October 16, 2014

FORKEN | The Impending Legalization of Marijuana

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By JAKE FORKEN

This past Wednesday, the Washington Post reported that President Barack Obama plans to nominate Vanita Gupta, the director of the Center for Justice within the American Civil Liberties Union, to the lead the civil rights division of the Justice Department. As the division has been without a permanent leader for over a year, Attorney General Eric Holder will appoint Gupta as the acting head of the division, before the White House officially nominates her as the permanent Assistant Attorney General for Civil Rights in the coming months. Marijuana advocates will likely welcome this nomination, as Gupta is notable for her position on the War on Drugs, calling for not only the decriminalization of marijuana possession, but also the outright legalization of the drug, following the steps of Colorado and Washington State.

As Attorney General Holder has already recommended that the White House reclassify marijuana — and as public sentiment continues to support decriminalization/legalization — it seems that with the nomination of Gupta, the legalization of marijuana is not a matter of if, but merely of when. With this in mind, it is time for the federal government to terminate these discriminatory drug policies that cost taxpayers billions each year, all in the sake of protecting citizens from a drug far less dangerous than alcohol or tobacco.

According to a report from the ACLU, taxpayers spend $3.6 billion each year enforcing marijuana laws. Legalization would allow these enforcement dollars to aid other budgetary expenses on a national level, not to mention provide states with millions of dollars each month in additional revenue. An article from the New York Times estimates that from January to May, Colorado collected $23.6 million in taxes, licenses and fees from the legalization of marijuana. FiveThirtyEight’s Nate Silver calculated that Colorado underestimated the demand for recreational marijuana by 31 percent, a figure that displays just how profitable marijuana sales can be for state governments.

Despite the potential for savings and revenue, current marijuana policies are objectively inequitable. The ACLU revealed that black people are 3.7 times more likely to be arrested for marijuana possession than white people. According to the Washington Post, white people aged 18-25 consistently used marijuana at a higher rate than black people from 2001-2010. Furthermore, the racial disparity in marijuana arrests increased by over 32 percent during the same nine-year period. Clearly marijuana policies disproportionately affect black youth in a negative manner, further perpetuating racial inequality in our society.

Perhaps most convincing in the argument for legalization, a report from the Center on Juvenile and Criminal Justice examined the effect of California’s decriminalization policies on the youth and discovered no adverse conclusions. The paper studied the overall change in various risk indexes, such as drug overdose deaths and DWI rates, of teenagers aged 15-19 one year before and after 2011, when full decriminalization went into effect in California.

In California, the risk for drug overdose deaths fell 20 percent, as compared to a four percent rise across the rest of the country. DWI’s for marijuana decreased three percent in California, while that rate for the rest of the nation increased by nine percent. Additionally, the school dropout rate tumbled by 22 percent in California – the study notes that comparable statistics for this risk index was not available for the rest of the United States.

While association is not causation, it is abundantly clear that access to marijuana isn’t a doomsday sentence – California’s teenagers are still just fine. As the reports’ authors state, “Marijuana decriminalization in California has not resulted in harmful consequences for teenagers, such as increased crime, drug overdose, driving under the influence, or school dropout. In fact, California teenagers showed improvements in all risk areas after reform.”

Certainly marijuana use shouldn’t be heralded as a positive and a legitimate scientific debate exists regarding the health effects of marijuana. However, when juxtaposed with alcohol and tobacco, the risk for addiction and dependence are comparatively low. Legalizing marijuana will lead to users substituting alcohol and tobacco for the drug — a replacement society should be welcoming. Enforcing marijuana laws meekly serves to drain taxes, prolong racial inequality and place more hazardous drugs on the forefront of usage.

Jake Forken is a junior in the College of Human Ecology. He may be reached at jrf285@cornell.edu. My Forken Opinion appears alternate Fridays this semester.