If there’s one policy that Americans have consistently grown to support as much as gay marriage, it is the legalization of marijuana. The gale force of these winds of change has arisen from the same nucleus: Americans realize that these initiatives are not a threat to their way of life. As more scientists and doctors in the limelight articulate the benefits of marijuana, the federal government has reluctantly loosened laws while cracking down on punishments. But the science and public opinion are clear: marijuana is far less dangerous than alcohol and the federal government should enter the 21st century state of mind and end marijuana prohibition.
The end of this summer has seen tragic deaths at the hands of other far more dangerous drugs, such as the MDMA death of 20 year old Olivia Rotondo at Electric Zoo, a music festival in NYC. In a study by yougov.org, 59% of Americans view alcohol as dangerous in some degree, where as only 48% think marijuana is dangerous. When deeming things as safe, 45% think that marijuana is safe, where as only 36% view alcohol as safe. Abuse of substance in any form is a problem, but Americans seem pretty aligned on how they feel about marijuana.
But what about the actual health impacts? A 2010 World Health Organization report found that alcohol consumption is responsible for a frightening 4% of deaths worldwide; more than other social and health issues like AIDS, tuberculosis and violence. As morose as this is, alcohol has the ability to cause a lethal overdose, where as marijuana is incapable of doing so. Marijuana also has empirical medical benefits, where as medicinal applications of alcohol are usually reserved for cleaning out wounds. The economic costs of these deaths is staggering. The British Columbia Mental Health and Addictions Journal estimated that tobacco has a health cost per user of over $800, alcohol at $165 per user, and marijuana at $20. Science and economics are aligned on this one.
In the world of American political influence, many of those calling the shots have smoked weed. You know, Barack Obama, Rand Paul, John Kerry, Barney Frank, George Pataki, Sarah Palin, Gary Johnson, Joseph Kennedy, Al Gore, Bill Clinton, Newt Gingrich, John Edwards, Howard Dean, Andrew Cuomo, George W. Bush, Michael Bloomberg. For most of them, it’s a matter of do as I say, not as I did. Until politicians can face up to their own actions, no political solution will present itself.
There are also constitutional issues at stake. For all of prohibition’s negative effects, at least when America enacted the 18th Amendment, it put a constitutional ban on the manufacturing and consumption of alcohol. With marijuana, it is regulated under the Controlled Substances Act of 1970. Marijuana is classified as a Schedule 1 drug, putting it in the same category as heroin. Since the science is already there showing how marijuana is safer for your health than alcohol, maybe it’s time to reclassify marijuana to something that makes a bit more sense. Recently, Sen. Patrick Leahy oversaw what was hailed as an “unprecedented” hearing on the conflict between state and federal marijuana laws. A memo from Deputy Attorney General James Cole from August 29th advised that prosecution of legal dispensaries in states that have laws allowing the sale of marijuana should only be a priority if they commit offenses like selling to minors. How individuals will be treated still remains unclear.
But the problem with marijuana prohibition is the same problem that has existed with same-sex marriage: how the federal government classifies something as dangerous or illegal. When the Washington decides to create a criminalizing social policy, it always ends up discriminating against individuals on a state level. We’ve seen it with the raids on the dispensaries in California, the looming legal issues behind Colorado and Washington’s recreational use legislation. The questions that the courts are grappling with lead to the same conclusion: should the federal government be enforcing such a destructive social policy?
The answer according to economics, science, the Constitution, and the American people is yes.
Time for Washington to light one up and get on board.