Paul Armentano is the deputy director of NORML, the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws, and he is the co-author of the book Marijuana Is Safer: So Why Are We Driving People to Drink?
It’s time for politicians to call for a truce in the so-called war on drugs. According to a 2010 investigation by the Associated Press, lawmakers have spent over $1 trillion dollars enforcing the drug war. Their actions have resulted in a quadrupling of the U.S. prison population since 1980, but little else. In fact, according to America’s present drug czar, Gil Kerlikowske, “in the grand scheme, [the drug war] has not been successful.”
Least successful among the government’s drug war policies is its long-standing criminalization of marijuana. Since 1970, over 21 million U.S. citizens have been cited or arrested for violating marijuana laws. Yet despite this vigorous criminal enforcement, over 100 million Americans—including the president—acknowledge having consumed cannabis, and 1 in 10 admits using it regularly. Marijuana prohibition hasn’t dissuaded the general public from consuming cannabis or reduced its availability, especially among young people. But it has damaged the lives and careers of millions of people who were arrested and sanctioned for choosing to ingest a substance that is safer than alcohol or tobacco.
There are numerous adverse health consequences associated with alcohol, tobacco, and prescription pharmaceuticals—all of which are far more dangerous and costlier to society than cannabis—and it’s precisely because of these consequences that these products are legally regulated and their use is restricted to particular consumers and specific settings. A pragmatic regulatory framework allowing for the limited legal use of marijuana by adults would best mitigate any risks associated with its use or abuse. Such a change would also better restrict cannabis’s availability among adolescents. After all, you don’t hear of drug dealers peddling booze, do you?
The public is ready for a new approach. Never in modern history has there existed greater public support for ending the nation’s nearly century-long experiment with marijuana prohibition and replacing it with a system of legalization and regulation. A nationwide poll by Rasmussen Reports in May reported that 56 percent of Americans support “legalizing marijuana and regulating it like alcohol or cigarettes” versus only 34 percent who oppose the idea. Every age group polled, including those age 65 and older, favored the plant’s legalization over its continued criminalization.
Despite more than 70 years of federal prohibition, marijuana is here to stay. Let’s acknowledge this reality, cease ceding control of the marijuana market to untaxed criminal enterprises, and put it in the hands of licensed businesses.