Why Marijuana Laws Hurt People More Than the Drug Itself

I read Fearless Fosdick comics when I was a kid. Fosdick was like Dick Tracy, only stupider. A villain poisoned a can of beans in one comic, so Fosdick raced around "protecting" people by shooting them in the head before they started a meal. It's a dark plot (especially for a kids' comic), but it may have been inspired by history. The U.S. government poisoned alcohol during Prohibition, killing as many as 10,000 Americans.

Today, it seems unthinkable to justify Prohibition and the collateral damage that it caused, yet we've been in the midst of another prohibition since 1971: The War on Drugs.

Source:  Wikipedia

Source: Wikipedia

Drugs are a complicated subject. Some help people, others hurt people. Sometimes the same drug can do both things. This is not an article in support of drugs; this is an argument that bad policy can hurt people even when it intends to protect them. Specifically, I'd like to focus on marijuana.

In the Reefer Madness era of the 1930s, alarmists tried to convince people that marijuana use would lead to murders and psychosis. The public called BS on that, but over the decades, there have been various public service announcements about how smoking marijuana will make you a deadbeat or cause brain damage.

It's true that smoking marijuana is bad for you and it might damage your brain (the same is true for alcohol, of course). Maybe cannabis will turn some people into deadbeats, but there are marijuana users who live healthy lives and make meaningful contributions to society. And yet, there is an almost guaranteed way to damage a marijuana user's wellbeing and create a need for taxpayer support: Send that person to prison.

Many marijuana users hurt no one but themselves, so it seems callous to want to punish or hurt them further. If there is a moral argument, it's to help or to rehabilitate people who are hurting themselves. Let's play doctor and pretend that we want to help our imaginary patient suppress his marijuana cravings. Would you prescribe a pill with side effects that include separation from family, physical and sexual assault and a lifetime of social issues? Our justice system prescribes this pill whenever it sends a marijuana user to a prison population that is already the largest in the world

Prison hurts people, both mentally and physically. Studies show that incarceration can cause a lifetime of psychological issues and create a dependency on government support. Put another way, the way our law operates is like enforcing a mandatory death sentence for anyone caught playing Russian roulette: The law is used to guarantee the crime's worst possible outcome.

Excerpts From Studies on Incarceration

...prisoners may adjust to the muting of self-initiative and independence that prison requires and become increasingly dependent on institutional contingencies that they once resisted.
— The psychological impact of incarceration: Implications for post-prison adjustment, 2003
Those who reported paternal incarceration had increased odds of 8 mental and physical health problems, whereas those who reported maternal incarceration had increased odds of depression.
— The Impact of Parental Incarceration on the Physical and Mental Health of Young Adults, 2013
People in prison are exposed to and experience sexual violence inside prisons, further exposing them to communicable diseases and trauma. The consequences of sexual violence follow the individual into the community upon release.
— Sexual Violence Inside Prisons: Rates of Victimization, 2006

Continuation of Article

One way to judge the merit of a law is to imagine what universal enforcement would result in. For example, our society would improve if every murderer was somehow discovered and prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law. If every American who ran afoul of a marijuana law was punished fully, I imagine we'd have prisons full of artists and executives and teachers. Not exactly a utopia.

Nevertheless, laws aren't universally enforceable and they're sometimes enforced unevenly. People of color are 3.73 times more likely than caucasians to be arrested for marijuana possession in the U.S, according to the American Civil Liberties Union. This can cause racial divisions and anxiety that leads to tragic consequences. Consider the story of Ramarley Graham.

Graham was a teenager who lived in the Bronx. He ran from a police officer and was chased home and shot dead in his bathroom where he tried to flush a bag of marijuana down the toilet. It's a familiar tragedy. The officer claimed that he feared for his life. A review board found the shooting to be within department guidelines. The taxpayers funded a multi-million dollar settlement that could never replace what the boy's family had lost. And are we to believe that Graham's family will trust the police now? The teenager was killed in front of his grandmother and six-year old brother.

As horrific as stories like these are, there are some who would take an even more severe approach to marijuana prohibition. Newt Gingrich, former Speaker of the House of Representatives, once suggested that marijuana smugglers carrying as little as two ounces of the drug be put to death. (Ironically, Mr. Gingrich admitted to using marijuana in his youth.) I'm certain that a policy like this would result in police officers being killed, because it would put criminals in a kill-or-be-killed situation. 

You might think that I'm a flag-bearer for the "legalize it" movement, but that's not exactly true. Legalizing marijuana won't solve every problem that I've mentioned here without creating new ones. I don't want drugs near our schools. I cringe at the idea of impaired drivers whose intoxication cannot be easily proven and the new forms of arbitrary law enforcement to which this will lead. There are probably dozens of unintended consequences that I can't imagine. Nevertheless, I think revisiting the letter and spirit our federal drug laws is a noble cause: Let's start with marijuana.