While marijuana laws are certainly becoming more progressive in the United States, draconian laws remain in place in many states. There were over 650,000 cannabis-related arrests last year alone, and 90% of these were for possession only. Despite the fact that all races seem to use at roughly the same rates, a disproportionate number of those arrested for possession are African-American or Latino. Blind justice? I think not. In fact, these arrests are not just at all.
One need not be a weed enthusiast to spot the cruelty of such laws, and the government overreach that often comes with enforcing them. For instance, Oklahoma has some of the toughest laws in the nation regarding cannabis. Take the somewhat notorious case of Patricia SpottedCrow, a mother of four who was sentenced to twelve years in prison for selling $40 worth of weed–roughly an eighth–to an undercover cop. To put this in perspective, the penalty for second-degree manslaughter in Oklahoma is 2-4 years. When you get drunk and run someone over then, by golly, you better not have any weed on you, or that’s triple your sentence!
In my home state of Texas, a first-time possession charge of even a gram could carry a $2000 fine and a jail sentence of 6 months. In 2011, a bill was introduced to reduce possession of an ounce or less to a misdemeanor. Thousands upon thousands of Texans, myself included, contacted their representatives. Our pleas fell on deaf ears–the bill was not even considered by the House. While 6 months in jail may not seem like much, the penalties can be much stricter. Possession of 10 grams of concentrate hash oil, or dabs as you might know them, can land you 2-20 years in the pen, the same that you would receive if you, say, intentionally broke someone’s wrist or nose.
I can tell you firsthand that we Texans, rural and urban alike, love our weed, and it is my hope that we can soon vote in representatives who understand the true meaning of “individual freedom” instead of paying mere lip service to the concept.
However, the long-ranging consequences of criminalization are far worse than you might imagine. The United States is by no means the only country affected.
Let’s start in our own backyard. The Mexican Drug War between the Mexican government and crime syndicates (cartels) has been raging since While this war is by no means solely about cannabis, the cartels profit abundantly from its criminalization in the U.S.. From 2007 to 2014, more than 164,000 have been killed in this war. During this time, the number of deaths from the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq combined was estimated at 103,000.
In 2016, Rodrigo Duterte came to power as president of the Philippines. He quickly waged a drug war of his own that rages on to this day. Although the number of fatalities attributed to the crackdown vary, Human Rights Watch estimates that roughly 12,000 suspected drug sellers and users have been killed since 2016. However, this number could be as high as 20,000, the vast majority of which are poor. Of these, 4000 were killed by police, the rest by “unidentified gunmen”, most likely vigilantes such as the Davao Death Squad, emboldened and enabled by the Duterte administration. The exact number is unknown because media has extremely limited access to crime scenes and police reports.
Police rely on lists of drug dealers and users provided to them by community members, sometimes killing these suspects in the middle of the night. To date, no police officers have been convicted of the widespread abuses committed during these raids.
While this is ostensibly a war on stereotypical sociopathic drug-lords, addicts and dealers alike have been targeted, their bodies turning up under bridges or in allies with cardboard signs branding them as drug pushers.
Human rights activists and journalists have been treated as enemy agents in this war that shows no signs of ending soon. As of July 2018, Duterte himself has stated that the war will rage on, as relentless and chilling as it was when it began, telling a crowd at the presidential palace in Manila, “My only sin is extrajudicial killings.”
It is not only crime and state-sanctioned murder that increase with the criminalization of cannabis: Studies published in the peer-reviewed journal, JAMA Internal Medicine, compared opioid prescription patterns in states allowing the use of medical cannabis to those that did not. In states that allowed the use of medical marijuana, 2.21 million fewer daily doses were prescribed than in those that did not. This number is even higher in states with full legalization. Most telling, perhaps, is the study’s finding that there was a 14.5% decrease in the use of opiates when dispensaries were available to these patients. A 2014 study by Jama found that, from 1999 to 2010, states with medical marijuana had 24.8% fewer annual opioid-related deaths than those without. In 2017, it was found that full legalization in Colorado had coincided with a reversal of the state’s upward trend in opioid deaths.
When over 90 people die from opioid abuse every day in this country, I think it imperative that we ask ourselves this: What the hell are we doing? At this point, decriminalization of this pain-killing herb is a must. I am not saying that legalization of cannabis will solve the opioid crisis entirely, but it would undoubtedly save lives. After all, the DEA does not even dispute the fact that fatal overdoses from cannabis are unheard of.
The greatest danger of cannabis is and has always been its illegality. Make no mistake: The cost of prohibition is far more than heavy fines or a few months in county. The War on Drugs is a war on people.