Up and down the western hemisphere, marijuana policy remains a hot topic of discussion. In 2016, a UN General Assembly Special Session focused on the drug problems in the world, particularly on marijuana problems. The principal message of the session was that the legalization of marijuana was not just a binary choice between making the possession, production, and sale of the drug legal and continuing the existing prohibitions. Legalization covers a wide range of aspects that have profound consequences for outcomes in terms of health, social well-being, tax revenue, job creation, as well as crime level and drug addiction statistics.
The debates are taking place at a time when countries are rethinking their approaches to the drug issue, adopting their policies, and lessening (or toughening) punishment for offenders.
After analyzing the World Drug Report 2016, we may see that the Member States concentrated mostly on the issues of gender, stigmatization, marginalization, violence, human rights, and environmental outcomes of cannabis cultivation. They also focused on effective drug and development policies. As it is noted in the document, “efforts to achieve the Sustainable Development Goals and to effectively address the world drug problem are complimentary and mutually reinforcing.”
Cannabis remains one of the most widely used drugs worldwide. In 2014, nearly four percent of the global population used marijuana—in figures, it is an estimated 183 million people. That is almost 30 percent more than in 1998.
Marijuana use is likely underreported. According to weed statistics provided by a survey by the National Survey on Drug Use and Health, almost 20.5 million people per year used the substance between 1990 and 2005. A survey conducted by the federal government in 2004 showed that 25.8 million Americans (one in ten) used cannabis at least once a year, over 6 percent used the drug on a monthly basis, more than 47 percent of adults admitted that they have tried it at some point in their lives.
More than 40 years after the 37th President of the United States declared war on drugs, the country is finally changing its attitude to marijuana. Twenty-five states, as well as the District of Columbia, have passed laws that made it legal to use cannabis for medical purposes, which is considered to be contrary to the spirit of the international drug control conventions. However, even despite the fact that almost four years have elapsed since the first regulations of legal pot went into effect, the outcomes of the legalization are still not fully understood, and the laws seem to be quite blurred for many cannabis users and even lawyers.
The recent data, along with historical marijuana statistics from the General Social Survey and the Gallup, show how attitudes toward marijuana have shifted over time. Currently, a slim majority of Americans (approximately 53 percent) favor shifting the focus of the nation’s drug policy. Here are a few facts about marijuana and public opinion.
According to the Gallup survey data, much of the change in opinion has occurred over the past five-six years—between 2010 and 2013, the support rose 11 percent. Currently, 53 percent of Americans support the legalization compared to just 12 percent in 1969.
However, when it comes to the issue of decriminalization, there is some differentiation of Americans’ opinion among social, racial, and political groups. While most African-Americans and non-Hispanic whites think that marijuana should be legal in the United States, only 40 percent of Hispanics consider so. The same can be said about Republicans: only 39 percent admit that legal cannabis will benefit the American society. As for generations, while 68 percent of Millennials support the legalization of marijuana, there are only 29 percent of cannabis proponents among the Silent Generation and 50 percent—among the most outspoken backers of the drug decriminalization in the 1970s, Baby Boomers. Although out of all age groups, younger people have always shown the most support for making the drug legal, the greatest leap was in the past few years: 20 percent in 1969 have turned into 71 percent in 2016.
Seven in ten Americans believe that alcohol is more harmful for the human health and society generally than marijuana.
The increased availability of marijuana, edibles, and related products in the U.S. drug market has generated concerns in both the medical and scientific communities. Those concerns are related not just to health consequences and public safety issues of cannabis use but also a vast array of social, economic, and environmental issues. That is what the international community chose as a topic of discussion on the Sustainable Development Goals and the special session of the UN General Assembly on the world drug problem held in 2016.
Currently, the U.S. marijuana industry is booming, and it does not show any signs of slowing down in the near future. A recent report by a leading cannabis industry investment and research firm showed that legal marijuana sales jumped 17 percent in 2015 and were expected to grow by a whopping 25 percent this year to reach $6.7 billion in total sales. ArchView experts expect that the legal cannabis market will surpass almost $22 billion in total annual sales by 2020, meaning an annual growth rate of about 30 percent over the next few years.
The flourishing weed industry is creating a so-called trickle-down effect: cannabis laws fuel sales and taxes revenue and consequently create more jobs and new business opportunities. However, there is a flip side. Just as economic development impacts the drug market, the drug problems have significant economic ramifications. Drug abuse by workers inevitably impacts productivity. The costs spent by state institutions on treatment and rehabilitation of drug users exhaust government budgets.
However, some experts think that the theory stating that legalization of the plant may bring in a big profit for the budgets is a myth. A Harvard economist, Jeffrey Miron, for instance, calculated that the savings from not having to enforce state and federal cannabis laws in arrests, prosecutions, and incarcerations would add nearly $7 billion annually. Excluding additional expenses, including the public health cost or the cost of administering the new laws, legal pot may create a $20 billion “bonus,” Miron believes. But that is not a lot for a country with $1-trillion deficits.
The situation on the black marijuana market seems even more interesting. Facilitating trade and easing trade barriers are considered to be the signs of globalization, but some experts believe that it may also potentially lead to drug trafficking. Trade openness may also promote cooperation between drug cartels and criminal organizations, even of different countries, as well as expand their power and reach. As a result, criminals have more opportunities to evade detection by the local law enforcement. Strategies to facilitate cannabis trade—creating free trade zones, economic areas, and customs unions—may potentially reduce the ability of law enforcement authorities to detect drug traffickers and monitor shipments. On the other hand, however, lack of security and proper governance increases the likelihood of people engaging in illicit cultivation.
In their turn, ecoactivists sound the alarm on the fact that illicit cultivation and production of drugs have adverse effects on the ecosystem. Currently, pot farming is legal in only two states. The main environmental concern resulting from illicit crop cultivation is deforestation: growers may seize certain relatively remote areas for cultivating crops.
Another problem is water. One marijuana plant needs up to six gallons of water per day—it is double the amount consumed by grape vine. Researchers from the California Department of Fish and Wildlife found that cannabis grow sites depleted each watershed in northern California by anywhere from 138,000 to 192,000 gallons per day. For example, sociologists estimated that deforestation was caused by more that 600 illicit grow operations in California’s Humboldt County, the county where nearly a quarter of the budget comes from cannabis. Local farmers grow their plants in off-the-grid areas and illegally siphon millions of gallons of water without any regulation. Furthermore, use of pesticide, herbicide, and other poisons may have potentially lethal effects on wildlife.
Marijuana was placed in the most stringent category—Schedule I—along with the drugs with a high potential for abuse. Due to this classification, federal penalties for possession and production of cannabis can be quite harsh: first-time offense may lead to a felony charge, up to 5 years in prison, and a $250,000 fine. However, although the U.S. government classifies marijuana as one of the most dangerous substances, studies on drug risks indicate that it is among the most harmless ones.
Among the topics of discussion on the Sustainable Development Goals 2016, those related to the rule of law, access to justice, and reducing violence, corruption, organized crime, and drug trafficking are considered to have links with the world drug problem. Though black marijuana market may threaten security and peace in certain countries, the connection between drugs and violence is not so evident, and sometimes it is difficult to determine the original source of these two. Furthermore, it is crucial to distinguish violence stemming from direct drug use from economic violence or systemic violence stemming from struggles for power between criminal groups. Illegal drug production and trafficking are usually associated with murder, while drug use is related to domestic violence and property crime.
A study published in the Drug and Alcohol Dependence journal found that “the proportion of marijuana-positive drivers involved in fatal motor vehicle crashes in Colorado has increased dramatically since the commercialization of medical marijuana in the middle of 2009.” Since 2013, the state’s law officials say, they have stopped almost 90 cartel operations across the state. Just last year, law-enforcement made a bust that recovered $12 million in illegal marijuana.
According to the International Center for Prison Studies at King’s College in London, the United States is the world leader in the incarceration of its citizens. A recent NORML’s report concluded that the cost of marijuana enforcement in the country was an average $10,400 for each cannabis user offender. This cost is obviously being covered by American taxpayers. Furthermore, marijuana enforcement is not only highly expensive but also ineffective in preventing illegal distribution of marijuana: the cost of enforcing pot prohibition is around $1 trillion annually.
NORML believes that criminal marijuana prohibition must be replaced with a system of legalization, taxation, regulation, and education in every state of the country. Incarceration in jail and confinement in compulsory drug treatment centers often worsen the lives of drug users and drug-dependent people, many of whom are young and vulnerable. Imprisonment of young people promotes their joining older criminals and criminal gangs and stigmatizing.
Women affected by drug use disorders face more difficulties compared to men—criminal justice systems are not equipped for the special needs of women. Women are more stigmatized and vulnerable than men. They are also more likely to be subjects of physical and sexual abuse and less likely to access treatment. Women’s imprisonment leads to children suffering from their mother’s absence and breaks in family ties.
Experts also estimated that the majority of imprisoned people (nearly 60 percent) were people of color. Men of color are six times as likely to be incarcerated as whites, Hispanics are twice as likely. Today, every tenth man of color in his thirties is in prison.
The number of those serving life sentences continues to grow even despite the fact that the number of serious crimes has been declining during the past twenty years. One in nine offenders currently faces a life sentence, and one-third of them are sentenced to life without parole.
On the other hand, many theorize that an increase of availability of the drug will boost arrest probability. In his report “The Budgetary Implications of Marijuana Prohibition,” Jeffrey A. Miron claimed that the quantity demand for the drug after the legalization would be largely determined by the price. A few studies also found no effect of marijuana decriminalization on participation. The National Academy of Scientists undertook a study of many aspects of the cannabis question in 1999, including the effects of legalizing weed, and concluded that there was little evidence that decriminalization of marijuana use necessarily led to a substantial increase in marijuana consumption.
However, fortunately, there is a small bunch of states that do not decriminalize possession of small amounts of marijuana anymore and have stopped incarcerating people for possessing a simple joint.
Sentencing policies of the war on drugs era resulted in a dramatic growth in incarceration for drug offenses. According to the Sentencing Project, the number of Americans incarcerated for drug offenses has risen 500 percent since the 1970s, much of it fueled by arrests for non-violent drug-related crimes. Harsh sentencing laws keep many offenders in prison for longer periods of time: an average 22 months in prison in 1986 were replaced by 62 months. Nearly 700,000 people are arrested annually just on cannabis-related charges, 88 percent of which were for possession of small amounts of marijuana in 2014. Furthermore, most of these people were not previously involved in drug activity.
The fact that marijuana is allowed in certain states but remains fully illegal under federal law embarrasses not only marijuana users but also many lawyers. The federal prohibition of marijuana creates an additional layer of uncertainty and complexity. The main problem for lawyers is rooted in the conflicting federal and state laws: ABA Model Rule of Professional Conduct states that lawyers will not counsel clients to engage, or assist clients, in conduct that the lawyers know is criminal or fraudulent.
Another big issue across the country is banking. Cannabis businesses face a higher tax burden. They are unable to use banks because of federal laws. Since marijuana is federally illegal, no nationally chartered bank will get involved. Pot-related businesses generally cannot accept credit or debit cards due to card companies’ fear of liability for money laundering or other offenses. That forces businesses to invest heavily in security measures. Although the Treasure Department relaxed the rules a few years ago, allowing banks to be involved in the pot trade if they can ensure that pot businesses are compliant under the state cannabis regulation and not involved in “suspicious activity,” most banks prefer to stay away from the industry.
However, legal cannabis continues to grow faster than any other industry in the United States, and this trend is particularly unstoppable, no matter what Congress does. Beyond selling marijuana and allowing the states to reap tax benefits and fees, the industry provides paying jobs to Americans and feeds a bunch of businesses. Taking the substance out of the black market will also provide clear savings for the government on top of net tax gains. Legalization would cut prison spending. Cutting down the number of people imprisoned for drug-related offenses will have economic benefits. With the legalization of cultivation that requires farmers, farmworkers, fertilizer firms, and other manufacturers, sales of specific supplies will also soar. Legal cultivation means a reduction in illegal farming, ground pollution, and other ecological and economic problems. Some experts even claim that the likely boom in marijuana cultivation could stimulate the alternative energy industry. Tourism, too, may benefit from marijuana legalization: Colorado and California are examples.