By Al Markowitz
A few weeks ago the Virginian Pilot ran an article about a child with uncontrollable seizures. Caleb Thomas had been through the mill of medications that didn’t work. Like others with the same, or similar conditions, his symptoms are abated with the use of cannabis – in this case cannabis oil. I had read about another, almost identical case of a Richmond family who had moved to Colorado to have legal access to this needed medication. The Thomas family may have to follow. There are a growing number of cannabis refugees moving to Colorado from more repressive states like ours.
It seems, as far as cannabis is concerned, that the failure of the drug war has been declared as state after state wrestles with various levels of decriminalization and legalization. The time has certainly come. Cannabis, also called marijuana beginning in the 1930’s, has been a traditional medicine for millenia and was in popular use in our own country in tincture form in the past. It is known to be a powerful anti-inflammatory agent, an anti-spasmodic and anti-seizure treatment, as well as treating PTSD, digestive disorders, glaucoma, nausea and pain. It is also less harmful than Tylenol and many approved medications, much less alcohol.
Meanwhile the criminal status of cannabis in states like ours continues to feed the Prison Industrial System resulting largely from the “War on Drugs.” As a result, the United States has approximately 1.8 million people behind bars: about 100,000 in federal custody, 1.1 million in state custody, and 600,000 in local jails. The United States now imprisons more people than any other country in the world, even more than China, a much larger and more populous nation not known for civil liberties.
This failed policy disproportionately affects African Americans. Over the past 40 years, the War on Drugs has cost more than $1 trillion and accounted for more than 45 million arrests. Since 1994, the disparity between white and non-white prisoners as a percentage of the total prison population has widened dramatically. Although whites account for 69% of drug offenses, state prison incarceration rates for African Americans for drug law violations are almost 20 times those of whites and more than double those of Hispanics. From 1990 to 1994, incarceration for drug offenses accounted for 60% of the increase in the black population in state prisons and 91% of the increase in Federal prisons. In 2009 nearly 1.7 million people were arrested in the U.S. for nonviolent drug charges – more than half of those arrests were for marijuana possession alone.
Though many people in law enforcement are opposed to the continuing war on drugs, police departments have a financial incentive to continue it. When someone is found guilty of selling drugs in any quantity, police departments are authorized to seize and auction off all their property, keeping the money made. Though police departments can always use the money, it sets up a conflict of interest that encourages corruption and citizen abuse. The cost of this failed policy has been devastating to those serving years of their lives in our penitentiaries for even minor drug infractions as well as to their families and to our communities. As we saw in the Ryan Frederick case in Chesapeake, unreliable snitches are often used to justify raids and prosecute offenses and lives are needlessly lost. Many innocent people have been locked away for years on the flimsiest of evidence. Many otherwise law abiding people using Cannabis for medical reasons are criminalized as well.
The stigma of a conviction, or even an arrest for possession is a long term burden I can attest to. I was arrested for possession back in the early 1970’s and it stays on the record. When looking for work, I’ve had to include it on every job application that asked.. When seeking a city permit to drive a cab, I was informed that I could not legally do so in Norfolk due to this old charge in spite of a perfect driving record.
The arguments against legalization of cannabis seem to recycle year after year in spite of being refuted by evidence. Cannabis is no more a “gateway drug” than beer and most long term users do not use other drugs. It is often stated that “we don’t know enough” implying unknown dangers but the reality is that cannabis has been studied for decades and there are more scientific papers written on it than any other drug or substance on the face of the earth. There are also decades of actual popular use without major incident or health related issues.
On the economic side, what is lost by legalization in police property seizures, court fees and money to prisons can be recovered in sales, and then some. In the months since legalizing cannabis, Colorado’s Department of Revenue reports that cannabis retailers sold nearly $19 million in recreational cannabis in March, up from $14 million in February. The first three months of legal cannabis have netted about $7.3 million in taxes, not including medical cannabis sales taxes and licenses, which bring the number to $12.6 million. On a national level, cannabis sales in the United States are projected to reach as high as $2.57 billion this year, up from $1.53 billion a year ago. Imagine how much revenue would be collected if cannabis were legal in all 50 states. Our own state could certainly benefit. Maybe we could have better funded schools and public transportation, much less health care for our poorer citizens.
Legalizing cannabis takes it out of the black market and away from criminal syndicates. It also means a more well-regulated and therefore safer product. Uruguay leads the way on this. They have legalized cannabis and established a state agency to control every aspect of commercial production and sales. They have also made it legal for citizens to grow up to six plants or up to 480 grams per year. This is similar to our own laws on home beer brewing. They have done this to undercut the black market and, of course, to raise revenue.
The struggle to end this cruel and needless prohibition has been a long one. Up until a few years ago, it would have been political suicide to support even decriminalization. Thankfully times have changed due to efforts by citizen groups including Law Enforcement Against Prohibition, the Marijuana Policy Project, and NORML. A documentary on the struggle for legalization in Washington State, called Evergreen, will be showing at the Naro in August.
While this is not the most important issue of our time, it affects us all in many ways. Cannabis use, whether for pleasure or as a medical treatment should be an option open to anyone without fear of losing one’s freedom. Too many people are suffering needlessly from both the results of this unnecessary prohibition and from ailments that could be safely treated with cannabis. It’s time the ignorant moralists step aside and our representatives heed the voice of the people and do the sensible thing.