The United States has the highest prison population in the world with over 2 million people behind bars.
That means that 682 out of every 100,000 Americans are incarcerated.
In fact, America’s prison population has increased every year in the last decade, despite the fact that the nation’s crime rate has dropped annually since 1992.
How can this disparity be explained?
While the war on crime may be working, the war on drugs is not.
This is especially evident in marijuana laws.
In most states, mandatory drug sentencing is driving the number of incarcerations through the roof, with more than 734,000 people being arrested on marijuana charges each year.
According to the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws (NORML), that figure is greater than the combined number of people arrested for violent crimes, including murder, rape and assault.
It is fairly obvious that the jail time and fines resulting from marijuana convictions do not fit the crime, and decriminalization should be considered as a start to eliminating this inequity.
Progressive states have already begun this process.
States like California, Oregon, Nevada and Washington have almost completely eliminated incarceration for first-time possession offenders and greatly reduced fines.
These states have also legalized marijuana for medical use to alleviate pain, nausea, glaucoma and other disorders, proving that marijuana is losing its stigma as a hard drug.
The fact that the medical community has acknowledged the benefits of marijuana raises one question: Why is marijuana illegal?
Public opinion equates illegal with bad, which is why there is not a popular movement to have marijuana legalized.
The public has not been educated about the facts of marijuana. They believe it is a party drug.
They also fear that it is harmful, thinking that someone who smokes pot is more likely to try other drugs.
Unfortunately, our government has done nothing to dispel these myths.
Instead, it fosters them.
Anti-drug advertisements sponsored by the Office of National Drug Control Policy and other agencies reinforce these ideas, often portraying marijuana smokers as deadbeat criminals living hopeless lives.
Yet over 80 million Americans have tried marijuana, and 20 million say they’ve used it in the past year, according to the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU).
Obviously, Washington’s message is falling upon deaf ears.
In truth, the dangers of marijuana pale in comparison to many vices that American’s have a propensity toward.
Unlike alcohol, nicotine, and even caffeine, marijuana is not physically addictive.
The body simply does not grow dependent on the substance for survival.
Over 400,000 people die yearly from complications attributed to tobacco use, and 50,000 die annually from alcohol poisoning.
Yet not a single death can be attributed strictly to marijuana smoking.
The worst of this anti-drug propaganda is the “gateway drug” rhetoric.
If marijuana users are more likely to get into other drugs, this is not a reason to keep marijuana illegal.
Rather, this is the single best argument to legalize it.
If marijuana were legal, casual users would not be forced to buy it on the streets, thereby engaging in criminal behavior.
Marijuana smokers are simply forced to deal with individuals who are involved in dealing other drugs.
Marijuana smokers also may find themselves using other drugs because the grass they buy isn’t simply grass.
Many drug dealers who are looking to increase their income lace their marijuana with other drugs.
This creates a market for their other drugs with the unsuspecting pot smoker.
It also enhances their high, and makes them increasingly dependent on the foreign substance.
If marijuana was legalized and regulated, a much safer product could be made available to the consumer.
If policymakers across the country can’t recognize these as good reasons, then maybe they will be able to relate to the economic toll that the enforcement of marijuana prohibition is taking.
According to NORML, more than $10 billion is spent annually in prosecuting and jailing marijuana criminals.
Certainly, this money could be better spent elsewhere.
But opponents of marijuana law reform will argue that on a nationwide scale, $10 billion isn’t that much money.
It’s a valid argument, but these people fail to recognize the incredible amount of new revenue that could be obtained by legalization and regulation.
Marijuana is among the top ten cash crops in the United States.
Profits could reach in excess of $100 billion annually from marijuana sales, in addition to any tax added by state or local authorities.
With all the negative effects of our nation’s marijuana laws – families torn apart by incarceration, taxpayers losing billions of dollars, casual smokers exposed to dangerous and illegal activity – there are many positive reasons to legalize marijuana.
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NEXT WEEK: The legalization and regulation of marijuana is achievable.
Jesse Chadderdon can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org