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The case for marijuana legalization

Supporters of legalization say prohibition has failed to significantly reduce access to and use of marijuana, while wasting billions of dollars and resulting in hundreds of thousands of racially skewed arrests each year. Legalization, by comparison, would allow people to use a relatively safe substance without the threat of arrest, and let all levels of government raise new revenues from pot sales and redirect resources to bigger needs.

A 2013 report by the American Civil Liberties Union found that there are several hundred thousand arrests for marijuana possession each year. These arrests are hugely skewed by race: Black and white Americans use marijuana at similar rates, but black people were 3.7 times more likely to be arrested than white Americans for marijuana possession in 2010.

A chart showing disparities between white and black arrest rates for marijuana possession. American Civil Liberties Union

The arrests not only cost law enforcement time and money, they also damage the government’s credibility. Former Washington, DC, Police Chief Cathy Lanier explained in early 2015, ”All those arrests do is make people hate us. … Marijuana smokers are not going to attack and kill a cop. They just want to get a bag of chips and relax. Alcohol is a much bigger problem.”

At the same time, prohibition has failed to notably reduce marijuana use. The war on drugs originally intended to take down the supply of illegal drugs, increase prices as a result, and make drugs unaffordable to users. Those goals by and large failed: The White House’s Office of National Drug Control Policy found that marijuana prices dropped and stabilized after the early 1990s, and several surveys show marijuana use rose and stabilized among youth in the same time period.

Meanwhile, drug prohibition has created a lucrative black market for drug cartels and other criminal enterprises. Previous studies from the Mexican Institute of Competitiveness and the RAND Corporation suggested that marijuana at one point made up roughly 20 to 30 percent of drug cartels’ revenue. Through legalization, drug cartels lose much of that revenue, as sales transition to a legal market, crippling resources these criminal groups use to carry out violent operations around the world.

Legalization would also allow the federal government to tax sales to fund new programs, including treatment for people with drug use disorders. A 2010 paper from the libertarian Cato Institute found legalizing marijuana would net all levels of the government $17.4 billion annually — half of that would come from reduced spending (particularly for drug enforcement), and the rest would come from taxing marijuana like alcohol and tobacco.

More broadly, the legalization movement falls into a broader shift against the harsh criminal justice policies that came out of the war on drugs. As Americans look for alternatives to punitive prison sentences that turned the US into the world’s leader in incarceration, legalizing a relatively safe drug seems like low-hanging fruit.