In recent months, a really interesting series of events have exposed an amazing hypocrisy within the federal government and the pharma companies that are lobbying to keep pot illegal. Now that pot is being studied and pharma companies are working on prescribing synthetic pot as a medicine, they are trying to have their cake and eat it too by keeping real pot illegal, while creating exceptions for their product.
Last month, the DEA announced that the synthetic pot created by InSys Therapeutics (the company we can thank for Fentanyl) would be classified as a schedule 2 drug, while they refused to consider reclassifying natural pot in the same way.
This choice exposes a really corrupt series of behind the scenes choices. Pharma companies stand to gain an enormous amount of money from selling pot derivatives as medicine, but have serious competition in the form of legal natural weed that anybody can grow. Their solution to this appears to be spending hundreds of thousands of dollars to lobby federal agencies and get them to carve out exceptions for their products, while keeping their competition illegal.
In effect, this creates a horribly disparate legal playing field. If this continues, a wealthy multi-national corporation will be able to produce expensive pot derivatives and sell them as pharmaceutical drugs, while a sick person who grows a couple of pot plants to supply their own medicine will be at risk of being thrown in jail. They are taking money to artificially grant a monopoly on pot-based medicine to these rich donor companies, while keeping the pipeline of safe, natural, and cheap, pot closed down (artificial scarcity).
What the government is saying here is that wealthy corporations have the right to manufacture and sell pot, while poor people don’t have these rights. Ironically, natural pot is significantly safer than synthetic pot (which has been known to produce negative reactions in some people), making this disparity even more unfair.
The criminalization of marijuana has been one of the most counter-productive health and justice policies that the United States has ever implemented. It completely disregards the cost-benefit analysis and is based on a combination of reactionary fear-mongering (e.g. Reefer madness convincing middle class parents that pot will turn their kids into lunatics) and racism (e.g. Nixon using the war on pot to criminalize liberals and minorities for political reasons).
There are many positives to pot legalization…
First, it is functionally impossible to overdose on pot, and there is mounting evidence that legalizing pot reduces opiate overdoses (by as much as 25% in some studies) because some addicts prefer legal pot to illegal opiate drugs. Un effect, it is acting as a reverse-gateway drug, and enticing some opiate abusers to pick a less dangerous drug.
Second, pot has numerous health benefits—from helping treat asthma and managing seizure disorders, to reducing the side effects of cancer treatments and replacing commercial anti-depressants—and could be a great natural alternative to a whole host of much more dangerous synthetic pharmaceuticals.
Third, legalizing, taxing and regulating pot provides an enormous economic boom to state budgets and promises to add millions of dollars to cash-strapped state coffers. In 2015, the state of Colorado collected nearly $70 million dollars from taxing legal pot sales, over half of which was routed into the public school budget.
…and there are many negatives to pot criminalization:
First, Americans are unable to take advantage of the benefits of pot use without having to worry about being criminalized, arrested, and ruined. This is particularly cruel when people suffer from a chronic disease and must choose between what is best for their health, and following the law.
Second, the war on pot has caused absolute devastation in poor and minority communities. Entire generations of poor men and women have been criminalized for a non-violent and harmless offense, pushing them into a cycle of incarceration. After being arrested for pot use, it is harder to get a job or public assistance, thus poor communities are marginalized and more likely to be forced into the illicit markets to survive (e.g. drug dealing). This problem is fundamentally racist and classist, with poor and minority communities being targeted for their pot use, while suburban whites and the wealthy are ignored.
Third, criminalizing pot is an enormous waste of resources that has sucked up untold billions of dollars of our tax revenue to wage a hopeless war against something that may actually be helpful.
Given the clear positives of pot legalization and negatives of pot criminalization, it would appear to be a no-brainer to legalize, tax and regulate marijuana across the entire United States. Sadly, this is not the case, and the federal government still insists on classifying pot a schedule 1 drug, putting it in the same category as meth, crack and heroin. While numerous states have taken steps to legalize pot (8 states have legalized recreational pot while 28 have legalized medical pot), these positive steps could be erased if the federal government decides to start enforcing its laws using the supremacy clause to trump state laws.
As with many issues, the reasons why pot is still criminalized can be boiled down to ignorance, racism, and corruption.
Decades of fear-mongering over pot have deeply engrained an anti-pot bias into some segments of the population, including law enforcement. At the same time, pot has been criminalized to the point where it couldn’t easily be studied, so the benefits of pot were not well understood until recently.
The deep racism and classism underpinning the drug war was created a situation where those with the most political power/capital have been the least affected by the drug war. This means that those with the power to actually change policy were the least likely to have experienced injustice on this issue.
Finally, corruption has been a driving factor in keeping pot illegal. Alcohol and pharmaceutical companies spend millions of dollars each year to fight legalized pot so that they can keep one of their strongest competitors illegal. Similarly, prison guard and police lobbies have also backed up the criminalization of pot so that they can justify their own jobs (if pot were legal, drug offenses would be cut in half overnight and we would need fewer prison guards and police).
America needs to legalize pot, end the drug war, and reject the culture of criminalization. It is certainly true that some people can be negatively impacted by drug use, but a treatment paradigm is much more effective than criminalization. Offering treatment to people who are struggling is more humane, cost-effective, and moral than simply locking them up and ruining the rest of their lives by labeling them a felon.
Fortunately, this appears to be the dominant direction of change at play today. States have gradually begun to legalize pot and there is no sign that they will reverse course (they have realized just how much taxable pot and eliminating pot arrest costs benefits their budgets).
That said, we must guard against corrupt half-measures. We cannot allow those in power to create a loophole for the already powerful to exploit the demand for pot, while crushing the average person who dares to compete with them. This result is arguably worse than a total ban, as it retains the criminalization problems with the war on drugs, while creating an untenable legal disparity based on who gives money to the people enforcing the law.
Edited by Lydia McMullen-Laird