Marijuana Use Should Not Be a Crime
Marijuana use isn't grave enough to be labeled a crime
October 30, 2012
We should instead ask why marijuana use is a crime.
Crimes are acts that are so bad—that inflict such grievous harm on others—that the offender deserves to be arrested, dragged through court, jailed, and saddled with a criminal record that will pose barriers to employment, housing, and education. Labeling an act a crime is no light matter. At least, it should not be, if we expect our criminal laws and those sworn to enforce them to be respected.
Marijuana prohibition fails our society's normative standards of what should be labeled a crime. It also fails utilitarian, cost-benefit tests. Despite the fact that marijuana arrests have escalated from less than a third of all drug arrests to more than half in the past 20 years, usage rates have not gone down. More than 40 percent of Americans have tried marijuana at some point in their lives, and millions are current users. Clearly, the threat of arrest does little to dissuade, despite its enormous costs both to the individual and to our criminal justice system. Perhaps it even entices with its allure of forbidden fruit.
A more pragmatic approach to the reality of marijuana use in our society would be to replace criminal laws with public health strategies. As we have with tobacco, we could regulate advertising and invest in multimedia information campaigns, tactics that have a proven track record of success. Our current efforts are failing. More high school students smoke marijuana now than smoke cigarettes.
If we can agree that the decision to treat marijuana use as a crime deserves revisiting, then we must grapple with the question of how the demand for marijuana will be met. According to the RAND Corporation, a reasonable estimate of the amount of money flowing from the U.S. marijuana market to the Mexican cartels each year is $1.5 billion. More money flows north to increasingly violent gangs in Canada's British Columbia. Here in the state of Washington, criminal organizations grow hundreds of thousands of marijuana plants in our national parks, on tribal lands, and in rings of suburban residential homes that are converted to indoor grow operations. We have relinquished control of the marijuana market to black market profiteers. We could instead take control; regulate price, potency, and advertising; and levy taxes to help pay for prevention, education, and research.
It is time for a new approach to marijuana.