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Published on October 11th, 2012


Cannabis Sativa: Why it’s Time to Decriminalize

It’s Monday morning. The whistle is blowing. And nearly 800,000 workers are lining up to punch their timecards. This isn’t GM, though. Nor is it Ford. It’s the American prison industrial complex. And business is good — real good.

In fact, more than 2.3 million people are currently incarcerated in the U.S. (roughly 1 out of every 100 Americans), spectacularly dwarfing the prison population of every other nation in the world — both per-capita and in absolute terms — including Russia, communist China, and theocratic Iran. Moreover, what once was the freest country on the face of the planet currently spends more tax dollars on incarceration every year than the very countries it ideologically opposes on humanitarian grounds.

So what’s behind the U.S. prison boom? According to Tim Lynch, director of the Cato Institute’s “Project on Criminal Justice,” the answer is all-to-simple: drugs. “In 1981, only 22 percent of federal inmates were drug prisoners. Today, 60 percent are drug prisoners,” Tim authored in a 2000 Washington Post column. And Tim is right.

Indeed, some states are so wound up (no pun intended) over drugs that they’re actually releasing violent criminals from prison early to generate room for “drug offenders.” Moreover, a number of states, including Vermont, Michigan, Oregon, Connecticut and Delaware, all now spend as much or more annually on corrections than education.

All-in-all, state and local governments combined spend nearly $50 billion a year to enforce drug prohibition, a staggering number that rivals few other government expenditures. Which begs the question: What constitutes a “drug offense”?

The FBI defines a drug violation as, “The violation of laws prohibiting the production, distribution, and/or use of certain controlled substances,” or “arrests for violations of state and local laws, specifically those relating to the unlawful possession, sale, use, growing, manufacturing, and making of narcotic drugs” — none of which are violent crimes.

Drug prohibition advocates, of course, argue that the very nature of the drug business is a violent crime, accrediting “drug violence” in and around U.S. cities and on the U.S. border. Such arguments, however, are analogous to the feeble argument liberals employ against firearms.

That is to say, liberals, rather than acknowledge the fact that people, not guns, kill people, routinely flout personal responsibility and individual decision making in place of stricter gun laws. But when somebody is murdered over a pair of Michael Jordan sneakers do they call it “Michael Jordan sneaker violence” and regulate Michael Jordan sneakers?

The idea that somebody smoking cannabis sativa (Marijuana) in the privacy of their own home, or engaging in the willful voluntary exchange of one good for another, is as treacherous as the person who murders somebody over cannabis sativa is a dangerous oversimplification. After all, in addition to incarcerations, the U.S. also leads the globe in drug use.

Not all countries are quick to generalize, however. Uruguay, for example, is home to one of the most advanced — and sensible — drug policies in the world. Instead of sentencing users and possessors outright, Uruguay’s drug policy states, “Whoever is in possession of a reasonable quantity exclusively destined for personal consumption — as morally determined by the Judge, who would have to include his reasoning for such ruling in the sentence — will be exempted from punishment.” Or as the Transnational Institute abridges it, “The law establishes no quantity limits, leaving it to the judge’s discretion to determine whether the intent was personal use.”

Toppling drug prohibition in the U.S. would not only immediately unclog local courthouses and holding cells across the county, but it would save millions in tax dollars while allowing state and local law enforcement to focus on violent crime. It would also generate additional tax revenue — $48 billion annually via the legalization of cannabis sativa alone.

Few cases exemplify the inefficiency and nonsensicality of U.S. drug laws than that of Tommy Chong. In 2003, the U.S. government squandered close to 12 million dollars to pursue and convict the 74 year old actor for merely selling marijuana bongs and pipes online.

Then there is Elisa Castillo, a 56 year old grandmother, who, until being convicted of “conspiracy to smuggle” had never once been arrested or convicted of a single crime. The result? Texas taxpayers now foot $15,000-$20,000 annually to house her.

In the end, while the legalization of drugs — or at the very least, cannabis sativa — would indirectly entail a U.S. government acknowledgment of a very flawed and failed “drug war.” The advantages, nonetheless, significantly out way the fiscal encumbrance.

Whether or not the U.S government will ever concede these advantages, however, remains to be seen. If history is any indicator, I wouldn’t count on it.

About the Author: Brandon Loran Maxwell is a contributing writer and political analyst at PoliticIt; a quarterly contributing editor to the urban hip-hop publication, Street Motivation Magazine; and a coordinator for Students For Liberty. You can read more of him at

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