The final Catalyst issue of 2013 features yet another article delving into the topic of the marijuana marketplace. The first article of the series analyzed what steps these state governments have taken to implement a marijuana market and how they are going to regulate it. Last week’s article focused on the societal impacts of selling legal weed that are anticipated for the coming year in Colorado and Washington. For the last installment of this trilogy, I take a look at the future of the marijuana marketplace and the viewpoint our anti-weed federal government continues to maintain.
Our federal government has held differing views of the cannabis plant over the course of history. Hemp was a common crop when the Puritans established the 13 colonies. In 1619, the Virginia House of Burgesses passed an act requiring all planters in Virginia to sow hemp on their plantations. By 1645, hemp was being cultivated by Puritans all across New England. For centuries, hemp was our nation’s biggest cash crop.
The cultivation of the cannabis plant was ultimately made illegal in the US when Congress passed the Marijuana Tax Act of 1937 — spelled as marihuana in the original wording of the legislation — which levied a tax on anyone who dealt commercially in cannabis, marijuana, or hemp. Many believe that this tax was created to appease special interests. Businessman Randolph Hearst lobbied for this tax because he feared that hemp cultivation machinery threatened his extensive timber holdings, which provided paper pulp for the newspaper industry. The Secretary of the Treasury and the wealthiest man in the world at that time, Andrew Mellon, also played a role in the prohibition of marijuana. Mellon was heavily invested in the DuPont family’s new synthetic fiber, nylon, and knew that eliminating hemp cultivation was critical to the product’s success. Ironically, when the cultivation of cannabis was outlawed in 1937, hemp lost most of its value as a crop, but the value of marijuana crops grew exponentially.
Not many people knew of the primary psychoactive agent of the plant, tetrahydrocannibinol (THC), when it was outlawed in 1937, but as time went on people became familiar with the drug and started using it recreationally. As of 2008, almost 100 million Americans admit to having tried it and 15 million said they use it regularly – and that’s just among those who were honest about their reported use. As marijuana use expanded in the 1960s, the federal government started to crack down hard on those who used or distributed the drug. In 1969, close to 100,000 people were arrested on marijuana charges. Interestingly, that same year the Supreme Court struck down the Marijuana Tax Act in the case ‘Leary v. United States’ on the grounds that it violated the Fifth Amendment. This case was superseded the next year when the federal government created the Controlled Substances Act of 1970, which labeled the cannabis plant a drug that has a high risk of abuse and no currently accepted medical use.
This has been the stance of the federal government when it comes to weed for the last 43 years. Arrests for marijuana-related crimes since its classification as a Schedule 1 narcotic have risen by the tens of thousands every year. In 1972, almost 300,000 people were arrested on marijuana charges in that year alone; in 1982, close to 450,000 people were arrested for smoking weed. The yearly arrest rate during the H.W. Bush administration was 338,000, a rate that increased by 30 percent under the Clinton administration. Since 1995, nearly 9.5 million Americans have been arrested for marijuana crimes, with possession accounting for 90 percent of those arrests. In 2010, around 853,000 people were arrested for marijuana, the second highest yearly rate in the Drug War, and over the past three years the annual arrest rate has remained over 750,000.
Over the course of the past four decades, there has been a growing acceptance and consensus that marijuana causes no harm to the individual and society, and even has medical applications. However, the actions of our federal government over the same period of time illustrate that our political leaders want to ignore the facts and keep the prohibition in place. Two weeks ago, the Catalyst featured a wonderful article on how the US federal government is locking up more of its own citizens than any other country in the world. As was stated in the article, many of these arrests stem from the ‘War on Drugs’ and specifically the prohibition of marijuana. The federal government has chosen to shift its attention away from violent criminals and focus on non-violent drug users, establishing heavy mandatory minimums that can ruin the life of anyone who cultivates or sells marijuana. Not only that, but those who are arrested on marijuana charges are disproportionately African American. Our federal government has chosen to fight a war that marginalizes those of minority races and those who live in poverty.
Many believe that the US federal government maintained its position on marijuana prohibition in order to profit through the expansion of the prison industrial complex, the rapid expansion of the US inmate population to the benefit of prison companies and businesses that supply goods and services to government prison agencies. Many think that the ‘War on Drugs’ is a way to continue to suppress African Americans, as well as Latinos, by taking away their chances of having an education, housing, and full civil rights. Regardless of the motivation behind it, marijuana prohibition exists and it’s time for our federal government to change its ways.
When President Obama entered office in 2009, his administration stressed that the War on Drugs was over and that his administration would change the way the federal government approaches the issue of drug use. Yet the DEA continues to raid dispensaries in states that have legalized medical marijuana, and the yearly arrest rates for marijuana have stayed the same. The US has the highest rate of drug consumption in the world, and it is time our federal government took responsibility for it. By enforcing a policy of punishment and prohibition, we make drug markets extremely valuable for those from impoverished backgrounds. Cartels from Mexico have taken up producing and supplying the US with many of the drugs it desires, creating a violent war over territory that has left more than 60,000 people in Mexico dead.
Marijuana is the most profitable target for the War on Drugs, with US border patrol seizing close to two million pounds of weed in 2011, and around 7,500 and 1,700 pounds of cocaine and methamphetamine, respectively. Harvard economist Jeffrey Miron has estimated that replacing marijuana prohibition with a system of taxation and regulation would save our country between $10 billion and $14 billion, while potentially creating an industry that would generate tax revenue of around $31 billion. It’s time our government takes the profits away from the drug cartels and puts it back into the pockets of our government and citizens. It’s time that the US changed its status as the leading country for locking up its own citizens and suppressing minority races. It’s time for the full legalization of marijuana!