Cannabis has been a part of civilization for thousands of years, in one form or another. It has been most widely used under the name of hemp. The hemp plant yields very strong fibers that can be used to make fabric, rope, and paper among other things. It also yields seeds that are very high in protein. For hundreds of years, the plant has been harvested in many parts of the world to supply these basic needs. It was one of the first crops planted in the new world and was harvested by many of our founding fathers.
Some strains of the plant – cannabis sativa and cannabis indica – were harvested and processed to remove a resin that was smoked and ingested. This resin is still a part of the world’s economy. The rest of the plant is no longer necessary due to the creation of synthetic fibers like nylon and rayon. Due to the resin produced by this plant, it holds a special place in the world of trade. It commands a relatively high price and is not subject to taxation. It enjoys these conditions because it is illegal.
Cannabis has not always been illegal. The push to make cannabis illegal came in the mid to late 1930’s. During this time, the U.S. Agriculture Department had been pushing for the use of hemp to ease the problem of possible deforestation. In 1936, a machine was built that could separate the pulp and the fiber in a cost effective manner. During this same time, a group of powerful companies had developed a new method to produce whiter paper. A lot of money had been invested in this project. If cheaper hemp was to be used, they stood to lose a significant amount of money. These industry giants had many government connections and were very powerful. In order to save their investment, they were going to exploit one of the properties of the cannabis plant: The fact that when smoked, it would produce a sense of euphoria.
This attribute of the plant was not well known by most of the American public. A disinformation campaign began. A Mexican slang term for the plant, “marijuana” was said to turn people into “axe-wielding murderers”. This information built on a distrust of Mexicans during this time and it was easy to convince the public that the plant was dangerous and should be eradicated. This campaign brought about the 1937 Marijuana Tax Act. This act made marijuana illegal. This was despite a protest from the American Medical Association, which was very interested in its many valuable medicinal properties. Hemp was briefly legalized again during World War II as a source for hemp, but the need for additional industrial fiber passed, and it was once again made a controlled substance.
Many people don’t understand exactly what is happening when a person smokes cannabis and gets “high.” A chemical called Delta-9-Tetrahydrocarbinol (THC) is released and absorbed into the bloodstream through the lungs. Once in the bloodstream, it breaks down into metabolites that travel to the brain. Here they take the place of certain normally occurring chemicals. These imitation chemicals are slightly different and affect the brain cells differently. This causes no cellular damage. After a period of time, these chemical are washed out by natural elements and the feeling of being “high” is lost. This euphoria makes sensations seem more intense, and emotions are enhanced. It produces no hangover. THC is actually an extremely mild hallucinogen. In large quantities it can produce very slight visual phenomena.
Currently, cannabis is a Schedule I drug. This means that it has been found to have no accepted medical uses. This classification is questionable. Remember that the American Medical Association suggested medical use back in the 1930s. Prohibition of this drug is quite expensive to maintain. The government attains this goal on several levels. It prosecutes dealers and users, it eradicates crops both within and outside this country, and it attempts to “teach” the public about the drug. While these are noble efforts, they are not working the way they are designed to.
There has been a recent upsurge in the number of cannabis-related arrests as the drug has made resurgence among the public. Law enforcement are making more arrests, more raids, and more seizures than ever before. Once these arrests are made, the criminals must be held and prosecuted. Because of the volume of these arrests, jail space is running out, and courtrooms are backed up. This is often seen as a violation of the criminal’s constitutional right to a fair and speedy trial. Some argue that trials are not fair anymore. There is a new type of sentencing called “mandatory minimums.” This equates the possession of illegal substances in varying quantities with varying jail sentences. The judge is legally bound to follow this set of rules. Once sentenced, the criminal must be housed somewhere. This is causing a huge boom in the prison population.
The National Institute of Drug Abuse released findings that over three-fourths of all drug-related arrests made each year are for marijuana. This is space taken up by people who have committed non-violent crimes. This mandatory sentencing may be putting thieves and murderers back out on the streets quicker than those who are only hurting themselves. Prison overcrowding is becoming a serious problem. If the number of people who smoke marijuana (now estimated conservatively at 25 million) continues to increase, there are going to be more convicts than free men.
Many people think that the problems associated with marijuana use can be solved or lessened by legalizing marijuana. It could be the biggest change in the economy since the end of prohibition. Before any of the laws can be changed, though, the public and the government would have to agree on how harmful or helpful the drug actually is. This might require a slight admission by the government that maybe not everything that they had told the public was true—unfortunately, this is not a common occurrence. Once the public had been reeducated as to the truths and myths of marijuana consumption, the work could begin on the cultivation, distribution, and uses of cannabis.
The driving force behind all of this is, as always, money. Specifically, who gets it? The idea of revenue from cannabis taxation should thrill the government. If the number of smokers is conservatively estimated at 25 million, and they very conservatively spend 200 dollars a year on cannabis that is taxed at the special rate of 10%, that’s 750 million dollars in taxes. These numbers are probably on the low side. Taxes are only the beginning, though, since money will be saved through prison population reductions and law enforcement reductions.
We must ask ourselves, how would legalization hurt people? The first concern of the anti-drug advocate is lost productivity in the workplace. This is unfortunately true, as some people will abuse this new freedom. The workplace is no place to be high. This leads to the cost of a system to test and make sure that no one works under the influence. The lack of motivation one often feels with marijuana use can slow down a workplace. A new type of drug test would need to determine how long ago a person was last under an influence.
Other casualties of legalization would be the tobacco and alcohol industries. With another mood-altering drug on the market, their profits would decrease. Addictive cigarettes keep the people coming back at an alarming rate. Cannabis would not. Alcohol would bear a much bigger loss than tobacco, simply because cannabis acts so much like alcohol, but with more pleasant mental effects and no hangover.
The final cost that would be incurred by the people would be their physical health. The smoking of any plant matter does damage to one’s lungs. The damage done by pot smoke is still less than that done by tobacco smoke. Nicotine hardens the arteries and increases blood pressure. THC does not.
A major concern with legalization is the operation of motor vehicles. No one should operate a motor vehicle under the influence of anything. Currently, alcohol is the biggest factor in highway accidents and fatalities. Pot and other drugs account for only about 8% of these accidents. With wider availability, this number could rise.