Marijuana should be legalized. There is no sensible argument for the ongoing prohibition of marijuana. The prohibition of this plant robs governments of potential tax revenues, diverts spending to the prison industrial complex, leads to racially-biased incarceration rates, and violates America's principle of personal freedom. The counterarguments are rooted in fear, ignore evidence and impose the morality of one group of people on all. It is time to leave the past in the past, with the senseless, fear-based marijuana policy, and start using our brains a little.
There is a tremendous credibility gap between those in favor of ending prohibition and those in favor of sustaining it. Those in favor of ending prohibition frequently have little economic stake, and they consist of experts from a wide range of disciplines. A group of law enforcement officers -- LEAP -- has recognized that enforcing this prohibition is a poor use of limited police resources, and diverts those resources away from maintaining community safety. Law Enforcement Against Prohibition also notes prohibition is "giving criminals a monopoly over (drug) supply" and that "prohibition reduces neither use nor abuse." In other words, the economic benefits of marijuana are earned by criminal enterprises, which invest those profits into other, more dangerous forms of illegal activity. The worst impacts of this are played out in Mexico, Guatemala and other Central American countries, but these effects are also seen in domestic criminal enterprises as well. Funds are diverted from the public treasury to criminals and prison corporations, and there is no net effect on consumption or abuse. We are paying billions of dollars enforcing prohibition for no discernable benefit.
Academic studies have shown that there are tremendous medical benefits of marijuana use in particular. These findings have become the basis for medical marijuana programs around the country, in many states. The institution of these medical marijuana programs has not been found to affect consumption of the plant significantly, but it has increased the number of patients who are receiving effective medication for their pain.
Those who would prefer to maintain prohibition tend to be religious groups, conservatives who oppose any sort of forward-thinking policy, and those with vested economic interest in ongoing prohibition -- the alcohol and tobacco industries and the prison industrial complex, which benefits from high incarceration rates of African-Americans that result from the current marijuana prohibition. Few if any proponents of prohibition can lay claim to any expert credibility -- they have opinions, but not necessarily facts.
It is not known what the audience believes here. Marijuana legalization is a divisive issue. But it is important to understand that anybody who wishes to think critically about the issue will need facts and reasoning in order to do so. While proponents of prohibition reach for emotional, fear-based arguments, those who support legalization seldom do so. Where they do, they reach back into the distant past for statistics that support their argument, instead of basing their conclusions on up-to-date data that has been subject to statistical analysis. A classic example of this is to change the argument from "marijuana" to "drugs" and then lump in statistics or arguments based on heroin (Hartnett, 2005), like the classic canard about how 9/11 was caused by drug profits, as if al-Qaeda isn't financed by Saudi oil money.
The most emotional appeal is to the American value of individual freedom. This is a shared cultural value, and it is fair to question whether the nation's policy on marijuana prohibition fits with this value. This argument is raised in different contexts, but one of the most common is that of the state's rights to determine their own drug policy. Washington and Colorado are the current test cases for the legalization of marijuana, and anarchy has not yet occurred in either locale. As Hawken, Caulkins, Kilmer and Kleiman (2013) note, arrests for marijuana-related crime should be reduced to almost zero, harming the prison industry but avoiding the needless destruction to many families that is the result of current policy. They also point out that basic economics shows that with very high tax rates on marijuana, the price increases, and therefore consumption may even decrease according to basic economic theory.
The rationale is simple. The current policy does not appear to have a particular objective, much less an objective that is working. If the objective is to reduce use and abuse, that has not happened. Marijuana use continues to rise (Dingfelder, 2011), and there is no evidence that the ending prohibition would change this trend -- use and abuse of marijuana is not related to its legal status. Moreover, there is a substitution effect between marijuana and alcohol among youth -- where both are illegal -- such that tighter restrictions on one will simply result in increased consumption of the other. The desire for inebriation is the key variable, not the legal status of either substance (Chaloupka & Laixuthai, 1997).
What other objective besides control of the substance there can be is not really clear. If there is an objective to enforce standards of morality, this must be understood within the greater context of America's values. Morals are a value that is prevalent in a given society -- a normative code of conduct that would be put forward by all rational persons within a society (Gert, 2011). This is not the case with marijuana usage in particular. Many in society view it no different than the consumption of alcohol, and even heavy marijuana usage is viewed favorably by many members of society in comparison with legal drugs like Oxycontin or Xanax that create substantial social problems (Skamulis, n.d.).
Transplanting Root Elements
Just in terms of outcomes, looking at the issues from a consequentialist perspective, there is a fundamental question that needs to be asked -- which policy is going to work better?
The rational case for ending marijuana prohibition can be approached on a number of different fronts. I my arguments, I have explored economics, law and order, drug use and moral arguments. All of these support ending the prohibition on marijuana. When opponents make their cases, they sound like "We can't do that" or "It won't work" -- that is all they have. They have nothing concrete, just a generic sense of fear or impending failure.
Yet the failure is entirely on the side of current policy. It costs governments instead of financing them. If there is agreement that lower taxes are a good thing for liberty and the economy, why are we spending hundreds of millions of dollars to incarcerate marijuana users, taking them out of the workforce and away from their families, when we could be earning millions in tax dollars to pay for our schools and critical infrastructure? Why is alcohol legal and marijuana not -- to say nothing of prescription drugs that are routinely abused. When there are genuine crimes in our communities, why are police arresting people for smoking a plant that grows in nature? Such policy has no logical basis. We have other laws that make little sense, but when you have a law that doesn't make sense and doesn't seem to really accomplish anything, and it is costing us billions, should we not eliminate that law and replace it with more sensible policy.
The good thing is, this is an issue where a response is possible. First, in many states there are ballot initiatives, petitions and activist groups working for legalization. This means that there are many opportunities to become directly involved. Even if you do not care at all about marijuana, you surely care about making sure your tax dollars are being spent effectively. So when the opportunity comes to vote to end prohibition, that is the vote you want to make.