  Nope.  You can only buy it in specific government-sanctioned shops and consume it either there or in your home.  You can not, for example, buy it in a grocery store and consume it on the street as you would milk or a cookie or a cigarette.  There are fines for doing so if you tried.  Even Portugal, a country with some of the most liberal drug laws on the planet, has not completely legalized it.  They have mostly de-criminalized it, making it a finable offense rather than a felony if the amount found is determined to be less than 10 days supply.  Criminal penalties apply if more than that is found. 


Portugal is an interesting case because their goal from implementing a liberal drug policy was to reduce HIV infection from IV drug use and to reduce drug-related crime.  They have achieved both goals, and consequently there’s also been a reduction in the number of drug-related deaths in the country.  Yet the results aren’t completely positive as the national rate of HIV infection is still five times higher than that of other European Union countries.  In addition, since the policy was implemented in 2001, lifetime drug use of marijuana, cocaine, heroin and ecstasy has nearly doubled.  A similar increase has been seen in countries like Spain and Italy that also have liberal decriminalization policies.  In EU countries where laws are more restrictive, marijuana and heroin use has actually seen a decrease in their use.


Completely legalizing a drug has significant drawbacks.  For example, opium was completely legal in China a century ago, and at its peak usage was estimated to be roughly a third of its population.  Not only did it become a serious health issue but a substantial economic one as well.  China and Great Britain fought two wars over it (which resulted in the UK getting Hong Kong), and in order to conquer the problem the Chinese government eventually had to resort to implementing the death penalty for possession and/or use. 


And for all the crowing about what a failure Prohibition was in America, it did have some benefits which disappeared after its repeal.  Alcohol-related deaths per capita dropped during Prohibition, then more than doubled within 5 years after it was repealed.  According to JAMA, today more than 100,000 people a year die from alcohol-related incidents, either from auto-accidents, physical maladies brought on by over-consumption or from doing stupid stuff while drunk.  The peak death toll during Prohibition was less than 5,000 per year.


Legalization might have substantial financial benefits – eliminating the expense of waging an official drug war using federal agencies, eliminating cartel-related crimes, etc - but it would also open a market to the entire population that heretofore had been confined by laws and stigma to a very small percentage.  Once the stigma abates, usage will increase and dramatically so, just as it did with alcohol here, just as it did with opium in China and with drugs in general in Portugal.  Costs are not always financial but there are always costs.  Marijuana's human cost probably won't be as high as that of alcohol due to the nature of the drug but it still will have a wider impact than it currently does.  Part of the problem is that because the drug is still illegal to possess, studying its effects and long-term health impact can be problematic, even with the occasional medical exemption. 


When all is said and done, the real cost of prohibition is in the number of people in jail it produces.  The expense of arresting, trying, and incarcerating drug users and distributors is by far the largest cost of the current policy, but one that can be solved with other means than complete legalization.


The biggest problem with the current marijuana law is how the drug is classified.  It’s been placed on Schedule 1 of the Controlled Substances Act, which means that a) it has a high potential for abuse, b) it has no accepted medicinal purpose and c) there is no accepted safe way to use it even under medical supervision.  Marijuana clearly has some medical uses so for that reason it should be removed from the same classification as heroin, PCP, LSD, psilocybin and crystal meth.  Possession of Schedule 1 drugs carries mandatory jail time, as does distribution.  Take marijuana off that list so that possession carries only a small fine, with distribution garnering a larger one.  The reason marijuana generates so much black market money is compensation for the cost of being caught.  But if the cost becomes nominal, who is going to kill someone over that?  This removes all financial incentive for increased criminality.  Selling marijuana would no longer be lucrative and the violence that is occurring in Mexico and across our southern border would abate. 


Although it doesn’t go as far as the legalization advocates would like, it does address many of their concerns and removes a significant burden on our government, specifically law-enforcement, and our economy. 




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