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Should the US Follow Canada’s Lead and Legalize Marijuana?

People at the Twin Cities Pride Parade supporting marijuana legalization


Canada’s Liberal government has vowed to introduce legislation to legalize and regulate marijuana by the spring of 2017. The Prime Minister, Justin Trudeau, made legalizing marijuana a cornerstone of his Party’s platform during his successful bid for election last year.

While I disagree with the Prime Minister on many issues, such as his support for the Trans-Pacific Partnership, the Keystone pipeline, and the Canadian version of the Patriot Act (Bill C51), this is one area where I applaud his leadership on addressing this important issue.

Since the United States federal ban on marijuana in 1970, the unintended consequences of this ban has inflicted great harm on the society.  It has also disproportionately harmed African American communities. Here is why it is time for the United States to move aggressively to legalize marijuana:

  1. Marijuana is less harmful and less addictive than tobacco or alcohol

Proponents of the War on Drugs argue that marijuana is a harmful substance and should be kept away from the hands of the public. But what they fail to mention is that marijuana is significantly less harmful than tobacco or alcohol. NBC News reports (emphasis mine):

The report, published in Scientific Reports at the end of January, compared the potential of death from the typical, recreational use of 10 drugs: marijuana, alcohol, tobacco, heroin, cocaine, ecstasy, methamphetamine, diazepam, amphetamine and methadone. Marijuana was, by far, found to be the safest, even when compared to alcohol and cigarettes.

The article continues:

Tobacco use is considered the leading preventable cause of death in the U.S. and chronic alcohol use has been linked to everything from heart disease to cancer.

Ironically, the vast majority of opponents of legalization do not support a ban on tobacco or alcohol. Despite the findings of this corroborated study, that demonstrates that marijuana is less harmful than tobacco or alcohol.

It is also less addictive than alcohol or tobacco. A study by Arkowitz and Lilienfeld (2012) reports:

The researchers found that of those who had tried marijuana at least once, about 9 percent eventually fit a diagnosis of cannabis dependence. The corresponding figure for alcohol was 15 percent; for cocaine, 17 percent; for heroin, 23 percent; and for nicotine, 32 percent. So although marijuana may be addictive for some, 91 percent of those who try it do not get hooked. Further, marijuana is less addictive than many other legal and illegal drugs.

  1. Marijuana bans ruin lives and destroy communities

The War on Drugs has destroyed the lives of millions of Americans. It has devastated families and hurt communities across the nation. The level of damage is incalculable.

According to a Gallup report about forty-four percent of Americans have tried it. Many otherwise law-abiding citizens were caught with marijuana, leading to unnecessary criminal records, prison sentences, and damaging their opportunity to find jobs. This has led the United States to have the highest incarceration rate than any other country around the world.

Just look at the case of Bernard Noble. The New York Times reports:

In October 2010, Bernard Noble, a 45-year-old trucker and father of seven with two previous nonviolent offenses, was stopped on a New Orleans street with a small amount of marijuana in his pocket. His sentence: more than 13 years.

The case of Jeff Mizanskey is even more damning. The New York Times explains (emphasis mine):

Jeff Mizanskey, a Missouri man, was arrested in December 1993, for participating (unknowingly, he said) in the purchase of a five-pound brick of marijuana. Because he had two prior nonviolent marijuana convictions, he was sentenced to life without parole.

These are not isolated cases. ACLU reports:

The report finds that between 2001 and 2010, there were over 8 million marijuana arrests in the United States, 88% of which were for possession. Marijuana arrests have increased between 2001 and 2010 and now account for over half (52%) of all drug arrests in the United States, and marijuana possession arrests account for nearly half (46%) of all drug arrests.

To make matters worse, African Americans suffered the most from the War on Drugs. The ACLU report continues (emphasis mine):

The report also finds that, on average, a Black person is 3.73 times more likely to be arrested for marijuana possession than a white person, even though Blacks and whites use marijuana at similar rates. Such racial disparities in marijuana possession arrests exist in all regions of the country, in counties large and small, urban and rural, wealthy and poor, and with large and small Black populations. Indeed, in over 96% of counties with more than 30,000 people in which at least 2% of the residents are Black, Blacks are arrested at higher rates than whites for marijuana possession.

  1. Marijuana ban leads to organized crime

Marijuana use increased in the United States year after a year. According to annual National Survey on Drug Use and Health (NSDHU) report, marijuana use increased on average, regardless if the states banned, decriminalized, or legalized marijuana. Virginia, where marijuana possession is illegal, has seen the highest rise in adoption rate (20.1%) according to the report.

Basic economic principle teaches us that whenever there is demand, there will be supply. It should not be a surprise to anyone that organized crime stepped in to meet the high demand for marijuana.

Legalization would impact organized crime significantly. A study by the Mexican Institute of Competitiveness (IMCO) estimated that “Mexican drug cartels could see their revenue from drug sales in [Washington, Oregon, and Colorado] drop by 22 to 30 percent if current ballot initiatives on marijuana legalization are passed.

We only need to look at the Prohibition Era from 1920 to 1933 to understand the impact of banning marijuana. The same arguments being made about marijuana use today were used to defend the alcohol ban. Citizens continued to drink and became criminals. It led to increased organized crime and the rise of Al Capone who made approximately $60 million from illegal alcohol alone (about $840 million in today’s money.)

Justin Trudeau explained at an economic conference on June 8:

[There] are billions upon billions of dollars flowing into the pockets of organised crime, street gangs and gun-runners, because of the illicit marijuana trade, and if we can get that out of the criminal elements and into a more regulated fashion we will reduce the amount of criminal activity that’s profiting from those, and that has offshoots into so many other criminal activities.

  1. Marijuana ban wastes significant resources and tax payer money

The ACLU reports that in 2010, “states spent combined over $3.6 billion enforcing marijuana possession laws.” It is absolutely preposterous that the United States spends billions to enforce the War on Drugs, which has only caused more harm than good. These valuable resources could be repurposed in many ways to benefit the American public.

This is not to say that there is no harm associated with marijuana. But banning marijuana is not the solution to address that issue. The government should have an active role in supporting aggressive campaigns to raise awareness about drug abuse. A small portion of the obscene amounts of money spent to enforce the War on Drugs can easily fund such efforts which prove to be more effective than prohibition. Similar campaigns were very successfully at changing the conversation for tobacco use. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention report that tobacco use has seen a steady decline over the years without the need for a national ban on smoking.

It’s time to legalize marijuana.

Written by Salam Morcos

Salam Morcos is a Managing Editor of Progressive Army and a member of its Editorial Board.

Political activist for democracy, social justice, racial justice, women's right and human rights.

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