Legalizing pot isn’t just about getting high

Paul Danish/Sue France

Good news! Marijuana arrests in the United States fell to a 20-year low last year!

Now for the bad news.

According to statistics compiled by the FBI, the number of people busted for pot in the U.S. in 2015 still came to 643,121, including 574,641 who were arrested for possession. (The number of those who were arrested for trafficking or sale of pot totaled 68,480, also a 20-year low.)

The number of marijuana possession arrests in 2015 was higher than the combined total of all violent crime arrests in the United States, including murder, rape and aggravated assaults (505,681 violent crime arrests versus 574,641 pot busts).

It’s hard to think of a better metaphor for what’s wrong with the country today. The U.S. seems to have developed a genius for pissing away its collective wealth and energy on fools’ errands, a depressing number of which involve various prohibitionist schemes.

But let’s keep the focus on marijuana prohibition. It is sort of the kingpin of fools’ errands. It costs federal, state and local government billions a year, overcrowds jails and prisons, and gratuitously tags hundreds of thousands of people with criminal records for conduct that should never have been a crime. This has been going on for decades. Since 1965, the year the war on drugs started to get serious, more than 25 million Americans have been arrested on marijuana charges.

The sheer magnitude of those numbers is reason enough to place ending marijuana prohibition at the top of the national agenda. It is as though every man, woman and child in eight Western states were arrested.

The social consequences of the drug war generally and the war on marijuana in particular are probably even worse than the raw total of arrests. They have introduced a level of repression into American life which is unprecedented with any other period of American history.

Practices like aerial spying, urine testing, the routine use of police informers, profiling, kids informing on their parents, stop and frisk, and no-knock search — to name just a few — have become the new normal.

And the distrust they engender poisons normal social relationships among ordinary Americans.

Think also about the implications of those 25 million arrests for the American political system. One near-certain consequence of a person being punished by government for committing a victimless crime (and possessing marijuana is nothing if not a victimless crime) is that he or she will develop a lasting distrust, if not outright hatred, of government.

The foundational principle on which the American political system rests is the consent of the governed — and a necessary condition for government receiving and retaining that consent is that it is, at some level at least, trusted by the governed.

Distrust of government in the U.S. is currently higher than it’s been in decades. Say, you don’t suppose it has something to do with millions of Americans having been arrested, humiliated and dragged through the mud of the criminal justice system for doing something that’s no more inherently criminal than possessing beer or cigarettes?

Maybe all of this would be tolerable if the county were getting something substantial in return. But it isn’t. There has been no discernible improvement in public health, economic activity or social well-being from keeping marijuana illegal; if there were any, they have been eclipsed by the easily discernible destructive consequences of marijuana prohibition.

The end product of 50 years of just saying no is that a lot more people today are just saying yes. If the war on pot were a private sector undertaking, it would have been junked years ago and everyone involved with it would have been fired just on pragmatic grounds.

None of this is particularly new, but it is worth recalling it, because this fall people in nine states are voting on whether to bring the national nightmare of marijuana prohibition to an end. And it’s important to remember that what they will be voting on involves a lot more than getting high. 

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