By Elliott Stephanopoulos ’21
Marijuana, also known as cannabis or weed, is classified as a Schedule 1 drug by the United States Drug Enforcement Administration. A Schedule I drug is defined as “a drug with no currently accepted medical use and a high potential for abuse.” For context, other Schedule I drugs include heroin, LSD, MDMA, and methaqualone (also known as quaaludes). These other drugs have proven to be addictive and are susceptible to overdose; methaqualone is not even manufactured anymore.
However, marijuana has never been directly responsible for an overdose or death, and recent studies have shown that it is far less addictive than the other Schedule I drugs. Beyond that, marijuana has many widely accepted medical uses with demonstrated health benefits. The American Alliance for Medical Cannabis lists cannabis as a treatment for ALS, Anxiety, Autism, chronic pain, ADHD, and other mental health issues. Studies have also shown that the use of cannabis can help to reduce cancer cell growth in breasts, cervixes, prostates, skin, and lungs.
Legalizing marijuana would not only improve the quality of life for millions of Americans in pain, but also enhance the economy.
It has been estimated that legalization could add up to $24 billion to the economy and create thousands of jobs in the next five years. According to researcher Alan Pyke, not arresting individuals for marijuana possession would save between $1.19 billion dollars and $6.03 billion a year. After Colorado legalized marijuana, “$40 million of marijuana tax revenue went to public school construction, while $105 million went to housing programs, mental health programs in jails, and health programs in middle schools in 2016-2017,” states Forbes.
Arguably the largest positive change of legalizing marijuana would be to combat the impacts of the War on Drugs and to help stop the racial injustice in the prison system. The War on Drugs, specifically marijuana, is synonymous with a war on People of Color.
The New York Times reports that, on average in the United States, a Black person is 3.73 times more likely than a non-Black person is to be arrested for marijuana possession. According to Politico, in New York City alone Black and Hispanic people are two times more likely than white people to have a marijuana possession case result in a conviction. In states with large racial disparities and prejudices, the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) estimates that Black people can be up to “30 times more likely to be arrested than white residents in the same county.”
Between 2001 and 2010, 7,295,880 arrests were made just for marijuana possession. The ramifications of a marijuana possession conviction can impact careers and family life; one can lose his or her ability to obtain public housing, financial aid for school, loans, and jobs.
The ACLU has proposed wide ranging reform of marijuana laws for federal, state, and local governments: legalizing marijuana use and possession; not replacing marijuana prohibition with a system of fines, fees, and arrests; granting clemency to or resentencing anyone incarcerated on a marijuana conviction; expunging all marijuana convictions; eliminating collateral consequences that result from marijuana arrests or convictions; ensuring new legal markets benefit and are accessible to communities most harmed by the War on Drugs; ensuring marijuana possession and other low-level offense arrests are not included in performance measures for federal funding for law enforcement agencies; ending the enforcement of marijuana possession and distribution, ending racial profiling by police; eliminating consent searches; ending the practice of using raw numbers of stops, citations, summons, and arrests as a metric to measure productivity and efficacy; developing systems for the routine collection of accurate data on a range of police practices; investing in nonpunitive programs and community-based services and divest from law enforcement; and developing, securing, and implementing strong, independent, and effective oversight mechanisms for local law enforcement.
To effectively benefit from legalizing marijuana, the US would have to “license, tax, and regulate marijuana production, distribution, and possession for persons 21 or older, remove criminal and civil penalties for activities so authorized, tax marijuana sales, and earmark marijuana-related revenues to public schools and substance-abuse prevention, including community- and school-based programs, as well as general funds, local budgets, research and health care.”
The benefits of legalization and decriminalization by far outweigh the risks. It should be unfathomable for the American public not to want more tax dollars, job opportunities, stronger public schooling, a more sympathetic approach to substance abuse, and new pain management medication. Why wouldn’t the American people want to save money by not spending billions of dollars on policing marijuana and filling prisons to capacity?
With the opioid epidemic still on the rise, marijuana could present a non-addictive pain management medication, especially for lower-level injuries where opioids are unnecessarily prescribed.
By introducing marijuana as an acceptable and easily accessible medication, we could lower the addiction rate in the US, flatline the opioid epidemic, and put less money into Big Pharma.
The use of recreational marijuana is common among New York residents. I have noticed the strong contrast between the news stories of unfair weed arrests and the racial disparity versus the casual usage of weed as a way for white teens to have fun on a night out. I urge young people who use weed or weed-related products to recognize their privilege and work towards helping others who have life sentences for engaging in the same activities. It is important for all citizens of the US to uncover the truths of the War on Drugs and the Thirteenth Amendment to understand the oppression enforced by the police and prison system on Black and brown communities.
By not only legalizing but also decriminalizing marijuana, our country can take steps towards racial and socioeconomic equality. Marijuana presents a new and substantial antidote for our current economic crisis, our high rate of unemployment, our opioid epidemic, our fight for racial equality, and for a facet of police brutality.
An important step to take to help to legalize and decriminalize marijuana is to use your voice and vote for representatives that share your beliefs. If you are not able to vote, sign petitions, and donate to bail funds. Check out The Last Prisoner Project to learn more.