Marijuana’s has a strange history in America. In 1619 King James I (the King James of the King James Bible) ordered every colonist to grow one hundred hemp plants, which marijuana comes from, for export to England. The plant was used as a currency in Pennsylvania, Virginia and Maryland. George Washington grew it, and it served a variety of purposes for the early Americans. It was used to make rope, fabric, paper and many other products. In 1839, William O’Shaughnessy introduced marijuana to western medicine. Within a decade it could be bought in pharmacies for medicinal use across the US, and domestic growth of the plant was widespread until after the Civil War, when other materials were imported and replaced a lot of marijuana’s functions.
In the 20th Century, with the increase of Mexican immigrants to the US, American opinion towards marijuana took a turn for the worse. Mexicans brought with them a cultural appreciation of recreational marijuana use and, due to the xenophobia of the Americans in response to this influx of immigrants from the south, the “Marijuana Menace” became increasingly associated with Mexican immigrants while both became associated with all manner of violent crimes.
During the Great Depression, resentment of “jerb takin” immigrants surged. Through that resentment, paranoia about marijuana experienced a sharp increase. The Great Depression years saw many “studies” linking the use of marijuana to violent and criminal behavior and there was a rash of state bans on the drug. Following a propaganda movie called Reefer Madness, marijuana was (in effect) criminalized for non-medicinal and non-industrial purposes with the Marijuana Tax Act in 1937.
Hemp made a brief comeback during World War II because the military saw its usefulness in things like parachute cords. Seeds were handed out by the government and the draft was deferred for farmers who produced enough of it. The wartime hemp honeymoon was short-lived, however: A decade after the end of World War II, mandatory prison sentences for marijuana use were enacted, but they were repealed in 1970 because of how ineffective they were. When Nixon launched the War on Drugs, the independent organization he created to handle it recommended fully decriminalizing marijuana. Needless to say, Nixon disagreed.
President Reagan fared no better in his attempts to regulate marijuana, but he did make the punishments for marijana production and possession significantly harsher. By the end of his presidency, owning one hundred marijuana plants carried the same sentence as owning one hundred grams of heroin. Reagan also instituted a “three strikes and you’re out” policy, which required life sentences be given to people who were convicted of drug offenses three times. (For more details on the history of marijuana in America, check out PBS’s timeline.)
Reagan’s backwards approach to this subject has continued to some extent ever since. Such opposition is founded on ignorance, and it’s time we let it go. There are many ways in which marijuana legalization could do great things for our country.
It could kill the cartels
The Mexican drug cartels, which are waging a brutal drug war just south of the US border, rely heavily on marijuana profits. When a few states legalized marijuana they became a source of higher quality, lower cost marijuana, which did not have to be smuggled into the country. In the first 11 months after a number of American states legalized marijuana, its cost in Mexico dropped from 60-90 dollars/kilo to $30-40, and black-market imports of the drug have dropped by 32%.
If the demand for cartel-grown marijuana drops to 20 dollars/kilo, some economists speculate that it would crumble the Mexican cartel marijuana market altogether, forcing them to shift their focus to less-widely used drugs like cocaine and heroin. If the United States legalized marijuana all at once, the economic impact would be so sudden and severe that the cartels might not ever recover.
It stimulates the economy and raises tax revenue
Take money away from the cartels, and it goes into the US economy instead. Since the legalization of marijuana in some states, it has become the fastest growing sector of our economy, generating us 2.7 billion dollars of taxable economic activity. The industry could be worth over $10 billion within 5 years. Colorado alone made $53 million dollars last year in tax revenue associated with the legal marijuana industry, and some estimate that national legalization could net the United States as much as $3 billion dollars annually. Legalization created over 10,000 marijuana-related jobs in Coloardo in one year alone. It would be great for the rest of the country to get a piece of that action.
These revenue gains also ignore the $42 billion the government spends every year to arrest people who use marijuana — money that could and should go elsewhere. Legal weed means the government has more money to spend on social services and fewer wastes of time and energy to spend it on.
We would no longer be sending our nation’s future to jail for harmless offenses
Our last three presidents all used marijuana at one point or another, but weren’t arrested for it. They were lucky. If they had been caught, they wouldn’t have been able to get into the schools they attended and they wouldn’t have been able to hold the jobs they held. They definitely wouldn’t have been elected to the political offices they held.
One can’t help but wonder how many would-be productive members of society are wasting away in jails or struggling in dead-end jobs because of our harsh prosecution of marijuana use.
52% of all drug arrests are for marijuana, accounting for 8.2 million Americans being taken out of society an into our dysfunctional criminal justice system every year. 88% of that 8.2 million were arrested for possession, with no indication that they had any intention to deal the drug. While Republicans blame America’s proven institutional racism problem and the struggles of the poor on single mothers and broken families, they are strangely silent about the devastating role marijuana prosecution is playing in black and impoverished families. Black people are 3.73 times more likely to be arrested for marijuana possession in spite of using the drug at more or less the same rates as whites. Well over half of all drug offenders have children. If we want poor and black children to have stable families, we should stop using our criminal justice system to destabilize them.
America has the highest incarceration rate in the world, housing 22% of the world’s prisoners. One of the reasons for this is that we’ve decided that carrying a plant that is less addictive and less harmful than both alcohol and tobacco is deserving of jail time.
Marijuana is safer than legal recreational drugs. Legalizing it would create jobs, raise tax revenue and save money and lives. Growing and supporting its production are two of the few things that George Washington had in common with the King who commissioned one of the most widely read English translations of the Bible.
The only reason marijuana remains illegal is because of lingering paranoia and xenophobia, along with the historical ignorance of Presidents Nixon and Reagan. Write your Congressperson and your Presidential candidate of choice: It is time to legalize marijuana.