The people of Washington, Oregon, and Colorado will decide by plebiscite this November on whether to make marijuana legal not for cancer patients and the like, but for all adults. Colorado’s referendum, the one most likely to pass according to polls, is called the “Regulate Marijuana Like Alcohol Act”, and would do just that, removing criminal penalties for adults over 21 for possession of marijuana. While the measures all differ on various points, they are the same with respect to that one issue.
Our nation’s Drug War does not work. That assumes “working” would mean producing a lower percentage of people using illegal drugs or being addicted to illegal drugs. If we define “working” as a massive employment scheme for law enforcement and corrections employees coupled with a state and federal erosion of individual rights, and an incarceration rate surpassing every nation on earth, then the Drug War is an outrageous success. Cocaine and heroin prices have decreased over 80% since the inception of the Drug War, while purity has skyrocketed by about 400% for heroin since 1981, and about 75% for cocaine. What about usage? Surely by locking up millions of Americans and spending about 35 billion dollars annually, there must be a dramatic decrease in users? No. Heroin and Cocaine use is steady without much change year to year. Marijuana use is another story, increasing 50% since 1990.
What about the children? If it helps save the life of just one child, then isn’t it all worth it? Well what if it hurts the children? The data is in, and marijuana use is higher among high school students in the US than it is in the Netherlands, where it has been de facto legal for adults since the mid 1970’s.
It is also harder for young people to get their hands on the drug in the place where it is legal for adults. Accessibility reports show American kids have a much easier time finding weed. In fact, it is easier for the average American teenager to access marijuana than alcohol, and access it they do - about 100% more frequently today than 20 years ago. This, despite an enforcement regime that is ever more active. Those incarceration rates are fed by the steady diet of drug users locked up to the tune of about 750,000 Americans who are arrested every year for simple possession of marijuana. Why? Unless you think the idea of people altering their consciousness in and of itself is worth the billions spent, the children hurt, the lives lost, etc. etc., the answer is clear - let adults alone to make decisions about what they do with their bodies.
While marijuana is not very harmful for most adults, it actually is significantly more dangerous to developing teen brains. Hopefully those who really wish to protect and help young people will look at the numbers and move to legalize it for adults, so that children can be protected.
Failure to make significant changes will simply result in more of the same. As Milton Friedman wrote over 20 years ago:
“Illegality creates obscene profits that finance the murderous tactics of the drug lords; illegality leads to the corruption of law enforcement officials; illegality monopolizes the efforts of honest law forces so that they are starved for resources to fight the simpler crimes of robbery, theft and assault. Drugs are a tragedy for addicts. But criminalizing their use converts that tragedy into a disaster for society, for users and non-users alike. Our experience with the prohibition of drugs is a replay of our experience with the prohibition of alcoholic beverages.”
Is it any wonder the government solution to a problem is ham fisted, costs a fortune, and in the end results in no relief from the issue while at the same time reducing the power and control individuals have over their own lives and increasing government control over the same? Why should the Drug War be any different than Amtrak, or the mohair subsidy? Government solutions are usually the metaphysical opposite of elegant or lightly treading, and we should be loathe to continue them unless the alternative is truly unacceptable.
A change in one or more of these three states’ marijuana laws will certainly not fix the ills of this 35 year policy disaster overnight. It will in time however show that a different way exists, is humane to drug users, costs far less to society and the state, and will produce fewer not more drug users among the young people society has a duty to protect.