Debate Club

Stop Wasting Time Pretending Marijuana Prohibition Works

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In order to answer the question of whether marijuana should be legal, we should start by asking ourselves if marijuana prohibition has been effective.

The answer to this question is a resounding "no."

Data collected by the National Institute on Drug Abuse and the Federal Bureau of Investigations clearly shows that our current policies are not accomplishing their primary goal of eliminating marijuana use. Over 27 million people used marijuana at some point in 2011, a number that has stayed relatively level for several years. Yet the number of people we arrest annually for this nonviolent behavior continues to fluctuate year after year, suggesting that the threat of arrest does not actually deter anyone from using marijuana. Even in states with relatively harsh penalties for marijuana possession, high use rates persist.

Some may claim that those arrests (of which there were more than 655,400 last year) keep even more people from using marijuana than currently do, but there is no evidence to support this claim, as we have seen in the case of Portugal and the Netherlands. Both these countries removed the threat of arrest for possession of small amounts of marijuana, and both countries have far smaller use rates than the United States. Instead, what we have are use rates that indicate a widespread disregard for ineffective and unjust laws.

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These policies consistently fail to make a dent in marijuana usage and at great cost. Taxpayers spend billions of dollars a year investigating, arresting, trying, and jailing people for marijuana while failing to decrease its availability or popularity. The social cost to communities with heavy arrest rates is staggering in terms of lost wages, job opportunities limited by criminal records, denial of student loans, and strained relations with law enforcement that result from violent raids and racial discrimination. And the resources that we waste on these failed policies could easily be spent ensuring that we have better schools and safer streets.

It is obvious that arresting people for marijuana does not work. We cannot stop people from using it, and the costs of supposedly preventing some imaginary number from doing so are simply too great. The question then remains of how to control marijuana when we stop trying to arrest our way out of the issue.

Merely removing criminal penalties for possession will help reverse some of the harms caused by prohibition, but it will not address the negative aspects associated with the large marijuana market in this country. If we simply stopped arresting people for using or possessing alcohol at the end of Prohibition, Al Capone would have kept running the show, and the violence that comes with any illicit market would have continued. The market for marijuana is going to remain. We have to decide who we want to be in control of that market. Will it continue to be violent criminals who reap huge tax-free profits and endanger public safety? Or will it be legitimate, licensed business that create jobs, pay taxes, and take their financial grievances to court instead of settling them in the streets?

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By taxing and regulating marijuana in a manner similar to alcohol, we will finally be learning the lessons that we should have learned in the 1930s. Prohibition does not work. We need to stop wasting our time and money trying to pretend it does, especially when we are talking about a substance that is so much safer than nearly every other available drug, including alcohol.

The residents of Colorado, Washington, and Oregon should support their ballot initiatives to do just that on November 6. These states are in a unique position to show others the path to more sensible marijuana policies.

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  • Morgan Fox

    About Morgan Fox Communications Manager at the Marijuana Policy Project


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