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Reaction Time: Federal Pot Policy Has Neither Reason Nor Value

Ariana Aboulafia |
February 12, 2015 | 9:40 a.m. PST



Marijuana has been in the news pretty consistently for the past few months. From reports on Congressional legalization of medical marijuana to the continued debate over recreational legalization, marijuana remains an issue that divides our nation. But, the more I read about marijuana policy, the more the solution seems clear. 

Marijuana has not always been illegal. According to the Drug Policy Alliance, prior to the 20th century, marijuana was used frequently for medicinal reasons and was, in fact, “present in almost all tinctures and medicines available at the time.” The slow demonization of marijuana apparently came as a result of an influx of Mexican immigrants into the United States. Marijuana, a drug that those immigrants frequently used, was first outlawed in the city of El Paso, Texas in order to provide a convenient excuse for detaining, searching and eventually deporting Mexican immigrants – just as opium had been outlawed in San Francisco to quell the flow of Chinese immigrants who frequently used the substance. 

Fast forward to the year 1970, when President Nixon signed the Controlled Substances Act into law. This law is what first categorized drugs into the sections (called “schedules”) that are used for drug classification and punishment by law enforcement today. In theory, drugs are classified by their potential for abuse, medicinal value (or lack thereof) and general level of “danger,” with the “most dangerous” drugs designated as Schedule I and the least dangerous drugs designated as Schedule V.

As an example, heroin, LSD and ecstasy are all considered Schedule I drugs, while cough syrups like Robitussin are considered Schedule V. Seems to make sense, until you realize that marijuana is classified as Schedule I, just like heroin.

In the age where almost half of the country has legalized medical marijuana, how can it be possible that the federal government believes that marijuana has no medicinal value and is as addictive as heroin? Apparently, they don’t – or at least, they didn’t. President Nixon initially placed marijuana in Schedule I as a placeholder while a commission called the Schafer Commission made a determination of its proper placement. And, although the Schafer Commission declared that marijuana did not belong in Schedule I, Nixon ignored their recommendation and left marijuana where it was – and where it still remains, today. 

Despite marijuana’s placement in Schedule I, certain states have recently passed both medicinal and recreational marijuana legislation that legalizes marijuana for various reasons in direct violation of federal policy. Oregon, Alaska, Colorado and Washington have all egalized marijuana for recreational use, causing tension in bordering states that have not legalized marijuana in any form.

The Los Angeles Times recently reported on a “border war” between Colorado, where recreational marijuana is legal, and Nebraska and Oklahoma, where it is not. Nebraska and Oklahoma are filing a lawsuit against the state of Colorado for passing a recreational law that violates federal statutes, but Georgetown law professor Randy Barnett and other legal experts call the claim “weak,” stating that Nebraska and Oklahoma’s actual issue “is with the federal government for not enforcing the federal drug laws… it’s not up to the states to sue each other when the federal government is not enforcing the law.”

Which brings us to the final, perhaps eventually inevitable, solution: nationwide legalization. 

According to the Huffington Post, between October 2012 and September 2013, 27.6 percent of drug offenders (which make up 50 percent of the U.S. prison population as of last month) were in prison for crimes related to marijuana. When it is taken into account that, according to the New York Times, the average taxpayer cost per inmate can be upwards of $30,000 per year, clearly legalizing marijuana would save taxpayers a good amount of money. But, it’s not just lower levels of incarceration that would contribute to our economy. According to a paper published by Harvard economist Jeffrey Miron, simply by not enforcing the federal prohibition of marijuana, the government would save $7.7 billion per year. 

Clearly, keeping marijuana illegal is costing us – it is imprisoning our citizens, sapping billions of dollars per year from our federal budget and breeding discontent between bordering states that feel differently about the ideal role of the federal government in drug policy and the place of marijuana in American society. And, when you add in the racialized, flippant history of the prohibition of marijuana and its eventual classification as a Schedule I drug, it seems incredibly difficult to create or maintain any sort of reasonable argument for the continued enforcement of antiquated drug policy. 

I’m not saying marijuana is completely benign – all drugs have negative side effects, or at least possible negative side effects. But, for the price of $7.7 billion, more room in prisons, and increased interstate cooperation, I think the United States could probably handle the consequences of moving toward a more common-sense policy on drug use.


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