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The Problems with Legalization

War on Drugs

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The Problems with Legalization

Illustration by Daniel Garcia

The Problems with Legalization

No one should have ever gone to jail for marijuana. The actual safety profile of the cannabis plant has nothing to do with prohibition or the War on Drugs; in fact cannabis is one of the safest substances in the world. Prohibition has always been firmly rooted in control of commerce and marginalization and especially racism.

The future of cannabis is happening right now. Legalization is no longer an abstract concept; it is the reality that is happening all around us — but the devil is in the details. The 2016 election cycle has seen a flood of new cannabis legislation around the nation. There are problems associated with legalization and how we — an industry, movement and society at large —address the dismantling of prohibition while ushering in commerce.

According to recent Gallup and Pew polls, more than half the American electorate supports full legalization and 80 percent support safe access for medical use. The majority of Americans clearly recognize the real need for the legalization of cannabis and an end to the war, so why do legalization laws continue to pander to the fears of the opposition? While new laws tend to emphasize tax revenue, there are real world consequences for appeasing the opposition’s irrational fears while gouging cannabis users. We need legalization and normalization. Our work doesn’t end with the passage of a law; it begins with the first day of enactment.

In the 2014 documentary “Evergreen: The Road to Legalization,” the contentious Washington State campaign, I-502, was covered in detail leading up to and after the 2012 election where both Washington and Colorado became the first states to vote to legalize marijuana. Longtime activist and Seattle Hempfest organizer Vivian McPeak summed up the mood of the vote in Washington, “[20 years ago] legalization seemed so far off in the distance it wasn’t really relevant.”

McPeak went on to acknowledge there was unity when legalization was hypothetical, but today the details of legalization can be downright divisive. Much of the “No on I-502” campaign was actually pro-marijuana; they voted against legalization because they viewed the specific legislation as appeasing to the opposition and feared it would put the state’s medical cannabis program under attack.

“I supported I-502 with reservations,” said 40-year legalization advocate and THCF clinic founder Paul Stanford. “I thought it would move the ball forward, and it has, but there were a lot of problems with it and it was very contentious. All the naysayers were right, it did curtail medical marijuana and do the things that they were afraid of. So far it doesn’t look pretty at all up there.”

What went wrong in Washington? The ideology of I-502 fundamentally views cannabis as a vice substance like tobacco or alcohol and acknowledges the political fallacy that medical cannabis is a farce. Their medical system is under attack while the state over-regulates and over-taxes recreational marijuana creating a flourishing black market for cannabis in a state where it is legal to possess. The greed motivating these laws is blind to its own profit-hampering stupidity.

Additionally, in the 21st century it is time to systemically acknowledge that Black Lives Matter and dismantling the Drug War is a major step towards justice — historically, prohibition policies have always been created, supported and maintained by fear and “othering.”

War on Drugs- Cannabis Now


“The War on Drugs, cloaked in race-neutral language, offered whites opposed to racial reform a unique opportunity to express their hostility toward blacks and black progress, without being exposed to this charge of racism,” says Michelle Alexander in “The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindess.”

In post-Civil War America there was a lot of fear of freed, black slaves prospering amongst whites in society. Drug War laws were instilled to control and marginalize ethnic, religious and social groups deemed in opposition to traditional white American society. This has spread beyond racial subjugation to cultural subjugation of those deemed to be outside the “mainstream”— despite the use of cannabis being so ubiquitous across racial and socioeconomic lines.

“Reefer makes darkies think they’re as good as white men,” Harry J. Anslinger famously said when campaigning for cannabis prohibition in the 1930s.

Anslinger was behind the infamously ridiculous 1936 movie “Reefer Madness,” which portrayed a group of promising young white people spinning into a comical web of degeneracy after smoking the demon weed. He was a deranged racist and career law enforcer who played on white America’s fear of immigrants, Mexicans and black people. Continuing policies designed by a racist around racist ideals is, simply, racist.

In addition to being racist, prohibition of any drug only serves to fuel dangerous black markets, perpetuate misinformation, contribute to addiction and abuse rates and are simply un-American. Additionally, the medical potential of the cannabis plant has been and continues to be politically stymied, all while people are physically suffering and dying in the name of un-scientific, illogical and racist laws.

Founding father Thomas Jefferson is famously quoted as saying, “If people let the government decide what foods they eat and what medicines they take, their bodies will soon be in as sorry a state as are the souls of those who live under tyranny.”

Today, we live under a tyranny of our own invention in the Drug War America. True control is not forcing a victim in a cage; it’s making them believe they want to or deserve to be in it. There are Americans serving life sentences or losing their jobs, homes and children to the government under tyrannical drug laws. These Americans are disproportionately poorer and more likely to be a minority. These people will not profit from legalization, in fact, they will hardly benefit.

But let’s just step back from all the fear and rhetoric surrounding the politics of legalizing the cannabis plant and look at the basic pharmacology.

Even though sugar, processed foods, pharmaceutical drugs, tobacco and alcohol are legal, they contribute to illness and/or behaviors and habits that lead to death. Now look at cannabis, it is impossible to overdose and/or die from the plant. Clean organic-grown cannabis is one of the safest substances a human can ingest. Cannabis leads to exactly zero deaths every year everywhere. That is an actual fact. Shouldn’t that fact be compelling enough to de-schedule cannabis federally, permit small home gardens and open the doors to both commerce and medical research? Are we ready for renewable carbon-negative industrial hemp instead of paper, petroleum and plastics?

As cannabis users, we shouldn’t have to sell our liberty to the naysayers. We know the facts, we understand the safety and know nobody would be harmed if we grew, used, sold, shared, possessed or ingested cannabis.

Where do we go from here? The ballot box. Then, we stand in the halls of our state legislators and city councils and continue the work. Legalization is just the beginning but normalization is the future — if we want it. It’s time we push beyond legalization double talk to a society of full cannabis normalization. Because once we achieve normalization, society can file away the racist policies of Anslinger and move into a fitter, happier and more productive cannabis-fueled future.

Originally published in issue 19 of Cannabis Now. LEARN MORE.

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