America’s Marijuana Laws: A Tangle of Contradictions

Marijuana Laws

America is more divided than ever, but there is one issue about which we all seem to agree: Marijuana laws need to change. States across the board seem to be ready and willing to legalize marijuana, or at least to decriminalize it. Even spots in the media you wouldn’t expect are on board. Of course, organizations like the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws (NORML) are pushing for marijuana laws to change, but did you know that so is the Economist, a solidly conservative publication?

Marijuana legalization seems poised to one day sweep the country, and why not? There are myriad reasons for its legalization: ending the moral panic over drugs, lowering crime rates and our overall prison population, and confronting the racist marijuana policy. But among all these practical reasons, one seems to cry out louder than the rest: legalizing marijuana would provide the United States billions of dollars, giving our economy a much needed boost. Marijuana legalization would also enhance state coffers, local communities, not to mention it would save regional and state governments huge amounts of money in wasted law enforcement dollars.

The most obvious economic aspect of the case for marijuana legalization lies in tax revenues. After all, the annual trade of marijuana is now estimated to be at $113 billion, which is about $45 billion in taxes. Tax authorities are actually missing out on municipal, state, and federal taxes which could fund a broad assortment of initiatives. The money could even be well spent on assistance programs for hard drug users, given the current incarceration rate. Also, if taking marijuana out of the black market and bringing it into the public light also provides clear savings for the government on top of net tax gains, in addition to ensuring a safe and regulated product. The drug war is notorious for costing the U.S. government a tremendous sum, and while these operations cover a wide range of Schedule I drugs (marijuana, cocaine, heroin, and meth, among others), spending to enforce the law for those illegal substances would dramatically decrease without marijuana.

Through legalization, many other facets of debt and spending would also decrease if marijuana laws were to change—first among them being prison costs. Statistically, an estimated one in four people are in prison because of a non-violent drug offense. This includes the possession, sale, and repeat offense related to marijuana. Marijuana-related arrests make up a huge percentage of law enforcement actions involving drugs.

Cutting down on the number of people imprisoned for a drug-related offense also has indirect economic benefits, by keeping people in their own communities. Systemic poverty can be directly linked to fractured communities, such as those that have been torn apart by the drug war. Allowing people to remain with their families, economically participate in their communities, and contribute to society boosts not only their own economic situation, but the community’s as well.

Economically, the legalization of marijuana would create a ripple effect through related industries. Cultivation, farmers, farmworkers, fertilizer firms, and other manufacturers of agricultural products all stand to benefit. Additionally, given the large power demands associated with indoor growing, it’s possible that the likely boom in marijuana cultivation could also stimulate the alternative energy industry — especially as consumers push
for organic and ethically produced marijuana. In addition, an increase in open cultivation would reduce illegal farming, fertilizer pollution, and related problems, which is intrinsically better for the environment. Without the need to hire crews to hide growing operations, such marijuana growers could spend their funds more productively.

It seems rather contradictory that a country that loves to tout free market capitalism would be so sluggish to legalize marijuana. The tangle of morals and intoxicants doesn’t seem to have an effect on the legalization of tobacco and alcohol, whose industries remain highly regulated and highly profitable. There is some light poking
through the clouds of hypocrisy, however, with Washington D.C., Oregon and Alaska now in the process of marijuana legalization. And even though the legalization measure was shot down in Florida, it was only a sliver of a defeat. It seems that at this trajectory, these states will join the ranks of Washington and Colorado, who have already fully legalized marijuana.