Where Does the Marijuana Movement Go From Here?

I’m off to cover the Cannabis Business Summit in Denver this morning, and the trip is a reminder of an issue I occasionally face in this job. When acquaintances, friends and even family learn that I cover marijuana policy, they assume I’m only doing so because I like to frequently indulge. In fact, I very rarely ever consume cannabis (my main vice is craft beers). The real reason I cover marijuana policy is that it is incredibly fascinating.

If more in the media would stop looking at the issue as primarily a source of cheap jokes and even worse puns, they might see it is one of the most significant, far-reaching, and fast-moving political issues in the nation. Regardless of how you feel about the topic, it is remarkable to consider how the tentacles of marijuana’s illegal status touch so many other issues. Below are just a few reasons it is the most interesting subject being seriously debated in politics at the moment.

1) The Size – Marijuana use is not some minor fringe concern. It has a massive, direct impact on people and government budgets. Government estimates assume that roughly 18.9 million Americans have consumed marijuana in the past month, and in 2012 there were about 750,000 marijuana arrests. To put the latter number in perspective, there were more marijuana arrests in 2012 than there were people living in states like North Dakota and Vermont.

It is hard to estimate what all layers of the government are spending directly on marijuana arrests, processing, and convictions — and even more difficult to guess what is the potential lost tax revenue from allowing it to remain in the black market — but the numbers available are significant. Back in 2010 Jeffrey Miron estimated that marijuana legalization would result in $8.7 billion in annual government savings and that a legal marijuana market would generate another $8.7 billion in new tax revenue. That means the annual net financial impact of marijuana prohibition may be on par with the entire budget for NASA and more than the total annual expenditures for the Utah state government.

2) Class and Racial Justice – There are few issues which provide more visceral examples of the class- and racially-based injustices in America. People with the means to hire attorneys rarely face the full weight of the law when arrested for marijuana, but people who don’t have the money for professional help are truly at the mercy of the court.

Even more noticeable than the income divide on this issue is the racial one. In “The New Jim Crow,” Michelle Alexander has demonstrated in extensive detail how the drug war lies at the heart of institutional racism in this country. Whites and blacks tend to consume marijuana at similar rates, but the ACLU found blacks are 3.7 times more likely to be arrested for marijuana.

Drug laws were written to punish the possession of perceived “black” drugs (like crack) more harshly, minorities are dramatically more likely to be the target of “random” searches that result in drugs being found, they are more likely to arrested for drugs, and more likely to face harsher punishments for the same offenses.

3) Immigration – The drug war and immigration issues are inseparably linked in this country. The drug war has been a big justification for the militarization of the border, which in turn has had a large impact on the patterns and habits of undocumented immigrants. In addition, the drug war has fueled violence in Latin America, which is spurring many to try to move north.

4) Health Care – The federal government’s refusal to acknowledge marijuana’s medical value or even allow research into it is a bizarre and deeply frustrating tale of government agencies’ abuse of power to put politics above science. It would take a whole book to unpack the complexity of that issue, but the result is an estimated one million medical marijuana patients currently exist in a legal limbo created by this conflict in federal and state law.

5) A Failure of Democracy – Elected representatives should mirror the opinions of their constituents, but marijuana policy is perhaps the best example of how our system has failed this ideal. Polls consistently show some 80 percent of the country supports medical marijuana, yet Congress and the president keep it Schedule I. Similarly, well over half the public wants recreational marijuana fully legalized, but there is no more than a handful of members of Congress willing to speak in favor of the change. If it wasn’t for the fact that some states allow ballot initiatives, there is no telling how much longer reform would have been held back by representatives determined to do the opposite of what their constituents want.

6) Rapidly Evolving – So many of the “big” political issues like entitlement reform, immigration, campaign finance, and gun control are stuck in a perennial state of debate and rarely see major changes. The exciting thing about marijuana policy is that significant developments are now accruing with a remarkable frequency. Public opinion has shifted dramatically in just the past decade, Congress is just starting to finally take medical marijuana seriously, and with each new election we should expect marijuana legalization initiatives to appear on more state ballots.

7) Birth of Something New – Marijuana legalization will result in the creation of a brand new regulatory structure and industry. Seeing how this industry develops and whether regulators are able to learn the right lessons from alcohol regulation is a unique story. Rarely do you get to witness the birth of an industry already knowing it will succeed. The seemingly small regulatory decisions being made now will likely shape the legal marijuana market for the next century.

If there is another big political issue that touches so many other important policy issues, that will shape the development of an entire industry for decades to come, and is undergoing such rapid change, I’m not aware of it.

Jon Walker is the author of After Legalization: Understanding the future of marijuana policy