Sometimes, a public policy issue has an answer that is so ridiculously obvious that it astonishes a rational person that the question is even being debated. One of these issues is whether or not marijuana should be decriminalized. The arguments in favor of legalization are so overwhelming, and the arguments against legalization so weak, that soundness of the decriminalization is crystal clear. Policy-makers in Washington and the various states could immediately do the entire country a big favor by decriminalizing marijuana. This does not imply any particular endorsement of people using marijuana (for the record, I myself do not use marijuana), but is merely a concession to reality and common sense.
The growth, possession, and use of marijuana was gradually made illegal in the United States via several pieces of legislation over the course of the 20th Century, culminating in the Controlled Substances Act of 1970. Since then, innumerable political battles have been waged over the issue of making it legal once again, often focusing on its potential medical uses. All these disputes could be easily resolved if we took the simple step of legalizing marijuana altogether and just being done with the issue.
From a rational point of view, using marijuana is not much different than using alcohol. Although the potential for serious misuse obviously exists, most people who use marijuana or drink alcohol do so in a responsible manner that presents no threat to other citizens. Thomas Jefferson once memorably said that the powers of the government "extend only to such acts only as are injurious to others." If a person wants to drink himself to death, that's very unfortunate but is no business of the state; if a person drinks heavily and then get behind the wheel of a car, the act presents a threat to other citizens and the power of the state must then intervene. The use of marijuana should only be illegal when it presents a threat or causes damage to another citizen, and there are few cases where this is genuinely the case.
That's the constitutional and philosophical argument, and for many it is sufficient justification on its own for marijuana legalization. But even without it, we can clearly see that keeping marijuana illegal has so many negative consequences for our society that it's decriminalization should be made an urgent priority.
The so-called "War on Drugs" was declared by President Nixon in 1971. Forty years later, anyone can see that it has been a dismal and utter failure, for drug use in America has barely changed. Instead, we annually waste something like fifty billion dollars of both federal and state money and have effectively militarized many segments of our law enforcement. If these financial and manpower resources were devoted to other tasks, which the decriminalization of marijuana would go far in doing, society would be much better off.
Even worse, roughly three-quarters of a million people are arrested every year for the nonviolent crime of merely possessing marijuana, significantly more than the number of people arrested for violent crimes. Of those arrested, tens of thousands are thrown in jail. Think of it. Tens of thousands of our fellow citizens, who have done nothing that actually harms anyone, are languishing behind bars because they committed an act that is essentially no more serious than drinking a beer. It's something you might expect from Stalin's Russia, but not the United States of America. The moral conscience of every citizen should be outraged by this, and we must demand that the laws be overturned.
Beyond the moral argument is the fiscal one. It costs something like $60,000 annually to keep a single inmate in jail. We can easily do the math and discover that keeping incarcerated the nonviolent marijuana users that have already been arrested costs taxpayers something like $2.4 billion a year. Add onto that the savings marijuana decriminalization would generate from freeing up resources within our law enforcement and criminal justice systems, and we are looking at tens of billions of dollars a year.
For that matter, if marijuana were decriminalized, it could be subject to an excise tax, just like those we already place on alcohol and tobacco products, and sellers of marijuana would have to pay income taxes on their earnings once the industry emerged from the black market. Billions of dollars in revenue could be raised every year through these means. All told, the revenue generated by a marijuana excise tax combined with easing the prison, law enforcement and criminal justice budgets would greatly ease the fiscal strain being placed on the federal government and all of the fifty state governments. The Cato Institute has recently published a study indicating that legalizing marijuana would result in savings totalling about $9 billion to both state and federal governments, and result in excise tax revenues of $9 billion more.
It's worth pointing out that, so long as marijuana remains illegal, the profits from its sale largely flow into the pockets of drug dealers and organized crime. Decriminalizing marijuana would not only be of great fiscal benefit to the public, but would strike a severe financial blow at such criminal elements.
To summarize, decriminalizing the use of marijuana would right the great moral wrong of having so many of our fellow citizens in prison from nonviolent, victimless crimes, as well as saving taxpayers massive amounts of money and generating additional revenue to ease the national fiscal crisis, while cutting off a vital source of revenue for organized crime. As far as public policy is concerned, decriminalizing marijuana is a slam dunk.
Congress should immediately pass legislation reclassifying marijuana as a non-scheduled controlled substance, putting it in the same category at alcohol and tobacco, while the various state governments pass companion legislation making it legal. The federal government and the state governments should then slap a hefty excise tax on it. At the same time, the President should pass a blanket pardon to all prison inmates who had been incarcerated for marijuana possession. All this could be done within a matter of months, and it would make our society a much better place.