Though I usually use the time honored wisdom of Mr. Mackey as a guiding light through the quagmires and pitfalls of life, there is one instance in which, economically at least, he is decidedly incorrect. I am speaking here about the United States’ continuing involvement in the prohibition of Marijuana.
Living in a state whose laws regarding cannabis are as liberal as Washington’s, it may be easy to forget that, for the vast majority of Americans (and technically still for us as well), the possession, manufacture and distribution of Marijuana is an offense punishable by up to life in prison and a four million dollar fine. From a purely moral perspective, punishing the sale of plant material more harshly than we do most instances of manslaughter (and even some cases of murder) seems reprehensible. Such a law makes equally less sense from an economic point of view.
The United States has the largest rate of incarceration in the world, with just five percent of the world’s population and 25 percent of its prisoners. And more than half of those prisoners are incarcerated for drug offenses. Furthermore, we incarcerate 27 percent of those drug offenders for marijuana related crimes (more than we put away for Heroin, Crack and hallucinogens combined). There are 98,554 Marijuana offenders in prison right now which cost us about 35 billion dollars every year to keep there. While such a figure is indeed staggering, it does not come close to the real cost we incur by maintaining such archaic and draconian drug policies. While each of those 98,554 people are in prison, they are probably not doing the jobs that they are best suited for (which may in some cases be the production, distribution or manufacture of marijuana), rearing their children to be morally upstanding, economically productive citizens or making taxable exchanges of money for goods and services. Instead, they rot in their cells, unhappy, unsafe and unproductive.
Despite the rather gloomy way in which I have chosen to portray Untied States drug policy, I maintain a great deal of hope for the future. One need look no further than the landmark legislation legalizing recreational marijuana in Washington and Colorado in order to share in my optimism. Since these laws were enacted, a total of 18.9 million in additional tax revenue has been collected in Colorado alone (not to mention the wages not lost to keeping a sizable portion of the population in prison).
Though some may say that such legislation will negatively impact the well-being of the general population through increased medical expenses, crime and decreased productivity, such fears have generally yet to be realized in states with recreational marijuana. While I make no claim that any drug is harmless, do we not owe it to ourselves as a society to evaluate the perceived risks of legalization against the known(and quite considerable) detriments of prohibition? With this in mind, I would like to reassess my initial condemnation of Mr. Mackey’s words. While drugs are, in fact, bad M’kay, prohibition is far worse.