Yesterday, a new poll by Gallup revealed that 58% of Americans are now in favor of legalizing marijuana. Popular opinion on the recreational drug has grown more favorable over the last decade, but this is still somewhat of a turning point, since for the first time the majority of the country wants to see pot legalized.
We all know the arguments here: pot is less harmful than alcohol and the War on Drugs is costly and ineffective, meanwhile legalizing and regulating marijuana could yield potential financial benefits (well, probably much more than potential.) As for the moral imperative, well it is often argued that smoking a little pot is not deserving of a criminal record, and really we can’t disagree with that too much. Also, it could mean cheaper, better quality weed.
It surely seems that things are moving in the right direction. Two states have legalized pot in the past year, and prosecution has relaxed in many others. Dr. Sanjay Gupta, one of the most prominent anti-cannabis voices in the medical community, had a recent change of heart, as he admitted that his previous opinion was influenced by the one-sidedness of previous research, mostly funded by anti-drugs groups. There have even been reports of a Brooklyn Weed Fairy, leaving a magical trail of stray buds and possibly unicorn hair in its wake. Even the most pessimistic stoners must admit that the future is looking brighter.
But will this new poll and general evolution of public opinion have any consequence on policy? Back in 2009, a newly elected president Obama, eager to show his social media savvy, took on a live, community-driven Q&A , where policy-anxious citizens could ask their most important questions directly to their highest (pun not intended, but I’ll take credit for it if I must) representative. If that’s not digital democracy, I don’t know what is.
Anyway, and perhaps unsurprisingly, the number one question, the thing voters wanted to know the most, was about marijuana. Well, to be fair, it was about marijuana and the economy. And to be exact, the question was this: “Should the U.S. legalize pot as a way to grow jobs and stimulate the economy?” By all accounts, a reasonable question. Still, it was a relatively baffled Obama who responded by 1) making fun of the question ("what does that say about our audience?") and 2) delivering a “yeah but no (you poor, lovely, foolish pothead)” kind of answer and moving on to more serious matters.
Now it was the citizens’ turn to be baffled. How could their newly elected leader, a self-professed believer in the power of digital democracy, someone who has publicly admitted to smoking pot while he was running for the highest office (again, pun optional), someone who appeared to support decriminalization, or at least who seemed to understand the need for a more sensible and effective drug policy, how could someone like that simply dismiss the question?
Well, in a word—politics. Not the most satisfying answer, I know, but nonetheless that's what it is. It could, after all, be argued that in times of multiple wars, a plummeting economy, skyrocketing debt and other national stability-threatening issues, deciding who might or might not be allowed to reef it up had seemed like a question of secondary importance. It could also be said that a freshly elected Obama, who was already being criticized for being a Muslim Communist of sorts, might have wanted to avoid the additional stigma of being called the U.S.’s first Stoner President. Probably, though, there are private interests at stake here, and no matter the sways in public opinion, entities such as the tobacco lobby will always have their word to say.
Looking back now, 2009’s number one question is beginning to look less funny, and slightly more relevant. At a time where Congressmen are publicly suggesting that we sell “a few national parks”, you know, Yellowstone and the like, to alleviate the debt crisis, it might be time to seriously consider the revenues that a legalized cannabis industry could generate.
In 2005, Harvard professor and economist Jeffrey Miron attempted an evaluation of the wealth that could be generated by the cannabis industry, were the drug to be legalized in the U.S. Basing himself on the permissive Dutch model, Miron factors in both potential tax revenues from sales and savings from the operational costs of the War on Drugs (including but not limited to salaries, drug testings, court proceedings, etc.) You can read the full report here, but here’s the bottom line: legalizing marijuana would generate between $10 billion and $14 billion per year in revenue and savings. I'm no economist, but I’d say that those sheer numbers at least make legalization an issue worth considering.
But you all best hold your horses, because Obama doesn’t seem keen to become the Green Crusader that America has been waiting for. During a speech in Mexico City last Friday, the President reiterated his position, stating that while he acknowledges the problem, he doesn’t think legalizing is the answer. Baby steps Barack, baby steps.