End marijuana prohibition? Hell, no!
On Election Day, stoners and potheads rejoiced as Colorado and Washington legalized marijuana. (Ballot initiatives in Oregon and a medical initiative in Arkansas were defeated by majorities still in their right minds.) From the federal government’s perspective, however, marijuana users must be punished. It is anyone’s guess what President Barack Hussein “Choom Gang” Obama will do about it, but it is important to understand that this president said he’d leave law-abiding medical marijuana providers alone, yet imprisons cancer survivors who grow legal medical marijuana for other cancer patients. He has also steadfastly reiterated numerous times his opposition to the end of prohibition.
When it came to medical marijuana expansion in several states, Obama the candidate said, “What I’m not going to be doing is using Justice Department resources to try to circumvent state laws on this issue.” As president, his Justice Department issued a memo explaining, “As a general matter [US Attorneys] should not focus federal resources [on] individuals whose actions are in clear and unambiguous compliance with existing state laws providing for the medical use of marijuana.” Later, when Americans took the president’s officials at their words, the Justice Department clarified that “Persons who are in the business of cultivating, selling or distributing marijuana, and those who knowingly facilitate such activities, are in violation of the Controlled Substances Act, regardless of state law.” The Obama Administration has since raided more medical marijuana providers in four years than George W. Bush did in eight. Rest assured, President Obama will continue to allow the imprisonment of and discrimination against marijuana users.
Why the support of marijuana prohibition in the first place? First, we know that prohibition dramatically increases the price of marijuana and does nothing to reduce demand, according to the book The Economics of Prohibition (pg 74). And today’s marijuana is not the marijuana of the 1960s; you can tell because the fashions aren’t nearly as garish. Marijuana potency has tripled in the past 15 years, so stoners are now smoking less of it to get high.
This is not reefer madness thinking. High-potency marijuana has contributed to more addiction among kids (just like high-proof whiskey creates more teen alcoholics than beer), direct IQ loss (an 8-point loss among kids using regularly, according to this recently-discredited study), car crashes when they are driving slower than sober drivers, and mental illnesses they were genetically pre-disposed to.
Many who support ending prohibition have claimed that we could control marijuana use, especially among teens, if only we put it in adults-only stores behind lock-and-key and required clerks to check ID’s for proof of age. The provisions on the ballot in Colorado and Washington did just that. Now that these state laws have passed, in fact, we could face a major industry creating jobs and funneling marijuana tax revenues towards programs for kids. As we know from alcohol and tobacco, when age limits are in place, it is harder for teens to purchase them than marijuana. Still, there would be businesses established to sell marijuana to adults 21 and older, so it is inevitable that they will market their products to children who cannot enter their stores and purchase them.
Indeed Big Tobacco, for one, has long been perched and ready to make some serious cash from marijuana they couldn’t possibly sell without ending federal prohibition: According to internal documents released when we sued the shit out of Big Tobacco in the 1990s, back in smoking’s 1970s heyday, Big Tobacco considered marijuana legalization a golden opportunity.
“The use of marijuana … has important implications for the tobacco industry in terms of an alternative product line. (We) have the land to grow it, the machines to roll it and package it, the distribution to market it. In fact, some firms have registered trademarks, which are taken directly from marijuana street jargon. These trade names are used currently on little-known legal products, but could be switched if and when marijuana is legalized. Estimates indicate that the market in legalized marijuana might be as high as $10 billion annually,” said a report commissioned by cigarette manufacturer Brown and Williamson (now merged with R.J. Reynolds) in the 1970s, back when cigarette companies sponsored NASCAR’s Winston Cup because we’d banned by law the advertisement of cigarettes on television.
If ending prohibition leads to the harms of more people using a substance safer than alcohol, what hoped-for results might not materialize? Many stoners have already begun touting tax revenues from legal marijuana as a major plus of the recently passed state laws. Sadly, however, we know that taxes on toxic, addictive substances rarely pay for themselves. The $40 billion we collect annually from high levels of tobacco and alcohol use in the U.S. are about a tenth of what those use levels cost us in terms of lost productivity, premature illness, accidents and death. Why would we ever consider replacing our current $0 in marijuana tax revenues and $7 billion in marijuana prohibition expenditures with a legalization that brings in just $6 billion in tax revenues, especially when we know from studies that the social costs of one marijuana smoker are 1/8th that of an alcoholic drinker and 1/40th that of a tobacco smoker?
Additionally, we have found that gambling lotteries in many states have failed to provide promised funding for schools. School officials are not happy about this: “We thought that it would be a windfall,” said Michael Johnson, executive director of the Illinois Association of School Boards. “The general public — they were fooled by this.” Don’t let the pot legalizers fool you like the gambling legalizers did… and after you help us force pot smokers to visit the neighborhood drug dealer, we can work together on forcing all the lottery players to visit the neighborhood mob-connected numbers runner.
We also know that ending violent cartels by legalizing marijuana is far from possible. It seems throughout history, no matter what we do, violent criminals remain violent and commit crimes. A recent RAND report showed that Mexican drug trafficking groups only received a minority of their revenue from marijuana, so we might as well let them control the marijuana markets in the United States. If we don’t let them have easy profits from marijuana, they’ll just turn to trafficking harder drugs (and manufacturing demand for them out of thin air) and violent crimes.
Voters have been sold a dichotomy: “You can either stick with punishing adults for using a substance safer than alcohol, or you can learn the lessons of 20th century alcohol prohibition.” Sadly, this kind of historically-aware, logical thinking ignores the fact that ending prohibition is very threatening to corporate profits, political lobbies, and my career.
While we can never ever treat marijuana like alcohol, that doesn’t mean that reformed potheads with an arrest record should be prevented from working underpaid “full-time” 28 hours a week at Wal*Mart or accessing social benefits (sorry for the redundancy). We need to have an adult conversation about marijuana arrests among the unwashed masses, too, because continuing to overwhelmingly arrest non-white people for pot isn’t polling well in an increasingly diverse America that seeks equal justice under the law. Increased education and treatment will work better than incarceration and a sole reliance on the criminal justice system, especially when we force rehab on people who don’t need it and claim statistical success when so many of them beat their addiction.
Indeed, we can reform the hardest-to-defend aspects of marijuana prohibition without allowing adults to legally consume a substance safer than alcohol. Let’s think before we end marijuana prohibition.
Not Kevin Sabet is a former senior Drug Czar advisor. He served three presidential administrations from both parties equally dedicated to locking up marijuana consumers, sellers and cultivators.