Chris Tucker said in the film Friday, “Weed is from the earth. God put this here for me and you”. That viewpoint seems to be shared with the fifty-two percent of Americans who have tried marijuana at least once. Forty four percent of the those (who have tried it) reported as consistent users (Yahoo News/Marist Poll 2016). For many Americans, recreational use of Cannabis is a way to relax, medicate, and socialize. However, the classification of marijuana as a schedule one drug and the United States unpredictable enforcement methods – see: “War on Drugs” – have resulted (along with many other factors) in a substantial number of American citizens entering the criminal justice system. Almost 600,000 American citizens were arrested in 2016 solely for marijuana related crimes. An HHS report in the same year found that whites and blacks engage in drug use at equal rates. However – according to a 2013 ACLU report – blacks are 3.73 times more likely to be arrested for marijuana possession. Decriminalization and/or legalization itself will not eliminate racial marginalization in the justice system. It will, however, reduce the influence of the illegal black market industry, free up resources the government should use elsewhere, and most meaningfully, aid the effort to reduce racial inequalities pervasive in our culture.
Using cannabis for recreational or medicinal purposes is not a new phenomenon. The first documented usage was around 2700BC in China and was subsequently brought to Western Europe by soldiers in Napoleon’s army; in the United States, marijuana was initially used to make rope, cloth and paper and wasn’t fully realized as an intoxicant until the early 1900s (Caulkins 2016). Cannabis’s association with the (primarily black) jazz culture in the 1920s hurt its image with the majority white community and “…by 1931, twenty nine states had criminalized marijuana” (Caulkins 2016). Rising cannabis use during the 60s, 70s and 80s spurred a cultural backlash. Politicians such as Richard Nixon realized the political gains from looking “tough on crime” and in 1970 – as part of a larger legislation package – signed the Controlled Substances Act (CSA). The CSA created the scheduling system which placed Marijuana as a Schedule 1 drug which (along with heroin and LSD) defined weed as having a high likelihood of abuse and zero medical value.
In 2012, the United States had spent over 1 trillion dollars fighting the War on Drugs, with some experts argued resulted in worse outcomes. “”In the grand scheme, it has not been successful,”” Gil Kerlikowske, Obama’s drug czar, said in an interview with The Associated Press. “Forty years later, the concern about drugs and drug problems is, if anything, magnified, intensified”” (AP 2014). The U.S. prohibition on drugs has also created a vibrant black market. A 2010 RAND report found that “…demand for illicit drugs in the United States creates lucrative markets for the Mexican drug-trafficking organizations (DTOs)” and attributed an estimated 1.5 billion in gross revenue for DTOs to the marijuana trade (Kilmer 2010). Powerful and influential cartels arose from the highly profitable drug market. The Zetas cartel in Mexico is “…made up of former special forces troops…highly organized, well-armed and known for their brutal tactics, which include beheadings, torture and indiscriminate slaughter” (Davison 2014). Undoubtably, decriminalization of marijuana won’t automatically remove the cartels from power, nor fully stop drug violence. But it will help remove one aspect of the perverse incentive from the market.
In 2008, the US spent 15.6 billion on drug enforcement alone. A 2010 Cato report estimated simply decriminalizing marijuana would save taxpayers $8.4 billion. On top of that, legalizing weed would put $8.7 billion more into government coffers. These economic savings would be put to good use reducing the adverse effects of drug use; or fund fixes for other issues that drive drug use, such as lost jobs due to automation or income inequality. A report by McKinsey Consulting remarked that “Overall, we find that, for instance, in 60 percent of jobs, 30 percent of the activities that people do in that job could be automated [by 2030]” (“Jobs…” 2017). Democratic presidential hopeful Andrew Yang points to correlations of drug overdoses (primarily opioids) and manufacturing jobs lost due to automation as an example of the negative effects of automation. From a purely economic standpoint, decriminalizing weed is less about the positive effects of marijuana as a removal of the negative consequences of the drug war.
Of course, we judge policy not exclusively on the economic effect. Societal and cultural norms have just as, if not larger influence on public policy. According to the ACLU, the U.S. has 25% of the world’s prison population, yet only 5% of the world’s total population. The makes the U.S. the leader in absolute numbers and per capita incarcerations (“Mass…” 2018). One in five prisoners are imprisoned for a drug offense (Wagner 2016) and Hispanics and blacks comprise 28% of the US population yet make up 56% of the prison population (“Blacks…” 2018).
Scholars have looked for the factors driving the racial discrepancy in arrests. One possible factor is that in minority neighborhoods, marijuana transactions is more likely to be done outdoors, increasing the chance of arrest. (Caulkins 2016).
Identify and Take on Major Critiques/Counterarguments (~ 1-1.5 pages)
While most scholars are in favor of some version of decriminalization, there are several critiques of outright legalization. First, there is concern that the weed industry will mirror the tobacco and alcohol industries (“Big Marijuana”) by marketing to addicted consumers for maximum profit potential. Second, many opponents of legalization point to some studies showing links to violence and opportunity for abuse, especially among teenagers. Other potential problems with marijuana use include respiratory problems if smoked, schizophrenia and psychosis, and car crashes (Lopez 2018).
Other scholars argue that decriminalizing cannabis alone won’t have a large impact on mass incarceration. Researchers at Carnegie Mellon have found that less than 1% of state and federal prisoners are there due to simple marijuana possession – and that those possession charges were overwhelmingly pled down from more serious charges (Caulkins 2016).
Present Solutions (~1-1.5 pages
Scholars seem to agree that the potency of marijuana has risen – primarily by increasing the ratio of THC to CBD – which results in a faster high.
According the Center for Disease Control, “Opioids were involved in 47,600 overdose deaths in 2017 (67.8% of all drug overdose deaths)” (“Opioid Overdose.” 2018). Marijuana, on the other hand, has had no recorded deaths due to overdose.