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.