Checkpoint: A Cannabis Prescription For America's Afflictions
The political word of the times is partisanship. Taking root with Clinton and intensifying under the Obama Administration, partisanship today dictates how Americans vote and what policies they are likely to support. A Pew Research Center poll  in October revealed that Republicans and Democrats will disagree on the importance of nearly every major policy issue, and are likely to dispute their causes and potential solutions. Besides agreeing that they disagree, one issue slowly bridging the factional gap is the legalization of cannabis.
A majority of Americans concur that the comprehensive laws regulating marijuana in nearly three-quarters of all states should be replicated at the national level. While realizing the flaws of the asinine policy of prohibition, in place at the federal level for the greater part of the last century, is refreshing for the nation, many Americans fail to understand that the legalization of cannabis is not only an issue in itself. Legal marijuana is also the solution to many of the issues that rank as among the most important.
Legality of Cannabis in U.S. States
Dear among the Democrats are environmental issues, with 91 percent saying they worry “a great deal or a fair amount” about global warming and only 23 percent describing that the state of the environment is “good.” Often advocating for carbon taxing schemes and greater government regulation of emissions, most Democrats completely ignore the positive environmental impacts that large scale cultivation of cannabis plant varieties could offer.
Industrial hemp production for example, has a doubly positive affect on the environment. First, its actual cultivation has been shown to be more efficient and less environmentally draining than the legal alternatives largely used today. Studies from other industrialized countries (where the plant is legal) show that hemp cultivation uses less water, requires fewer polluting pesticides, and produces more usable fiber with fewer inputs than the leading alternative, cotton. As an added bonus, cannabis plants are scientifically proven to absorb more carbon dioxide per hectare than other similar plant varieties, even leading to a trend among cannabis growers to artificially introduce elevated levels of CO2 in their growing environments.
The second beneficial environmental result comes from the consumer goods produced using hemp. In addition to fabricated plastics and more durable textiles, commodities made with hemp are generally fully recyclable, and the capacity of hemp to grow in abundance in most climate zones translates to a reduction in the need for commodity transportation, leading to a smaller carbon footprint. Hemp is also incredibly nutritious, providing more protein than other “super-seeds” like Chia and Flax. Taken in conjunction with the more optimistic prognostics of the ability of hemp to become bio-fuel energy sources and a replacement for palm oil, the positive environmental repercussions of legal cannabis are immense.
Increasingly skeptical of government initiatives to promote growth, the economy in general and job security in particular rank as the second most important issue facing America. Both Democrat (56 percent) and Republican (61 percent) voters are also concerned over the government’s finances, especially the national deficit, which grows larger every year due to pork barrel politicking by legislators. As with the environment, legal marijuana provides a double benefit for the economy and government revenues.
While not universal metrics, the economic health of a nation is largely measured by analyzing the levels of economic growth, unemployment and the current account trade deficit. Legal marijuana epitomizes the economic growth that accompanies burgeoning new industries and is expected to grow by 25 percent by 2025, despite still being illicit. Furthermore, the cannabis industry is increasing the amount of jobs in the economy (employing an estimated 121,000 people in 2017), and slowly reducing the trade deficit (hemp’s is $67 million alone), particularly with China and Canada (a top priority for this Administration). Taken together, a legal cannabis industry is likely to stimulate substantial economic activity.
While reactions to the legalization of marijuana at the state level differed among federal politicians, they were united in salivating over the enormous influx of government revenues accrued through robust taxation schemes. Two years after legalization, Colorado amassed over $700 million in tax revenues. Today, the nine states (Vermont and DC not permitting sales) currently taxing marijuana earn between 10.75 percent and 37 percent of an estimated $10 billion industry. While not enough to completely offset the enormous federal deficit of $779 billion, generating that much and more (if the hefty 25% excise tax proposed by S.776 comes into effect) would certainly make a dent in the 8 percent of the budget spent yearly on paying deficit related interest.
Racial justice is also an important issue, with a majority of Americans recognizing flaws in the system. While affirmative action programs and other leveling measures are laudable to be sure, little can be done without addressing the disparity between black and white incarceration rates. Today, 2.3 million American adults are incarcerated, with one in five being behind bars as a result of a drug conviction. African Americans meanwhile, represent 34 percent of America’s total correctional population (probation included) despite making up slightly more than 13 percent of the population. With blacks being nearly four times as likely to be arrested for drug possession, and with marijuana possession accounting for 52 percent of drug arrests, it is clear that prohibition has significantly contributed to this number. Worse still, those with criminal records are less likely of obtaining gainful employment and are barred from receiving public assistance (including student loans), and are often disenfranchised. In this vein, legalizing cannabis possession and consumption would undoubtable improve the lives of those communities who are likely to continue to be persecuted should the status quo be maintained.
Race aside, nearly half of both Democrats (47 percent) and Republicans (49 percent) rank violent crime as an important issue. A helpful policy to combat this would be to divert the $3.6 billion state and federal governments spend every year on enforcing prohibition to more important pursuits. With law enforcement making more arrests for marijuana related crimes than for all violent crimes combined, prohibition is clearly counter productive to this key role of government. While law enforcement around the country is logging enormous hours arresting and booking low level cannabis offenders (the NYPD having spent more than one million hours between 2002-2012), shifting resources to apprehend real criminals would surely see substantial reductions in the rate of crime.
These ancillary benefits to restoring individual freedoms extend to other policy realms as well. As this article grows longer, we will have to omit discussing how legal cannabis can abate illegal immigration (the most important issue to Republicans), enable more freedom in healthcare (a major point of Conservative contention towards Obamacare), and ensure that the victims of the opiate epidemic receive the necessary care to avoid relapses.
While Congress continues to be largely tone-deaf to public clamors for reform, it has shown a surprising degree of amenability to accommodating America’s growing approval towards marijuana. Along with bills such as S.1374 and H.R. 975 which aim to protect and strengthen state marijuana legislation, some of the most bi-partisan measures in today’s Congress revolve around reforming federal cannabis regulations. Bills such as H.R.1824 aim to remove barriers hampering the American marijuana industry, such as their exclusion from business tax benefits and access to banking infrastructure. Others such as S.2667 aggressively sponsored by Mitch McConnell of all people, seek to declassify hemp and permit industrial agricultural pursuits of the crop. While Republican supporters in Congress may be attracted to the bill’s potential to promote economic growth in rural regions (the most fervent bastions of Republican support), this broad bi-partisan effort for cannabis reform harkens back to when American governments mandated and promoted cannabis cultivation. Importantly, it shows that in addition to the issues above, legal marijuana could provide a solution to the greatest threat facing America: the nonsensical polarization of politics.