News » What America Would Look Like If Marijuana Were Legalized Tomorrow
February 16, 2011 by Aaron Turpen
What if marijuana was legalized throughout the U.S. tomorrow? What would our nation look like and what would be the ramifications?
Most people in the cannabis legalization movement focus on the freedoms that would be gained were marijuana and hemp legalized in the U.S. There would be a lot of them. Over 858,000 people were arrested and prosecuted for marijuana violations in 2009. It’s estimated that nearly a million will be prosecuted in 2011. Were marijuana legalized, that would not happen and those million people would not have criminal records haunting them, would not have jail, prison, court, lawyers, and so forth affecting them, and would not have all the lost opportunities and sanctions that go with all of that.
Those are just some of the many benefits to marijuana’s legalization in this country. There are many other consequences that would occur as well. Many of which are often not considered by those who wonder why there is so much opposition to the legalization of cannabis. There’s a lot more to it than just latent Reefer Madness and Big Pharma conspiracies. The opposition runs deep and at all levels of society. There are strong economics that fight against the legalization of the plant.
Here are the major forces behind the anti-marijuana sentiment:
- Big Government and Its Minions
- Including: warmongers, control freaks, police, military, foreign policy wonks, etc.
- Government Contractors and Their Minions
- Including: jailers, police and military hardware suppliers, and security companies.
- The United Nations
- And every nation in it, from the democracies to the tyrants.
Although some have considered these possibilities, few are aware of how deeply the War on Drugs affects both domestic and foreign policy in this country and how many jobs and businesses are dependent on its continuation. These are the true forces behind the anti-marijuana campaigns and the reason that the war for legalization is so hard-fought.
Big Government and Its Minions
President Richard Nixon coined the “War on Drugs” in 1971 after the passage of the Comprehensive Drug Abuse Prevention and Control Act of 1970. This new Act was a consolidation of several previous drug laws that had been passed since 1914. The Act created the “Schedules” that classify drugs according to their potential for abuse and lack of accredited medical usage. Marijuana is considered a Schedule I drug, the highest ranking available, which means it has high potential for harm and no potential for medicinal use (according to the government). Title II of the Act, commonly called the Controlled Substances Act, is where codification of penalties for manufacture and distribution of drugs deemed illegal are located.
In 1973, again at the behest of Nixon, the Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) was born; consolidating several other agencies involving illicit drugs.
With these two acts, Nixon ushered in the modern War on (some) Drugs that has consumed our nation ever since. After Nixon put it all in place, subsequent presidents reinforced and built up the anti-drug apparatus to what we have today. So what do we have?
The War on (some) Drugs accounts for about 1.5 million arrests per year and about half a million people put in prison. The majority of those are for cannabis possession. In fact, in 2007, cannabis arrests equaled the arrests for heroin, cocaine, and other drugs combined.
All of those arrests mean police officers on the job. They mean drug enforcement officers (10,800 in the DEA alone), special narcotics squads in local and county police forces, and tens of thousands of other police officers whose job includes drug enforcement. It’s estimated that at the state, county, and local level, nearly 30% of police forces likely owe their job to drug enforcement (this includes state- and county-owned jail guards). That’s about 240,000 jobs nationally.
Marijuana accounts for about 47% of all drug arrests or about half of the estimated 600,000 people currently incarcerated in state and federal prisons for drug offenses. At an average of $24,000 per inmate per year in upkeep, that is a lot of money going into the prison system.
It’s estimated that the United States as a nation (through local, state, and federal expenditure) spends $7.7 billion per year enforcing marijuana prohibition in the War on (some) Drugs. That is the same as the total amount of money spent, publicly and privately, in the U.S. for drug and alcohol treatment. Think about that.
Many jails and prisons are privately owned and contracted to county, state, or federal use. Those jails also employ many people whose jobs are dependent on drug prohibition.
Government Contractors and Their Minions
Mandatory minimum sentences have long been proven to be ineffective and have, in fact, been proven to increase the violence associated with the drug trade (as has increasing law enforcement). Yet these facts have not stopped politicians and pundits from demanding more and harsher penalties and more law enforcement. Anyone who attempts to counter these maneuvers is labeled “soft on crime” and slandered with various insults. Scientific proof be damned.
In 1971, the year that President Nixon declared the War on (some) Drugs, the number of Americans in jail was less than 0.2% of the population. By 1980, that was on the rise. In 1984, when the Sentencing Reform Act was voted into law, creating many mandatory sentences for drug crimes, the percentage of incarcerated Americans was 0.3% of the population.
Today? That number is fast approaching 1% of Americans at close to 0.8% (roughly 2.3 million people). The United States has more people in jail, per capita, than all other nations in the world. Even China has fewer people in jail, by percentage of population, than we do. It’s estimated that if those on probation, parole, etc. were also included, 3.1% of the adults in the U.S. are currently in the criminal justice system.
There’s a lot of money in keeping people in the system. Ever wonder why mandatory minimum sentences, politicians who are “tough on crime,” and ridiculous arrest quotas and the increasing number of arrests for non-violent, no-victim crime, etc. are politics as usual?
Let’s do some quick math. The average inmate costs about $24,000 per year to keep imprisoned. With 2.3 million currently in prison.. That’s $55,200,000,000 ($55.2 billion) spent annually on incarceration alone. Most states spend about 7% of their total budget on jails and prisons. All of that adds up to a lot of money. Estimates for the total spent on jailing Americans every year are as high as $69 billion. Corrections costs have risen 660% since 1982. Since the fastest-growing criminal enterprise for which new arrests are made is drugs, special interests have a lot riding on making sure more people get thrown behind bars – and fighting the Drug War seems to be the most lucrative of the choices.
Beyond prisons and jails, there are also a lot of tehcnological additions hitting your local police force. Technology that is invented, contracted, and sold by big companies who’ve found that the police can be almost as willing to spend money on their gadgets as the military is.
Most of the new technology being offered to police is for drug enforcement. Electronic “sniffers,” x-ray and other machines to look through people and their belongings for contraband, specialized tools for checking vehicles, robots to find the dope, you name it. This is a multi-billion dollar industry and it’s growing.
Nearly all police, from the local to the state level, are receiving money every year for drug enforcement. Uncle Sam sends cash to police forces to help fight the drug war at all levels. Many areas which could not justify more than 3 or 4 officers in their jurisdiction have closer to 10 thanks to this money. And the more drug arrests they make, the greater their “need” and the more money they’ll get.
Much of that funding comes from federal forfeiture sales. Even in states where police are not allowed to keep the money from forfeited (seized) property in drug crimes, federal cases do allow it and often split it with participating local authorities. To the tune of $1.6 billion a year at last estimate.
Texas, for example, saw $125 million in federal forfeiture money in 2008. That’s just Texas.
That doesn’t even get started on the special police powers afforded to drug enforcement, such as no-knock warrants (SWAT raids), the use of informants, wiretapping, and searches/seizures on only the vaguest of pretexts. That is another, quiet incentive for law enforcement.
Add it all up and there is the equivalent of the total gross national product for many nations flowing around the War on (some) Drugs. Which is why the United Nations has a treaty in which every nation in the world is literally a part to the Drug War.
The United Nations
Most people aren’t aware that the UN has a longstanding treaty that every member nation must sign. That treaty effectively engages UN member nations in the Drug War. All of them, without exception. Even nations which are notoriously lax on their drug enforcement (the Netherlands, for example) still participate and arrest and convict high-profile and high-volume producers and dealers. Nations also heavily police their borders for smuggling.
This has been the case since the League of Nations was formed. The control of “dangerous drugs” is right in the founding covenant of that body – which later became the UN.
Some nations, lately, seem to be waking up to the fallacies of the War on (some) Drugs and are relaxing their drug enforcement and penalties, moving towards treatment as a method instead. Yet they all still have prohibition in place, thanks to the UN.
Politics, no matter its label (be it “democracy” or “tyranny”) loves control. Control comes through the ability to intimidate and coerce your vict..er.. constituents. No other political force allows that to the extent that the War on (some) Drugs has. Not to mention the influx of U.S. Dollars that many countries receive thanks to our support of their participation in the War.
What Has To Change If We Want To Legalize
A lot has been said about the social changes that must take place in order for the War on (some) Drugs – and specifically the War on Cannabis – to end. Many have discussed the education and outreach that needs to happen to remove the stigma of marijuana in many American’s minds. That is only the beginning.
Fundamental changes to how we conduct law enforcement need to happen. The Drug War, like no other beast, has completely changed the paradigm of policing. The friendly neighborhood cop that helped children, walked the elderly across the street, and was there to arrest the bad guys is a dying breed. Today, we have steroid-induced muscles topped by a military-style haircut and a uniform that is increasingly moving towards combat black instead of honorable blue.
Submachine guns, sneers, “tase first, as questions later,” and other aspects of the enforcer’s demeanor are becoming the norm. Traffic violations are quickly becoming beat-downs and arrests on flimsy charges because a citizen dared ask a question of the officer. These and other changes in how our peace officers became enforcers have made a distinct “Us vs. Them” attitude amongst both the populace and their police agents.
That, above all else, is what needs to change and what will change the most should the Drug War end tomorrow. It will, however, be the hardest thing to get rid of because a full generation of police and citizens have become accustomed to this paradigm.
Another major change will need to be made in how we both pay for and what we expect out of our police forces. Without the drug war, billions of dollars will no longer flow into the police department’s coffers. That will mean a lot of cops will be out of a job. With a large percentage of the usual arrests and criminal investigations no longer available to them (marijuana is about 25% of most arrests and investigation), those officers will no longer be needed.
As prisons empty of their populations of people arrested on victimless charges (possession, production), those former inmates may need to be re-integrated into society carefully. With the recidivism rate high and with most prisoners having a latent hate for society as a whole, thanks to their incarceration by that society, some integration may be necessary.
Overall, though, the greatest changes will be political. Washington elitists have come to rely on the War on (some) Drugs as their fallback, their fundamental, or their cornerstone for building a reputation and quickly swaying voters. By making the “tough on crime” and “keep our children off drugs” rhetoric, they’ve got an easy way to sound like they’re out for the public good. We’ll need to wean them off of that way of thinking and the lobbyist dollars that often accompany it.
Last but not least, we’ll have to admit to the world, as a nation, that our Drug War has been a waste of time and resources and that we’ve been going about it wrong all along. This will mean changing the policy of the United Nations – a policy that the U.S. inserted in there from the beginning.
None of this will be easy.
What Motivated Marijuana’s Outlawing in the U.S. by Aaron Turpen, CannaCentral.com
Failed marijuana policies are a bipartisan boondoggle by Paul Armentano, The Hill
Effect of Drug Law Enforcement on Drug-Related Violence: Evidence from a Scientific Review by D Werb, G Rowell, et al (2010)
The Secret of Worldwide Drug Prohibition by Harry G. Levine, The Independent Review (2002)
Drug and Crime Facts, Bureau of Justice Statistics (US Dept. of Justice)
War on Drugs, Wikipedia
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