This just in: the Liberal government in charge of Canada is set to introduce legislation to legalize marijuana nationwide by Canada Day, 2018. According to David Cochrane, senior reporter for CBC News, the move comes after a recommendation by a federally appointed task force, and while it will be the job of the Canadian government to make sure the substance is safe and secure as well as to issue licenses to producers, the individual Canadian provinces will have the right to decide how the marijuana is distributed, priced, and sold, and may increase the minimum age limit of 18 if they wish.
This intended policy shift is significant for a number of reasons. For one, if ratified, it would take effect in less than a year-and-a-half. Secondly, Canada would be one of the few countries to legalize marijuana, as opposed to merely just decriminalizing it. There are, of course, limits on how much marijuana one can cultivate, and again, there may be additional constraints imposed by provincial governments, but this is a critical distinction. Thirdly, that this change would occur so close to home makes for an intriguing juxtaposition next to the state of drug laws in the United States and the perpetuation of the so-called “war on drugs.” Marijuana is a linchpin in the drug war in America, with nearly half of all drug-related arrests relating to this substance. I’m sure you don’t need me to enumerate the points of rhetoric on the dangers of marijuana. It’s a “gateway drug.” It’s as bad as cocaine or heroin. If you use it, you will do nothing but stay in your parents’ basement all day, playing video games and eating cheese curls. OK, so the last one, at least, is distinctly possible, but chances are you were going to end up like that—pot or not.
As with any established system of beliefs at the intersection of health, medicine, and morality, though, the veracity of these ideas merits scrutiny, especially considering how lives may be negatively impacted by enforcement of existing statutes. In 2016, Adam Conover, host of the show Adam Ruins Everything and regular author of content for the website CollegeHumor, produced a segment on marijuana, as he has done with a number of varied subjects, debunking associated myths and largely bumming out people with his revelations, at least in the context of the fictional encounters depicted in the program. Within the segment, Conover and his team of researchers provide counterarguments to the kind of rhetoric referenced above, averring:
1. For most people, weed is essentially harmless.
Do note the qualifier “essentially.” Adam Conover suggests that for individuals under the age of 25, marijuana can impact cognitive function and negatively impact memory, but once one’s brain is fully formed, this risk is all but negated. And next to alcohol and tobacco, marijuana is nowhere near as lethal—if at all.
2. Marijuana isn’t a gateway drug.
As Conover explains, most people who smoke weed don’t even continue to do so. In other words, cannabis isn’t even a gateway to more cannabis, let alone a gateway to hard drugs.
3. Marijuana has been used by people for millennia, and in America, was available for many years as part of over-the-counter medications.
Conover and Co. cite records detailing cannabis being grown some 8,000 years ago, as well as the writings of Herodotus back in 440 BCE in reference to cannabis steam baths. Here in the US of A, marijuana was legal for much of the country’s history, and was even advertised and used in medicines sold over the counter. To put it, ahem, bluntly, weed has been socially acceptable for longer than it hasn’t. So, ahem, put that it in your pipe and smoke it. OK—I’m done with the bad marijuana jokes. Maybe.
So, what gives? Why all the bluster and vilification of marijuana and the people who would legally smoke it? There’s a sordid history here, and a lot of it has to do with deliberate attempts to marginalize specific groups of people. The key events in U.S. history relating to the criminalization of cannabis, as highlighted by Adam Conover:
Facing a looming funding shortage to his agency, Henry Anslinger, commissioner of the Federal Bureau of Narcotics, decided to use marijuana as the centerpiece of a smear campaign of the drug itself and of people who could be used as political capital in helping influence drug policy. Anslinger published findings and testified before Congress, declaring marijuana a drug that causes insanity and violent rage in its users, and pointed to its use by Mexicans, a group already disliked by the jingoists among us. (Some 75+ years later, it appears not much has changed.) The seeds were planted for a crusade against cannabis—the wrong kind of seeds indeed, from the marijuana-smoker’s perspective, anyway.
With the assassination of marijuana as a dangerous drug and of certain “undesirables” well underway, Congress passed a bill to prohibit the use of marijuana as illegal, and later, with Anslinger’s help, established mandatory minimum sentencing laws that could land first-time users in jail to the tune of two to 10 years. Ouch.
By this point, it was well known by the federal government that marijuana was not the danger it had been made out to be. A bipartisan commission actually recommended to President Richard Nixon that marijuana be decriminalized, i.e. that offenders, especially first-time offenders, be given fines or otherwise be free from arrest or prison time. Ol’ Tricky Dick, though, apparently would have none of it, or as the video terms it, “had no chill.” Instead, marijuana became a top focus of what is known as the “war on drugs.”
What is most significant is not what Nixon decided, but why he did. Was his refusal to decriminalize marijuana really just designed to curb the deleterious effects of drugs on the American people, or did something more decidedly sinister motivate his actions? If what former Nixon domestic policy chief John Ehrlichman says is true, the latter condition holds. Conover points to this quote from 1994 from an interview with Ehrlichman by writer Dan Baum on the war on drugs:
The Nixon campaign in 1968, and the Nixon White House after that, had two enemies: the antiwar left and black people. You understand what I’m saying? We knew we couldn’t make it illegal to be either against the war or black, but by getting the public to associate the hippies with marijuana and blacks with heroin, and then criminalizing both heavily, we could disrupt those communities. We could arrest their leaders, raid their homes, break up their meetings, and vilify them night after night on the evening news. Did we know we were lying about the drugs? Of course we did.
The devil’s advocate argument here is that John Erlichman could have fabricated this justification for the war on drugs merely because he was salty about President Nixon’s apparent betrayal and having to serve time related to the Watergate scandal. Others might suggest that Richard Nixon really did hate drugs, and that Nixon’s drug czar, Jerome Jaffe, pushed for recognition of the drug problem as a health issue, not a criminal issue. Still, noting the effects the war on drugs has had on certain communities—and not necessarily good effects, mind you—an inference along these lines isn’t unreasonable either. As Adam Conover mentions, despite smoking at the same rate, blacks are four times more likely to be arrested for marijuana than whites. And we’re just talking about weed here. This doesn’t even begin to consider, for instance, sentencing disparities for cocaine and crack that have fallen largely along racial lines, as well as the large inequities of the criminal justice system facing people of color at large. Thus, even if Nixon didn’t really mean for the war on drugs to become an attack on liberals and/or minorities, a view to which Conover, Baum and others clearly subscribe, to a certain extent, it doesn’t matter. The damage has already been done.
President Nixon began the war on drugs in the 1970s. Additional news flash: it is 2017. More than thirty years later, by looking at today’s criminal statutes on marijuana buying and selling, cultivation, possession, and use, this war is being fought as hard as ever. True, some states have made it legal, and still others make distinctions for decriminalization and medicinal use, but as Adam Conover offers at the end of his segment, minimum mandatory sentencing still is in effect across the country, and there’s that, you know, whole nagging black-people-get-arrested-more-than-white-people-problem in effect. Once again, I ask: what gives? If we knew about the relative harmlessness of cannabis back in the 30s and 40s, why are we still filling jails with low-level drug offenders, and why is marijuana still a Schedule I drug under the Controlled Substances Act—in spite of its legalization for medical use in many jurisdictions? The question I would argue we need to ask to help bring us closer to an understanding is not merely, “What gives?” but “Who stands to gain from the perpetuation of the drug war?”
As it should be abundantly clear by now, where there’s policy, especially the kind backed by a strong moral component (at least superficially), there’s usually money to be made, and in the case of the war on drugs in the United States, the apparent loss of the majority-minority benefits a few core groups within the minority-majority. So, who potentially is stunting the growth of cannabis in America, both figuratively and literally?
What good are prisons without the inmates to fill them? And how better to help fill jails and prisons than with arrests related to drug crimes, including those related to marijuana? In one sense, prisons as a whole stand to lose from the continuation or even acceleration of the war on drugs, with concerns about overcrowding, not to mention the cost of needing to build, maintain, and staff correctional facilities. In another sense, however, private prisons, particularly those that house federal inmates, are seeing their stock rise on the heels of fairly recent news that the Department of Justice under Attorney General Jeff Sessions will reverse a planned phase-out of private prisons based on a vague notion that crime is on the rise in this country.
On one hand, Sessions, like Richard Nixon, probably does legitimately think drugs are bad and that smoking weed has a deleterious effect on the nation and its people. As a U.S. Senator, he was critical of President Barack Obama’s lack of vocalization about the supposed dangers of marijuana, and has insisted in the past that legalization would be a “mistake” and that “good people don’t smoke marijuana.” On the other hand, private prisons are a big business and effective duopoly between the companies CoreCivic and The Geo Group, two companies that just happened to donate bigly to a PAC supporting Donald Trump, if for no other reason than to improve their own fortunes with policies such as the expansion of private prisons and stronger enforcement of drug and immigration laws. If Trump values one thing, it’s loyalty to him, and Jeff Sessions has been about as loyal as they come, so based on this alone, it makes sense that Sessions would toe the line, even if he didn’t subscribe to the belief that the country is going to Hell in a proverbial hand-basket. Regardless, the pay-for-play aspect of this relationship is unsettling, as are reports of poor conditions, substandard care, and violence within private prison walls, and advocates of drug policy reform and prison reform alike are left to wonder whether or not we are regressing on both fronts.
What are prisons without inmates, and who brings offenders to jail but the police? Of particular concern regarding trends in policing of our communities is the militarization of police forces. The ACLU sets the scene thusly on its official website:
The images on the news of police wearing helmets and masks, toting assault rifles, and riding in mine-resistant armored vehicles are not isolated incidents—they represent a nationwide trend of police militarization. Federal programs providing surplus military equipment, along with departments’ own purchases, have outfitted officers with firepower that is often far beyond what is necessary for their jobs as protectors of their communities. Sending a heavily armed team of officers to perform “normal” police work can dangerously escalate situations that need never have involved violence. Yet the ACLU’s recent report on police militarization, “War Comes Home,” found that SWAT teams, which were originally devised as special responders for emergency situations, are deployed for drug searches more than they are for all other purposes combined.
The change in equipment is too often paralleled by a corresponding change in attitude whereby police conceive of themselves as “at war” with communities rather than as public servants concerned with keeping their communities safe. We advocate for a return to a less dangerous, more collaborative style of policing. We should not be able to mistake our officers for soldiers.
Within this conversation about militarization of police forces, there is an acknowledged tug-of-war between what is deemed essential to do needed police work without risk to the officers involved, and what is deemed excessive and a threat to personal civil liberties. For those on the side of the men and women with the badges, the knee-jerk reaction may be one of questioning just what the ACLU knows about police work anyhow. Getting past this defensive attitude, however, scrutiny of police conduct and of how forces marshal their resources is warranted, and this is before we even get to considerations about fatal shootings of suspects and police brutality. I recognize my own liberal bias herein, but I think the above synopsis correctly assesses the shift in mindset among police from “to serve and protect” to “open, flash, and clear.” At any rate, and at the end of the day, the money invested in equipping police forces in the style of bomb squads is significant. Now five years old, but in all probability still relevant, an article by Stephen Salisbury, cultural writer for The Philadelphia Inquirer, delves into the material economic costs of arming the nation’s police forces to the teeth and of fighting the war on drugs. Here is a critical excerpt from Salisbury’s article:
So much money has gone into armoring and arming local law-enforcement since 9/11 that the federal government could have rebuilt post-Katrina New Orleans five times over and had enough money left in the kitty to provide job training and housing for every one of the record 41,000-plus homeless people in New York City. It could have added in the growing population of 15,000 homeless in Philadelphia, my hometown, and still have had money to spare. Add disintegrating Detroit, Newark, and Camden to the list. Throw in some crumbling bridges and roads, too.
But why drone on? We all know that addressing acute social and economic issues here in the homeland was the road not taken. Since 9/11, the Department of Homeland Security alone has doled out somewhere between $30 billion and $40 billion in direct grants to state and local law enforcement, as well as other first responders. At the same time, defense contractors have proven endlessly inventive in adapting sales pitches originally honed for the military on the battlefields of Iraq and Afghanistan to the desires of police on the streets of San Francisco and lower Manhattan. Oakland may not be Basra but (as former Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld liked to say) there are always the unknown unknowns: best be prepared.
All told, the federal government has appropriated about $635 billion, accounting for inflation, for homeland security-related activities and equipment since the 9/11 attacks. To conclude, though, that “the police” have become increasingly militarized casts too narrow a net. The truth is that virtually the entire apparatus of government has been mobilized and militarized right down to the university campus.
Again, one is reticent to tell the police how to do their jobs, if for no reason than to avoid a diatribe about such matters. This notwithstanding, if important aspects of community infrastructure including affordable housing, job training, and, well, actual physical infrastructure are being neglected to accommodate camera systems, drones, and police surveillance, that’s a problem, and one that seems to pervade all levels of government. Why else would President Trump earmark an additional $54 billion in spending on defense for the proposed 2018 budget with only tepid disagreement from political leaders in the House and Senate? Whether it be for the sake of our national Armed Forces or our city police forces, we have a real problem in America about throwing money at community policing and terrorism, and to the extent the war or drugs and, specifically, attempts to curb the influence of marijuana fuel this phenomenon, the legality of cannabis remains an issue.
Do pharmaceutical companies stand to benefit more from the prohibition of marijuana or its legalization? The answer is, perhaps unfortunately, a complicated one, as much depends on how the substance is procured and what forms of the drug, if any, are deemed legal. Joel Warner explores this topic in a remarkably nuanced August 2016 piece for VICE. There are a handful of drug companies who have made investments in cannabis-based drugs who would appear to stand to benefit from the legalization of weed outright, or at least an OK from the U.S. government with respect to medical marijuana. By the same token, though, manufacturers of synthetic marijuana, a variant which may be fraught with peril next to the genuine article, likely have skin in the game to try to ensure that they are one of the few, if not the only, players at the table, and therefore would tend to resist more permissive reforms that extend to all forms of cannabis. This is in addition to traditional pharmaceutical giants who aren’t dabbling in marijuana at all, and would, in theory, oppose legalization if and when they have a major seller in the realm of, say, antidepressants or painkillers. It’s an uncertain mix of competing interests, made even more tenuous by differences in laws across states and changing attitudes within the public and at federal levels of government.
If a recent development concerning DEA approval of a synthetic marijuana drug for a company based in Phoenix is any indication, however, a trend of approval for pharmaceutical companies at the expense of drug law reform and natural weed sellers could be in the making. Insys Therapeutics, producer of the synthetic marijuana Syndros, helped fund a campaign which opposed recreational marijuana in the state of Arizona. It’s a seemingly perplexing contradiction until we get to the part where we realize the power of the pharmaceutical lobby on today’s lawmakers and their relevant policy stances. As is often the case, it helps to follow the money.
Of course, legalization of marijuana is not the only way drug law reform on this dimension could shake out, and even with the abuses of the war on drugs, statistics likely bear out a reduction in the rate of drug use, even if it isn’t a very substantial one. The obvious alternative is decriminalization of marijuana, which is in place in a number of states, aside from additional statutes specific to the use of medical marijuana. This raises the follow-up question about the merits of decriminalization vs. legalization when it comes to reducing drug use and associated crimes. Though this line of thinking merits its own post, some critics would aver that anything short of legalization still lends itself to criminality on the supply side, and particularly violent crime at that. In the Americas alone, corruption and death follow the drug trade and cartels/gangs—this is no secret. As long as there is a black market and a demand for the product, intimidation and worse can be used to drive up prices and to eliminate competition for a share of the market. In other words, when the market isn’t free, considerations of free-market economics more or less go out the window.
Another matter of import tied to legalization of marijuana is the opportunity cost of not legalizing, as is visible through the benefits realized by jurisdictions where the drug is legal. Colorado is an example of a state in which, assuming the industry is properly regulated, over a billion dollars in sales can be earned in just one year between that sold for medical use and that sold for recreational use. That’s useful tax revenue that otherwise would be forsaken on principle alone—$150 million in Colorado’s case, a third of which is derived from an excise tax which specifically funds school construction projects. This is not to say that just any project should necessarily be green-lighted if it means more dollars for states. Moreover, while some view these kinds of things in a vacuum—marijuana is plain wrong, no matter if it’s better or worse than heroin—again thinking in relative terms, next to alcohol, tobacco, or even opioids, the dangers are realistically not even close to their representation by purported authorities on the matter within state and federal governments. For those individuals who are developmentally mature enough to handle using marijuana, one of the biggest health risks that evidently exists with its use is gum disease. Not that gum disease isn’t potentially serious, mind you, but we don’t go around arresting people for failing to floss, if you catch my drift.
If a handful of states can legalize marijuana for both medical and recreational use without completely falling to pieces, I would say it’s—gulp—high time we talk about legalization on a nationwide basis. Yes, marijuana isn’t exactly benign. Yes, you shouldn’t be smoking it while at work, or while driving or operating heavy machinery. All the doom and gloom about its perils, however, not only distort reality, if not completely subvert it, but—dare I say it—really bum people out, man. The war on drugs, as it is currently being fought, is more failure than success, with tangible costs for our country, our communities, and for the lives it negatively impacts, and furthermore, the positions taken by Jeff Sessions and his lot are dangerously out of touch with the views of a growing segment of the American people, and only perpetuate feelings of conflict. Seriously, though—let’s legalize marijuana. Unless we’re just going to let Canada one-up us on this. Judging purely on a side-by-side comparison of Justin Trudeau and Donald Trump, it appears they already may be lengths ahead of us—and growing.