What’s driving the legalization of cannabis around the world, and why there’s no turning back.
“You can fool all the people some of the time,
and some of the people all the time, but you cannot fool all the people all the time.”
When Gallup first conducted a poll in 1969 asking Americans, “Do you think the use of marijuana should be made legal?” only 12% of Americans said, ‘Yes.’ After steadily climbing upwards for nearly a half century, the same poll conducted in October 2016 revealed that 60% of Americans now approve of marijuana legalization. And a 2016 Quinnipiac University poll reports that a whopping 89% of Americans now support “allowing adults to legally use medical marijuana if prescribed by a doctor.”
Meanwhile, following the 2016 elections, a total of 8 states have legalized recreational marijuana, 20 states have legalized medical marijuana, and another 16 states have legalized medical marijuana for “limited” use. All told, 43 states now have some form of marijuana legalization on the books.
But the movement toward legalization is not just happening in the U.S. Scores of countries around the world have decriminalized marijuana, while many others have made possession in small amounts legal. Uruguay has fully legalized marijuana, and Canada has announced plans to legalize in the spring of this year.
And, yet, a little over two decades ago, not a single country or even a single state in North America had legalized marijuana for any purpose.
So, what happened?
Whether we look to the historical record of ancient civilizations (including Taiwan, China, Persian, India, Russia, and Greece), or the testimonies and personal experience of individual users, there has never been a lack of anecdotal evidence for the benefits and healing properties of this miraculous plant. Unfortunately, in the face of a number of powerful opposing forces, this evidence, no matter how persistent, has not been enough.
But now the situation is finally beginning to change—thanks to a number of specific developments that have brought us to where we are today, advancements which make it increasingly clear that legalization is here to stay.
The Power of Science
The most important driving force behind the legalization movement is the increasingly grounded, rationale, science-based understanding of the cannabis plant. We have long heard stories and even songs (e.g. Peter Tosh’s Legalize It) about the powerful healing properties of marijuana. More recently, however, doctors, scientists, and medical researchers are finding increasing evidence for the medicinal benefits of marijuana in treating a surprising array of illnesses and diseases, including everything from pain, seizures, and inflammation to AIDS, Parkinson’s, Alzheimer’s, cancer (breast, prostate, lung, skin, pancreatic, bone, and oral), MS, and PTSD.
Not surprisingly, the more scientists and researchers learn about the healing properties and health benefits of marijuana, the more that misguided, ignorant, and fear-based beliefs about the plant begin to fade away.
The Failure of the War on Drugs
It has taken a painfully, shamefully long time to admit it, but the overwhelming evidence makes it increasingly difficult to deny: the war on drugs has proven to be a catastrophic and costly failure. Rather than curbing drug use and abuse in the U.S., the drug war has done nothing to banish drugs, and has instead spawned widespread violence, corruption and crime.
In addition to needlessly destroying the lives and families of those individuals who are convicted of these nonviolent, victimless crimes, the drug war has created a highly profitable black market, and cost American taxpayers dearly in the process. In 2008, Harvard economist Jeffrey Miron published a study revealing that the U.S. is paying roughly $41.3 billion a year in the “war on drugs” for enforcement and incarceration alone.
After several research studies concluded that the use of the U.S. military would have little to no effect on curbing the supply of drugs to the U.S., the RAND Corporation finally concluded that the billions being spent on federal and local law enforcement should be redirected to treatment programs. In other words, stop focusing on disrupting supply and focus on decreasing demand. According to the report, treatment is the most cost effective way to reduce drug use. In fact, drug treatment is reportedly twenty-three times more effective than a supply-side approach to the “war on drugs.”
As a result, Americans are beginning to demand more effective strategies. And numerous experts are responding with plans—based on the proven success of countries like Portugal and Switzerland—that include decriminalization for individual users, with a focus on prevention, harm reduction, and treatment.
Decriminalizing marijuana at the federal level in the U.S. would be a smart way to begin testing this approach here, particularly since this strategy is already proving its effectiveness in various states.
The Evolving Approach to Drug Abuse
No nation has given up on the goal of reducing drug abuse. However, given the failure of the war on drugs, many countries are changing their approach. At the heart of this new strategy is a shift in thinking about drug addiction. In a nutshell, this new paradigm, which is rapidly finding increasing support in the medical community, is that drug addiction is an illness not a crime.
And, in fact, whether or not specific special interest groups (e.g. the prison industrial complex) agree with this perspective is immaterial given the fact that treating drug addiction as an illness rather than a crime is proving to be far more effective in helping people to quit. Furthermore, thinking about drug abuse in terms of prevention and treatment rather than crime and punishment is going a long way toward reducing demand.
As a result, society as a whole is increasingly seeing the wisdom of decriminalizing the use of drugs, particularly marijuana. One country leading the charge in this area is Portugal which decriminalized the possession of all drugs in 2001.
The Increasing Social Acceptance of Weed
Another factor driving the movement to legalize marijuana is its increasing social acceptance. As Keith Stroup, legal counsel for NORML, writes, “we have seen enormous positive gains in the way the general public perceives marijuana smokers and marijuana smoking.”
Even among American presidents and presidential candidates we have seen an ever increasing level of acceptance. In 1992, for example, Bill Clinton admitted to smoking marijuana “a time or two,” but felt obligated to add that he “didn’t inhale.” Fourteen years later, in contrast, Barack Obama said regarding his own marijuana use, “When I was a kid, I inhaled. That was the point.”
Obama also wrote openly about his use of both marijuana and cocaine in his book, Dreams from My Father. In 2014, Obama famously said of marijuana, “I don’t think it is more dangerous than alcohol,” and went on to suggest that marijuana is less dangerous than alcohol, “in terms of its impact on the individual consumer,” adding that, in regards to legalization, “it’s important for it to go forward.”
Clearly, the stigma that has long been associated with marijuana has faded significantly in the last half century, but even more so in the last decade or two. As Stroup writes, “today the President of the United States can joke about his earlier marijuana use without the slightest harm to his standing or credibility. In fact, to some degree it adds to his cachet and makes him more relevant than he might otherwise seem to younger Americans.”
The Demand for Jobs and Tax Revenue
It’s no surprise that cannabis is big business. This is good news for all Americans because it means two things: more jobs for America, and more badly needed tax revenue for state and local governments. It is also means that less money is going to the black market, drug lords and criminal gangs, which results in additional cost savings for the government.
Even with the federal prohibition of marijuana in effect, the job creation rate of the marijuana industry is one of the greatest in the nation. Looking at the positive impact of marijuana legalization on the job market in states like Colorado and Washington has both voters and state legislatures around the country increasingly optimistic about the many positive benefits legalization will bring to their states.
The Looming Demise of Reefer Madness
Of all the forces working against the legalization of marijuana, the one that is perhaps most sinister is the stream of lies, misinformation, rumors and propaganda that has been spread throughout the country over the last several decades.
Known as “Reefer Madness,” the term comes from the title of the 1936 anti-marijuana film. Regarded as a satire today, Doug Walker of Nostalgia Critic says of the cult classic, “It’s so misinformed about what it‘s trying to inform you about that the hilarity speaks for itself. And while nobody should think that drugs are one of the greatest things in the world, it’s so fun to see just how extreme some people will go to convince us that even the most harmless of drugs are the worst things in the world.”
Unfortunately, various governments and anti-pot groups have been so effective at demonizing the “devil weed” (as they call it) that untold millions of people continue to ignore or reject outright the irrefutable benefits of legalization. Buying into the lies of “reefer madness,” they have surrendered their ability to weigh the evidence, think critically, question their assumptions, and, thereby, make informed decisions for the benefit of society as a whole. Of course, this should come as no surprise. Propaganda remains a powerful instrument of war around the world because it works. What’s more, as Andrew Kavasilas of the Australian Hemp Party said, “80 odd years of propaganda is hard to unravel.”
Fortunately, the facts are becoming increasingly accessible, and difficult to ignore. Reefer madness certainly still exists, but it is quickly being exposed for the irrational, self-serving, fear-based propaganda that it is. And, naturally, the more people begin to understand the extent to which the population has been subject to a systemic and sustained propaganda campaign against cannabis, the more all the unfounded fear begins to disappear.