We’ve come to a point where we need to consciously set a new direction for drug policy in the US. However, in the reactionary wake that has developed around bashing the war on drugs, the zealots of marijuana commercialization have hijacked the issue of mass incarceration as one of their main selling points.
This statement may come as a surprise to some and most likely will be unfavorable to others, but the evidence is compelling if not convincing – mass incarceration has been quietly and systematically kidnapped by the big money proponents of marijuana commercialization as a means to garner support of the increasingly powerful liberal and democratic voting block ages 50 and below.
The problem of mass incarceration in the US is far too old, but it has been gaining national exposure due to a combination of factors over the last decade. The Obama administration via former Attorney General Eric Holder has publicly acknowledged the problem of mass incarceration within the US; prominent academics such as Michelle Alexander have expertly dissected this issue at length in books like “The New Jim Crow”; and community-based organizations around the country are working to alleviate the burdens of mass incarceration on communities, families, and the individuals at the highest risk of being snared by the current practices of our criminal justice system.
A few things need to be cleared up though:
(1) Commercialization does not equal legalization.
(2) Legalization does not always equal decriminalization.
(3) Changing the legal status of marijuana alone will NOT change the selective and discriminatory practices of a militarized law enforcement; it will NOT change the overwhelming disparity in demographic make-up of our criminal justice system; and it will NOT change the conditions of poverty and inequality in our communities that have been targets of the drug war.
With that being said, let’s start with the money.
The commercialization movement in the US has largely been driven by a system of nonprofits that all have associations with two billionaires, George Soros and Peter Lewis. Since 1994, both Soros and Lewis have contributed $80 million and $40 million dollars respectively to “pro-legalization” efforts. On the surface it seems that the American Civil Liberties Union, the Drug Policy Alliance, the Marijuana Policy Project, and the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws all have substantial grass roots support for efforts to advocate for marijuana commercialization. At a closer look these organizations have been receiving continual support from Soros and Lewis and continue to fund a variety of small state-level pro commercialization efforts that have begun to gain momentum heading into 2014 and 2016 election cycles.
This is the money that is behind current pro commercialization campaigns in Alaska (Campaign to Regulate Marijuana Like Alcohol) Oregon (New Approach Oregon) and in preparation for 2016; Arizona, California, Massachusetts, Maine, Montana, Nevada. Other states that are on the agenda for the Marijuana Policy Project are Delaware, Maryland, New Hampshire, Rhode Island and Vermont.
What may be most upsetting is that many of these organizations also cite a commitment to public health oriented alternatives to current drug policy such as harm reduction, expanding access to treatment, and targeted decriminalization. However, publicly they support commercialization, which has the potential to increase harm, create more dependent users, and increase the number of marijuana related arrests. To add insult to injury, none of these organizations have released guidelines or data that would suggest how commercialization could lead to a decrease in the current prison population of non-violent drug offenders or how commercialization will or will not impact prevention, treatment, or recovery support services for dependent users.
Irony of Legalization
The irony inherent to commercialization is often overlooked. According to the Drug Policy Alliance, in 2012 alone there were 749,825 arrests for marijuana. What they failed to mention is there were 2.7 million non-violent arrests for alcohol that included age violation, public intoxication, and DUIs, all of which will be likely be part of the proposed regulatory framework of a legal marijuana. Commercialization will lead to increased use, and increased use within the proposed legal framework will lead to higher costs to the criminal justice system as a whole. We’ve seen this trend with alcohol and prescription drugs.
Additionally, many pro commercialization experts claim that the taxation of marijuana would be a reliable revenue stream for states while also generating more dollars for substance abuse and mental health treatment or reinvestment into communities ravished by the drug war. Yet, we know from alcohol that this can’t be true. For every $1 generated from alcohol taxation we spend $10 in other societal costs. Basing marijuana policy on alcohol and tobacco policy is a surefire way to drive up health care costs in our country even more. Over 60 years ago we embraced tobacco as a safe recreational substance for consumption within our nation. Today, in majority of states, smoking is not permitted indoors or in public spaces; we have created smoke free campus and work environments; we banned advertisements and have spent millions upon millions of dollars working to prevent children from initiating tobacco use – and now we want to do it all over again.
Although, it is apparent our domestic drug policy has certainly contributed to mass incarceration over the past thirty years, commercializing marijuana alone will do little alleviate the racial disparity still evident in the way we incarcerate. The simple arguments of increased tax revenue, decreased crime, and commercialization as the lynchpin to ending mass incarceration are shortsighted predictions based off little data that has been propped up and generalized up by a major industry waiting in the wings for the green light.
What we would see post-commercialization is a sharp decline in funding, support, and commitment to addressing the root causes of (re: poverty, racism, health disparity, inequity) of mass incarceration. In fact, if commercialization were to be successful who would be more likely to face incarceration for drugged driving or underage use of marijuana? Who would be targeted by Big Marijuana to become the next batch of regular dependent users? Those still bearing the brunt of an altered but not changed drug policy would most likely be economically disadvantaged minorities over privileged upper middleclass white males who currently make up majority of medical marijuana users. It is clear that the disparity in incarcerations rates will remain unchanged if we do not address drug policy and criminal justice reform from a holistic perspective.
We are in need of drug policy that ceases to criminalize drug users and marginalized groups while complimenting other social and criminal justice policies that aim to end the driving forces behind marginalization such as poverty, income inequality, racism and disenfranchisement. We need a paradigm shift in our drug policy that ceases to prioritize the enforcement of punitive drug laws, that ceases to invest in the militarization of local police forces; and that demands the release and reintegration of those detained by this failed war. Our country needs policy that will actually focus on the readjustment and reallocation of priorities and funds when it comes to our relationship with drugs. We cannot afford to look at drug policy in isolation of the larger framework of social policy. If we allow this debate to be won by corporations and big money it will only further work to increase the disparity we see as a result of our current drug laws.
Many of the organizations that are opposed to marijuana commercialization like, Project SAM, acknowledge that a new policy direction is needed in our country. What the voting American needs to understand though is that the dichotomy between the extremes of legalization and prohibition is false. It has been propped up as a false choice between two destructive extremes when the national drug policy debate is much more nuanced. Any policy decisions we make as a country, need to take into account all of the ramifications and implications they will have both now and in the future. We need a change in direction and not just a single decision that will leave the structure and framework of the war on drugs intact.