The Trump administration is coming after Mary Jane. On Thursday, the Justice Department invalidated Obama era policies that discouraged federal prosecutors from interfering with state laws allowing citizens to use medical and recreational marijuana. Now, I care about this issue because I believe marijuana has beneficial uses…and maybe because I have stock in a few medical marijuana companies. But let me tell you why you, the average, healthy, straightedge American living a life completely separate from stoners, should care about this too. The I’ll start with social justice-minded folk, then address the economically inclined.
Let’s look at the history of this “dangerous” drug. In the 1970s, Nixon declared a “war on drugs” and his offensive plan enforced federal laws against the possession and selling of marijuana, heroin, and crack. If you have not seen the Netflix documentary 13th, I highly recommend it. A top Nixon aide is quoted admitting, “You want to know what this was really all about. The Nixon campaign in 1968, and the Nixon White House after that, had two enemies: the antiwar left and black people. You understand what I’m saying. We knew we couldn’t make it illegal to be either against the war or black, but by getting the public to associate the hippies with marijuana and blacks with heroin, and then criminalizing both heavily, we could disrupt those communities. We could arrest their leaders, raid their homes, break up their meetings, and vilify them night after night on the evening news. Did we know we were lying about the drugs? Of course we did.” The Nixon Administration temporarily placed the drug on the list of Schedule 1 drugs, the same class as heroin and ecstasy. The legal categorization of weed as having “no currently accepted medical use and a high potential for abuse” is established, the social perception of the drug’s use is born, and the legal process that adds to mass incarceration begins.
First, his classification is problematic because it is…well, simply false. Due to its schedule 1 status, medical research into cannabis is limited and laws make it difficult to carry out clinical trials of cannabis-based drugs. However, there is research on cannabis oil preventing seizures in epileptics, and over 20 countries, including the US, have approved a drug called Sativex to treat the muscle spasms associated with MS and the pain from cancer. The US therefore contradicts itself by keeping it as a schedule 1 drug; the Justice Department says it has no medical benefits, while the FDA confirms it does.
Additionally, the aspect of addiction and harm is still disputed. It is not not addictive, despite what everyday smokers will tell you. The pathway of addiction is not as clear as a drug like heroin, but that does not mean it does not have an addictive element. The risks of long-term marijuana use during formative years are mostly associated with memory and cognitive functioning. That being said, compare weed to alcohol, tobacco, heroin, a variety of other drugs that are schedule II or III or on the controlled substance list. Picture a heroin addict, cigarette smoker, or an alcoholic, and now picture a wake-and-bake stoner – who do you think is at more of a medical risk because of their addiction? We have substances on the controlled substance list that have zero medical benefit and a known pathway of addiction with fatal side effects, yet weed is considered the worst of the worst.
Now let’s get to the part where Jeff Sessions is trying to be like Nixon. His memo screams we must restore law and order. It reinforces the idea that marijuana is a dangerous drug and guides prosecutors to follow the “well-established” principles related to drug enforcement. The Department of Justice issued a statement in support of Session that echoes Nixon: “This return to the rule of law is also a return of trust and local control to federal prosecutors who know where and how to deploy Justice Department resources most effectively to reduce violent crime, stem the tide of the drug crisis, and dismantle criminal gangs.” I will address gangs and violent crime later, but let’s touch on this drug crisis. I don’t know about you, but the only drug crisis I have been hearing about is the opioid epidemic, which is the leading cause of death in Americans under 50. I’m still waiting for the statement about that government’s commitment to utilizing all of the DOJ’s resources to end that crisis.
This strong resolution towards cracking down on marijuana makes me question the motivations behind Session’s actions. What is most concerning is how this initiative may motivated by similar reasons as Nixon’s administration. Black Americans are almost 4 times as likely to be arrested for marijuana as white Americans, and that is not because white people are not participating in this market. It is a wasted effort (weed isn’t going away) for all the wrong reasons, and on top of that, the government is wasting efforts in the wrong places. What IS dangerous about this underground trade is the smuggling of drugs and exploitation of those involved. About 40% of weed in America comes from central America, with the rest being grown illegally on US soil. It has been shown that US legalization actually decreases the Mexican drug smuggling, and by the same logic, criminal gangs’ business would decrease as well. So, they are combatting the violence in a way that only leads to more incarceration, which in turn leads to more violence and potentially less productive members of society once offenders are released.
To sum up so far, efforts against a war on drugs 1) should be focused on opioids, not weed 2) if it is focused on weed, the efforts should first be towards legalization of what should be a controlled substance, and then cracking down on the very small black market that will remain, but 3) the Trump administration may have unsavory motivations so this line of logical thinking in “2) isn’t being followed.
For those of you not convinced by my argument based in racism thus far, these efforts are also hypocritical for a conservative administration, from an economic point of view. This line of argument is a little more straightforward than the social justice one. The marijuana industry in the US is growing rapidly, and guess what kind of businesses are involved? Small, local ones. Wait a second…don’t conservatives love those independently owned businesses? The growing, manufacturing, and distributing process would add an incredible amount of jobs to the economy, all in support of small business. Additionally, tax revenue from marijuana is massive. In 2015, Colorado gained $135 million in taxes and fees just from marijuana alone. Investopedia reports that in California, “An RCG Economics and Marijuana Policy Group study on Nevada says that legalizing recreational marijuana in the state could support over 41,000 jobs till 2024 and generate over $1.7 billion in labor income.” Other economists project that legalizing weed in all states could save up the US up to $14 billion a year.
The economic benefit to states and the federal government and the social justice benefit work together to create a strong argument for legalization. Not only would states be able to grow their own economies, but international/domestic drug rings would suffer, redirecting money into small businesses and establishing law and order. Violence would decrease, as well, reestablishing some actual order. Conservatives should be all over this, not fighting against it. Yet they are doing just that, which should make you wonder why. This administration has a chance to establish positive law and order around the marijuana industry that will keep kids away from the drug and increase standards of production and decreased violence, all without adding to the issue of mass incarceration, continuing the cycle of violent crimes, and harming what has so far been a successful new industry. So, Attorney General Sessions, please stop what I believe to be racially motivated move that hurts America in more ways than one. And quit tanking my stocks.