If you’re registered in California, I encourage you to go out today and vote yes on Proposition 19, which will legalize, tax, and regulate cannabis—and take a major step toward treating drug use as a public health issue instead of a crime in America. It is time to end the failed policy of marijuana prohibition that has turned millions of otherwise law-abiding citizens into convicted criminals for smoking pot.
The U.S. has less than 5% of the world’s population, yet we have a quarter of the world’s prisoners. Since the declaration of the “War on Drugs” in the 1970s, the U.S. prison population has more than quadrupled. More than 1.5 million Americans are now arrested each year for nonviolent drug offenses, and more than 500,000 of them are imprisoned.
To date, the War on Drugs has killed more than 30,000 Mexicans, made our borders less safe, ruined the lives of millions of American families, wasted hundreds of billions of dollars of taxpayer money, and created the world’s largest prison population. The marijuana prohibition alone costs (by one estimate) more than $40 billion per year—yet it hasn’t achieved its stated goals of reducing marijuana use. Instead, it has created a black market that has turned the pot trade into a lucrative, tax-free industry dominated by organized crime (especially in Mexico, where half the trade is in marijuana) and plagued by the dangers of impure, unregulated drugs. And it stuffs our crowded, enormously expensive prisons with nonviolent pot offenders that don’t belong there.
Since 1990, the U.S. has arrested and prosecuted more than 10 million people, disproportionately African-American, for smoking pot in private—something that brings happiness to many that use it, and causes no harm to those that do not. Yes, it is possible to smoke too much pot, and there can be adverse health consequences of doing so. But those consequences are less than what can result from using too much alcohol, tobacco, junk food, or many over-the-counter medications. Smoking pot is a personal choice that more than four in 10 Americans have made, including the past three presidents, and while it may be a public health issue of interest, it is not a crime against society or against another citizen.
Throwing nonviolent drug offenders in prison puts them in a place where they often can’t easily get treatment for addiction. It crowds out many murderers, rapists, and thieves who do deserve to be there. It numbs society to the seriousness of violence by implying that drug use is just as bad. It undermines imprisonment’s effectiveness as a deterrent to violent crime by cheapening the punishment, turning it into something commonplace. And it blurs the distinctions between moral innocence and moral culpability.
The effects of imprisonment on individuals are far-reaching. Taking people out of society and the workforce ruins not just their own lives, but also the lives of the people that care for them, the people for whom they care, the people whose livelihoods depend on their own. When we use the state’s power of violence to break apart families, to separate husbands from wives, sons from daughters, lovers from lovers, friends from friends, when we replace nature’s most fundamental bonds with gun towers and concrete, we create wounds that take far longer to heal than the inmates’ sentences. The state that uses its power of violence to wound citizens that do not wound others, the state that takes children from their parents when neither poses a threat to the other or to society, has breached its social contract with those that have honored it. The state that harms the harmless is a failed state.
Prop 19 is not a perfect law, and it doesn’t have to be. If it passes, it will quickly change and evolve. What really matters is the message that passing Prop 19 will send: that we need to have a new conversation about drug policy in America. Passing Prop 19 will send our lawmakers, the Obama administration, and the rest of the world the message that American taxpayers are sick of paying tens of billions of dollars every year to throw nonviolent pot smokers in prison, sick of subsidizing criminal gangs by rewarding their activities with a black-market premium, and sick of treating drug addicts—the sick, the tired, the poor, huddled masses, the people who need society’s help most—with violence instead of compassion. It will tell them that we demand an end to the failed War on Drugs, an end to the murders in Mexico, an end to the most expensive waste of law enforcement resources in human history, and a new approach to drug policy and in America and the rest of the world.