The Clear Benefits of Decriminalizing Marijuana
The history of the Drug War is a long, complex, and fascinating piece of U.S. policy that combines controversial ethical and legal arguments in its defense. Beginning with an anti-marijuana campaign in the 1930s, cumulating in the creation of the Drug Enforcement Administration in 1973, and spreading its reach to more than 50 countries around the world today, the U.S. Drug War raises serious implications about criminalizing the peaceful use of substances such as marijuana. Scientific evidence, historical comparisons with alcohol Prohibition, and basic economic arguments clearly demonstrate the Drug War is doing more harm than good in society. This article will explore these points in depth.
The Marihuana Tax Act of 1937 was the beginning of marijuana criminalization. Harry Anslinger, the first appointed Commissioner of the Federal Bureau of Narcotics starting in 1931, led an ardent anti-marijuana campaign in the U.S. during the 1930s. In his July 1937 article, “Marijuana, Assassin of Youth,” Anslinger laid out numerous case claims of people who had smoked “the weed” and simultaneously lost control of their actions and killed innocent people. Because marijuana (scientifically known as Cannabis sativa) grew in essentially every state in the U.S., Anslinger reasoned that its common growth in nature explained why “gangsters perhaps have found it difficult to dominate the source” (Anslinger). The Bureau of Narcotics, formulated under the U.S. Treasury Department, was the vehicle through which marijuana was characterized as a drug that turned people into violent beings with little or no control over their actions.
No one knows, when he places a marijuana cigarette to his lips, whether he will become a philosopher, a joyous reveler in a musical heaven, a mad insensate, a calm philosopher, or a murderer. (Anslinger)
Anslinger’s concerns and anti-marijuana efforts were indeed passionate, but his claims lacked scientific backing from the medical community. Some in the medical field at the time actually believed marijuana might have beneficial health uses. Melvin Urofsky, a current Professor of History at the Virginia Commonwealth University, explains that the American Medical Association did not show up to one of Anslinger’s key congressional hearings on marijuana to support his claims. In fact, Aslinger purposefully misled medical organizations as to when to show up to congressional hearings, thus preventing their testimony on marijuana. The AMA’s lack of appearance didn’t faze Anslinger, as he “lied to the committee and told them that the AMA favored strict regulation of marijuana” (Finkleman 64).
Racism was also a common factor in Anslinger’s attack on marijuana. Marijuana was typically associated with Mexicans and blacks; groups who were generally lower class and looked upon in a negative light. Among several known racist remarks, he said, “Colored students at the University of Minnesota partying with female students (white) smoking [marijuana] and getting their sympathy with stories of racial persecution. Result pregnancy” (Finkleman 64). The 1937 Act passed by Congress and signed into law by President Roosevelt listed marijuana as a narcotic, conveniently adding to Anslinger’s Bureau of Narcotic’s jurisdiction of illegal drugs to regulate and enforce. This possible play for power, racist concern of marijuana’s effects, and the neglect to consult legitimate medical organizations during congressional hearings puts a serious dent in the work and intention of Harry Anslinger in his campaign against marijuana. Despite this, it is largely because of his efforts that marijuana was criminalized and cast into such a negative light in the U.S.
Through an executive order, President Richard Nixon ushered in a new era of drug enforcement by creating the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) in 1973. The DEA’s official stated mission is to “enforce the controlled substances laws and regulations of the United States,” which involves working with local and global government organizations such as the United Nations, Interpol, and regional governments in the U.S. and around the world (U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration). As of 2009, the DEA hired 5,223 Special Agents and 10,784 total employees, with an overall budget of $2.602 billion. The DEA maintains 226 Domestic Offices in the U.S. and 83 Foreign Offices in 63 different countries (U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration).
The DEA is expectedly not especially responsive toward those who argue that drug policies are overly harsh or ignore possible health benefits of drugs such as marijuana. In its mini-book celebrating the thirty-year anniversary of the organization, it states:
On May 4, 2001, the Supreme Court rejected the medical necessity defense and held that marijuana has no accepted medical use under Federal law and stated the Controlled Substances Act reflects a determination that marijuana has no medical benefits worthy of an exception outside the confines of a Government-approved research project (“Drug Enforcement Administration…”).
The DEA’s role is simply to enforce the laws created by the federal government relating to drugs and other illegal substances. This, of course, does not free them of any potential criticism in their enforcement techniques, but most of the blame (if any) should be placed on the legislative and executive branches of the federal government who create the policies and organizations in the first place.
The Justice Policy Institute argues that locking up drug offenders is an ineffective and inefficient way to address drug abuse, instead preferring alternatives such as community-based solutions to treat drug abuse. With 2,310,984 people being held in local, state, and federal prisons in 2008, the “number of people in prison is nearly 5 times what it was 30 years ago, despite crime rates being at historic lows” (“Pruning Prisons…” 6). In the last 20 years, individuals arrested on drug charges and put into state prisons increased 550%. According to FBI reports, drug possession is the sole reason 83% of those arrested for drug offenses are charged with a crime and thrown into prison. The May 2009 Justice Policy Institute report found that there was no clear positive correlation between increased enforcement funds and less crime; “States that increased rates between 1998 and 2007 did not necessarily experience a decline in crime rates during the same period” (5).
There is a wide disproportion between incarcerated whites and blacks, largely related to Drug War arrests. John McWhorter, an associate professor of linguistics at University California, Berkley, makes this claim:
The massive number of black men in prison stands as an ongoing and graphically resonant rebuke to all calls to “get past racism,” exhibit initiative, or stress optimism. And the primary reason for this massive number of black men in jail is the War on Drugs (McWhorter 1).
In 2008, 487 out of 100,000 white males were sentenced prisoners under state or federal jurisdiction, compared to 3,161 out of 100,000 black males (Sabol 5). Similarly, 50 out of 100,000 white women were sentenced prisoners, with 149 out of 100,000 black women in the same category (5). A “sentenced prisoner” is a prisoner serving a prison sentence of at least one year (13). McWhorter explains that these warped incarceration rates make a tremendous negative impact on black communities, often resulting in a cycle of legal troubles and limited economic opportunities for blacks outside the world of illicit drugs. “If we truly want to get past race in this country,” McWhorter concludes, “we must be aware that it will never happen until the futile War on Drugs so familiar to us now is a memory” (McWhorter 5).
In a September 2008 report, the Marijuana Policy Project found that between 1995 and 2008 nearly 9.5 million individuals had been arrested due to connections with marijuana (whether it is cultivation, possession, or distribution). 872,720 marijuana-related arrests occurred in 2007, an all-time record totaling more arrests than those for all violent crimes combined. This means, on average, that one person is arrested on marijuana charges every 36 seconds. Approximately 89% of all marijuana arrests are for possession of marijuana, suggesting that the majority of marijuana “crimes” are nonviolent. Cultivating as little as one marijuana plant is a federal felony (“Marijuana Prohibition Facts”). Several states have interjected and slightly decriminalized certain aspects of marijuana policy, but the majority of U.S. states continue to enforce federal marijuana laws.
Ongoing scientific research has shown tobacco and alcohol to be more addictive, harmful, and socially costly than marijuana. It is estimated that tobacco causes “40% of all hospital illness and 60% of drug-related fatalities,” while alcohol “is involved in over half of all visits to accident and emergency departments and orthopedic admissions” (Nutt 1049). In his comprehensive study, David Nutt and other researchers studied and compared the effects of various drugs including cannabis, alcohol, and tobacco, in three different categories: Physical harm, Dependence, and Social harm. The study indicates that alcohol is a stronger intoxicant than cannabis, while both alcohol and tobacco cause more physical harm to the human body than cannabis. Judging from this scientific evidence, it is questionable why marijuana is stringently controlled with little leeway, while tobacco and alcohol (which are scientifically proven to be more dangerous to human and societal health when compared to marijuana) are freely and peacefully traded across state and country borders.
A 2006 study from Mohamed Ben Amar in the Journal of Ethnopharmacology researched the therapeutic effects of cannabinoids, a common chemical in marijuana. The study closely monitored the impact of cannabinoids on the condition of patients in several countries with diseases and health problems such as spinal cord injuries, Parkinson’s disease, Multiple sclerosis, and epilepsy (among a number of others). In this study, Amar concluded:
[I]t [is] possible to affirm that cannabinoids exhibit an interesting therapeutic potential as antiemetics, appetite stimulants in debilitating diseases (cancer and AIDS), analgesics, as well as in the treatment of multiple sclerosis, spinal cord injuries, Tourette’s syndrome, epilepsy and glaucoma (Amar 21).
As we have explored, marijuana is proven to be a less dangerous substance than tobacco and alcohol. Not only is it less dangerous in terms of its addictive properties and physical harm to people, it has critical cannabinoid chemicals that may relieve pain and aid the recovery of certain illnesses. Given these scientific findings, it is clear that public policy is not weighing the individual and societal costs and benefits of marijuana, alcohol, and tobacco. Alcohol and tobacco have a host of health dangers that are generally well accounted for in today’s society, but marijuana is stilled shunned by the government and many in society despite scientific evidence proving contrary to the conventional opinions held of marijuana.
Of course, prohibition of alcohol was official constitutional policy, as demanded by the Eighteenth Amendment, in the United States between 1919 and 1933. The Eighteenth Amendment to the Constitution declared it illegal to produce, transport, or distribute any intoxicating liquors in the United States. The Amendment was the result of many years of pushing from the nation-wide temperance movement for alcohol prohibition, not entirely unlike the anti-marijuana campaign that would seriously gain traction with Anslinger’s work in the early 1930s. However, the passage of national prohibition did not necessarily go as planned or hoped by those in the temperance movement. Yes, liquor prices shot up (the price of beer increased approximately 700% during the Prohibition era), but high prices due to Prohibition gave rise to stronger alcohol products offered to the public through the unregulated black market. The black market cartels (which came about exclusively because of the criminalization of alcohol) produced less diluted and more intoxicating liquor products, simply because it was more efficient for them to concentrate alcohol into stronger products (Thorton).
Per-capita consumption of alcohol had already been declining in the U.S. since 1910. After alcohol consumption in the U.S. hit an all-time low during the depression of 1921, it actually began to increase starting in 1922. This is curious, considering that after the Prohibition policy was enacted alcohol consumption reversed its downward slope and began to increase. Especially alarming is economist Mark Thorton’s research finding that the “homicide rate increased from 6 per 100,000 population in the pre-Prohibition period to nearly 10 per 100,000 in 1933” (Thorton). Once Prohibition was repealed in 1933 with the Twenty-first Amendment, “the rate continued to decline throughout the 1930s and early 1940s” (Thorton). Homicides spiked in 1920 after Prohibition became official national policy, and homicide rates continued to increase until Prohibition was repealed in 1933.
In a report detailing the effects of a police crackdown on an illicit drug market in Vancouver, the Canadian Medical Association Journal reaches some interesting conclusions. The report states “concentrated police presence tends to displace drug-use activities and associated crime to neighbouring areas” (Wood 1554). Police presence does not simply eliminate activities involving illicit drugs; it displaces those activities to surrounding areas and neighborhoods, introducing illicit drugs to new markets that previously had little to no exposure to illicit drugs. The report continues:
Our results probably explain reports of increased injection drug use, drug-related crime and other public-order concerns in neighbourhoods where activities related to illicit drug use and the sex trade merged or intensified in the wake of the crackdown (1554).
Some will no doubt argue that the failure of police crackdowns on illicit drugs such as marijuana is due to a lack of police forces. The Canadian report, however, does not see this as an adequate explanation for the failure of squelching the illicit drug market.
It is unlikely that the lack of benefit of the crackdown was due to insufficient police resources. Larger crackdowns in the United States, which often involved helicopters to supplement foot and car patrols, have not had measurable benefits and have instead been associated with substantial health and social harms (1555).
There are many parallels between the prohibition of alcohol and the prohibition of drugs such as marijuana. Supporting the free and unrestricted trade of drugs does not equate to an endorsement of those drugs. The U.S. attempted to legislate alcohol out of the country using the tools of Prohibition and criminalization, but it did little to reduce drinking rates and went on to drastically increase homicide rates more than 50% in a thirteen year period. Even though there was a strong base of support for Prohibition, the policy failed and gave rise to drinking, homicides, and provided incentives for stronger and more dangerous alcoholic beverages to flood the black market. Repealing the Eighteenth Amendment didn’t result in a country full of drunkards, either; the repeal allowed individuals and businesses to peacefully produce, transport, distribute, and consume alcoholic beverages. There certainly are still issues with alcohol related to individual and societal well being, but you would be hard-pressed to find someone who believes alcohol prohibition in the 1920s was a successful policy worth applying in the 21st century.
Marijuana is essentially in the same situation today that alcohol was in during Prohibition. Government law prevents marijuana from being sold in a legal manner, but it by no means eliminates the supply. Rather than being produced and distributed peacefully through free trade, the marijuana market is limited only to the black market. This artificial legal limitation of the supply raises the price of marijuana to extraordinary heights, thus attracting suppliers to enter the black market. Government’s attempt to limit the supply is not making much of an impact on the demand or use of drugs. In 2001, it was estimated that 22.4% of 12th graders in the U.S. had smoked marijuana in the past month, with 41.7% of everyone over 12 years old reporting they had used “illicit drugs” at some point in their life, compared to 31.3% in 1979 (Walters). Considering that the use of illicit drugs has increased during the prime years of the DEA’s operation, it should raise the question of how successful drug prohibition has actually fared in the U.S. Clearly it has not been especially effective in preventing access to illicit drugs.
Some argue that criminalizing marijuana is a more harmful endeavor than the impact of the plant itself on society. The Marijuana Policy Project describes the situation:
Because of marijuana prohibition, America’s largest cash crop is grown exclusively by unregulated criminals, often in environmentally damaging locations such as national parks and wilderness areas. Such problems are virtually unknown with legal, regulated crops such as tobacco or wine grapes (“Marijuana Prohibition Facts”).
Given that marijuana is less harmful to the human body than alcohol and tobacco, it makes little sense to continue the current policy of cannabis prohibition (particularly when you consider the detrimental results of alcohol prohibition). The fact that current prohibition policies are not lowering drug use in a very timely or costly fashion, there are other options (such as community-based treatment of drug abusers) that could be more viable and much less expensive. The cost of enforcement, maintaining an increasing prison population, and preventing people from voluntarily using a substance less harmful than alcohol and tobacco is simply not worth the trouble.
Perhaps one of the greatest economic and societal damages to come about through cannabis prohibition is the inability for American entrepreneurs to utilize a highly efficient cultivar of Cannabis sativa, commonly known as “industrial hemp.” During Anslinger’s anti-cannabis campaign in the 1930s, hemp was lumped in and defined under the general cannabis species in federal law. Therefore, the production, transportation, and distribution of industrial hemp are federal felonies. The main ingredient in marijuana that provides the “high” psychoactive phenomena is delta-9-tetrahydrocannabinol (THC). The marijuana strain of Cannabis has a THC level between 3% and 15%, while industrial hemp holds a THC of less than 1%; since 1990 industrial hemp carries THC at levels lower than 0.3% (“Industrial Hemp…”). Some countries such as Canada have lightly decriminalized hemp, but the countries still maintain very tight control over the production and distribution of hemp through vigorous and expensive license procedures, limitations on total hemp production, and other governmental inspection procedures. The USDA was not off-base when it stated “hemp production was profitable only at the higher end of estimated yields and prices” (“Industrial Hemp…”). With hemp tightly regulated and controlled by government agencies, entrepreneurs are limited in how much money they can safely invest into a hemp venture over a long-term period. Thus, consumers today are limited to choose from relatively low-capital hemp products such as hempseed energy bars, hemp milk, and hemp shirts.
A fascinating exploration into the possibilities of hemp can be seen in two issues of Popular Mechanics in 1938 and 1941. An interesting side note is that these issues, which contain extensive praise for the possibilities of hemp production, were written after cannabis was already criminalized in 1937 with The Marihuana Tax Act. It says a lot about the secrecy and underhanded manner in which cannabis was criminalized in the U.S., given the fact that Popular Mechanics was still singing the praises of hemp a year after the plant had already been criminalized under federal law. The articles speak as if the connection between hemp and marijuana was still being debated, when it had in fact been codified in federal law in 1937. Popular Mechanics confidently proclaims “hemp will produce every grade of paper and government figures estimate that 10,000 acres devoted to hemp will produce as much paper as 40,000 acres of average pulp land” (“Billion-Dollar Crop”).
Hemp is the standard fiber of the world. It has great tensile strength and durability. It is used to produce more than 5,000 textile products, ranging from rope to fine laces, and the woody “hurds” remaining after the fiber has been removed contain more than 77 percent cellulose, which can be used to produce more than 25,000 products, ranging from dynamite to Cellophane (“Billion-Dollar Crop”).
The article concludes, “If federal regulations can be drawn to protect the public without preventing the legitimate culture of hemp, this vast new crop can add immeasurably to American agriculture and industry” (“Billion-Dollar Crop”). Little did they know it was already too late; all cannabis forms were illegal, even those (such as hemp) without any psychoactive qualities.
In 1941, Popular Mechanics featured another article on the benefits of hemp, this time focusing on the research of Henry Ford and the Ford Motor Company. Today, it is little-known history that the Ford Motor Company developed a plastic car with a frame produced from “a mixture of farm crops and synthetic chemicals,” with the windshield and windows also made from plastic; the car’s weight totaled 2,000 pounds (compared to 3,000 pounds for a steel car of the same size) (“Pinch Hitters for Defense”). Henry Ford spent 12 years researching this plastic car, and in 1941 finally unveiled the plastic car with its outer panels coming from a “recipe that calls for 70 percent of cellulose fibers from wheat straw, hemp and sisal plus 30 percent resin binder” (“Pinch Hitters for Defense”). “Manufactures are already talking of a low-priced plastic car to test the public’s taste by 1943,” the article states (“Pinch Hitters for Defense”). Henry Ford is quoted saying that he one day hopes to “grow automobiles from the soil” (“Pinch Hitters for Defense”).
Hemp, in addition to containing very low amounts of THC, contains the chemical cannabidol (CBD) which blocks the high from marijuana. Dr. David West says hemp could be called the “anti-marijuana” (West). Moreover, the THC level in marijuana is lowered when hemp and marijuana plants naturally cross-pollinate. However, in 2001, the DEA issued a report stating that “existence of THC in hemp is significant because THC, like marijuana, is a schedule I controlled substance” (“DEA Clarifies Status of Hemp…”). Under federal law, possession and consumption of any schedule I substance is strictly prohibited, limiting hemp products that can be legally sold in the U.S. to those that present no possibility of someone ingesting THC. Of course, if you are unsure whether a hemp product you just bought has THC, the DEA says “if you wish to err on the side of caution, you may freely dispose of the product” (“DEA Clarifies Status of Hemp…”).
The potency of marijuana THC more than doubled to 9.6% between 1983 and 2007 (Simpson). In the cited Telegraph article, no one mentioned that this might be due to the fact that hemp and marijuana are restricted from cross-pollinating with one another, which would effectively contain the THC potency in marijuana. Hemp acts as a natural buffer to marijuana’s THC potency, and government laws preventing the production of hemp may very well be one of the reasons why marijuana gives a much stronger psychoactive effect today than it did thirty years ago. Certainly one of the primary factors for the increase in THC potency is because, over time, growers will select and breed marijuana plants that yield higher THC levels (just as farmers will breed tomato plants that yield the juiciest tomatoes or favor chickens that lay the biggest eggs). However, this does not change the fact that the cross-pollination of hemp and marijuana would naturally limit the ability of marijuana growers to increase the THC levels in their plants. This cross-pollination process, as well as the many other benefits of hemp, is good cause to support the legalization of cannabis. The economic possibilities of hemp production alone provide solid ground for adjusting federal policy to remove all restrictions on the production of industrial hemp, as Congressmen Ron Paul (R-Texas) and Barney Frank (D-Massachusetts) proposed in 2009 with H.R. 1866, “The Industrial Hemp Farming Act of 2009” (Kennelly).
The history of cannabis and its criminalization is not a story often heard in media and government today, but this very history provides key pieces of information that will cause many to question current drug policies and enforcement techniques. By no means is an endorsement of using marijuana as a psychoactive drug, but rather a reevaluation of current policy and understanding why it hasn’t been particularly successful in reducing drug use, decreasing THC potency in marijuana, and why prohibition may indeed be placing society in greater danger by arresting peaceful individuals and giving cartels power in the black market. Just as alcohol prohibition had many detrimental effects in the U.S. during the 1920s, cannabis prohibition has been equally negative with its unintended consequences.
Many Americans still have access to cannabis, the THC potency of marijuana has greatly increased in the past thirty years, and more people are arrested on nonviolent marijuana charges than those arrested for violent crimes. Americans are legally prohibited from growing hemp, a member of the cannabis family and a relative to marijuana, despite its tremendous economic value and ability to produce plastics, paper, and other valuable products in an efficient manner. By simultaneously preventing the cross-pollination of hemp and marijuana, marijuana now lacks the natural THC control that comes with hemp and is becoming increasingly potent. All of these concerns and negative effects stem from one single cause: cannabis prohibition. Legalizing cannabis will provide an opportunity for community-based groups to treat cannabis users as health patients, not criminals. Local and federal departments (such as the DEA) will save billions of dollars with reduced enforcement costs, freeing prisoners who did not commit any violent crimes, and use resources to address violent crimes.
Society as a whole will benefit tremendously from the reintroduction of hemp. During the 1800s, the Commonwealth of Kentucky grew more than one-half of all the commercial hemp produced in the U.S. (Thompson). Hemp was a key crop in Kentucky and the Appalachian region up until the time the crop was outlawed by the federal government in 1937. Legalizing cannabis would provide thousands of new jobs in hemp cultivation overnight, giving farmers and agricultural entrepreneurs the opportunity to utilize the known (and yet undiscovered) benefits of hemp. One can only estimate the future economic impact of hemp that would come with legalization, but it is not a decision that requires extensive pondering. There is no possibility of getting high from hemp, hemp lowers the THC levels in marijuana, and the plant has thousands of uses that would benefit society in numerous ways. The criminalization of cannabis has brought society many negative unintended consequences, but those consequences could easily be reversed with the timely and swift repeal of all governmental laws restricting cannabis production, transportation, and distribution.
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