Whether you call it the Devil’s lettuce or mary jane, marijuana and the government policies surrounding it have been on the tip of policymakers' tongues in recent years. The drug has been legalized for recreational use in Alaska, Colorado, Oregon and Washington, and twenty one states allow marijuana to be used for medical purposes. This November, five states will vote on legalizing marijuana, with the issue on the ballot and leading in polls in Arizona, California, Massachusetts, Maine, and Nevada. Voters in all these states should choose to abandon the United States’ current set of failed drug policies and support legalization.
It’s a well-established fact that the initial impetus for criminalizing marijuana was the targeting of minorities and people of color. In the 1930s, pseudoscientific claims linking the use of marijuana with violence and social deviance in so-called “racially inferior” groups, especially Hispanics and African-Americans, led to the widespread outlawing of the substance throughout the nation.
Four decades later, President Richard Nixon made clear in the Oval Office tapes that his War on Drugs doctrine was in no small part influenced by a desire to associate marijuana use with groups he disdained, like hippies and African-Americans.
The legacy of those policies are manifested in the nation’s overflowing prison population. The United States has the highest incarceration rate in the world, at 716 per 100,000 people, costing on average more $30,000 per inmate each year. A disproportionate number of those incarcerated are people of color.
And though African Americans and whites use drugs at similar rates, blacks are far more likely to face legal consequences for possessing or selling drugs. Even more startlingly, whites are 32 percent more likely to sell drugs than blacks. These numbers reveal a startling truth: The racist foundations of our criminal justice system are far from gone.
Despite these consistently hard-line policies toward marijuana, the illicit narcotics trade persists, though the overwhelming majority of marijuana arrests are for non-violent, personal possession. States like Massachusetts have taken a positive step forward through the decriminalization of marijuana, but civil penalties for possessing the drug remain.
Ultimately, the United States should treat marijuana as it does alcohol and tobacco. While evidence about marijuana use is difficult to come by due to its legal status, scientific studies have given no reason for policy makers to treat it differently than other dangerous substances.
Indeed, beyond its ameliorative effects on the criminal justice system, legalizing marijuana would also provide municipalities and the Commonwealth with significant benefits. Chief among these is the tax revenue that would become newly available, as Colorado’s experience with legalization has shown.
While we are still concerned about the potential danger of people under the influence of marijuana driving a car, this concern is also relevant when discussing alcohol policy. Recent research is also building toward the creation of a device able to detect recent marijuana use in a person’s breath. A marijuana breathalyzer, similar to the ubiquitous test used for drunk drivers, removes a potential roadblock to legalization.
Rather than continuing to fund the War on Drugs, a policy that has done more to increase violence than stem it, the United States should reorient its priorities towards the regulation of marijuana under a well constructed legal framework. This November, Massachusetts voters have a chance to put the Commonwealth in the lead on this issue. They should take it, and vote yes on Question 4.
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