A week ago, the seemingly unthinkable happened: marijuana became legal in one of the United States: Colorado. Today, the governor of New York is rumored to be standing on the precipice of joining 20 other states plus the District of Columbia in legalizing marijuana for medical purposes.
So far, so good…no bodies are littering the street, no crimewaves are crashing on Colorado’s shores, nothing.
In the wake of Colorado, and in the midst of New York’s potential change, a frank conversation about marijuana prohibition in this country is long overdue. A conversation where neither side is vilified, nobody assumes a moral higher ground, and facts take precedence to conjecture and scare tactics.
In politics, and marijuana prohibition is as political an issue as there ever was, there is an age-old adage: follow the money. The money trail surrounding marijuana and its innocuous cousin hemp is lengthy. During the Colonial Era, every colony grew hemp. According to one report, hemp was the largest agricultural crop worldwide in 1883. The first laws against hemp in this country were pushed by the all-powerful cotton lobby in southern states. Hemp, with its myriad of industrial uses, directly threatened cotton and could be grown almost everywhere.
Over the intervening years, marijuana, and hemp by association, were made illegal both on the state and federal level, mostly on moralistic grounds. Laws prohibiting marijuana reached their first apex in the early 1970s, with both Nixon’s war on drugs and New York’s Rockefeller Drug Laws. The 1980s and 1990s saw both laws and sentences for convictions continually ratcheted up and up. These are the facts. One of the areas we should discuss, again openly and honestly, is has this prohibition worked?
In 1937, it was estimated that some 55,000 Americans used marijuana. One recent study determined that 25 million Americans have used marijuana in the past year. A similar proliferation of the number of alcohol drinkers was seen during alcohol prohibition. It’s estimated that during prohibition, there were more speakeasies in New York City than there are bars today. When alcohol prohibition was in effect, it also brought about a tremendous rise in organized crime and spin-off crimes like prostitution, illegal gambling, and narcotic trafficking. People who associated with the speakeasies to drink were thus exposed to these other crimes. Alcohol, because of prohibition, was the original gateway drug.
Today the United States incarcerates more people than any country in the world. Not the industrialized world, or the post-modern world, but the world. We incarcerate about 716 people per 100,000 in population, and this number does not count people incarcerated in county jails. For perspective, Cuba incarcerates 510, Rwanda 492, and Russia 484 per 100,000. The conversation should be had as to whether or not prohibition is working.
So with prohibition so deeply entrenched, who benefits from its continuation? More importantly, do these groups have any political clout?
The repeated wars on drugs waged by politician after politician have ushered in a golden age for police, and their unions, corrections, and their unions, and judges and prosecutors. The prison-industrial complex in the United States, the largest in the world, would take a direct hit from an end of prohibition. Drugs, primarily marijuana, have fueled a 20-year boom in prison building and staffing. Likewise, from Nixon, through Reagan, Clinton and both Bushes, putting “cops on the street” has been a rallying cry, and pumping officers and money into police agencies has been the result. Would any of these groups have the political clout to balk at the idea of ending prohibition?
This leaves the real “Big Three” players in keeping prohibition in effect: alcohol, tobacco and pharmaceuticals.
Let’s face it, Americans will self-medicate to some extent. At the end of the day, or sometimes unfortunately in the middle, people will ingest chemicals to help take the edge off. This has been going on since the beginning of time. Today, it is legally done with a drink or several at the end of the day; a cigarette for those so inclined, or a prescription for a “Mother’s Little Helper.” These three groups represent possibly the three most powerful lobbying groups in the United States. The pharmaceutical industry, for instance, has in the neighborhood of 1,300 lobbyists in Washington, D.C. alone. If prohibition was to be lifted, and Americans would produce their own self-medication, would these industries potentially suffer? Do they have reason now to pump millions of dollars into keeping prohibition in effect? This is another discussion that should be had.
Colorado ending pot prohibition has finally put the discussion of marijuana on the table, and Americans are discussing the topic en masse from a new perspective for possibly the first time, from a position where facts outweigh moral spin. You simply can’t legislate morality. We applaud Governor Cuomo for putting the topic on the frontburner in this state as well. Now we should let facts, and not special interest groups and political spin, rule the day.