Marijuana prohibition is unique among American criminal laws. No other law is both enforced so widely and harshly and yet deemed unnecessary by such a substantial portion of the populace.
Police made about 870,000 arrests for marijuana in 2007 (the latest year national data is available). Roughly 775,000, or 88 percent, of those arrests were for nothing more than simple possession of small amounts of marijuana. Millions of Americans have never been arrested or convicted of any criminal offense except this.
Punishments range widely across the country, from modest fines to a few days in jail to many years in prison. Even being incarcerated for just one day can cause a person to get fired from his or her job. And in today's economy, losing a job can lead to months of unemployment. A parent's marijuana use can be the basis for taking away his or her children and putting them in foster care.
It's no wonder that so many Americans support decriminalizing and even legalizing marijuana. Seventy-two percent say that for simple marijuana possession, people should not be incarcerated, but fined: the generally accepted definition of "decriminalization." Even more Americans support making marijuana legal for medical purposes. Support for broader legalization is around 40 percent, although it depends on how one asks the question. Support is around (and in some polls greater than) 50 percent in some Western states and among Americans age 18 to 30.
This is, in some respects, no surprise. More than 100 million Americans have tried marijuana, including almost 60 percent of those aged 45 to 49. The vast majority know it didn't kill them or anyone else they know, or derail their lives, or even lead to regular use. That includes three presidents in a row; Barack Obama, when asked if he had inhaled, responded "I inhaled frequently" and "that was the point."
Critics say decriminalizing marijuana will increase availability and use. Really? Close to 100 million Americans have already used marijuana. Half of all teens try marijuana before graduating from high school. Almost anyone who wants to use marijuana can do so now. Moreover, studies around the world have found that the relative harshness of drug laws matters surprisingly little. After all, rates of illegal drug use in the United States are the same as, or higher than, Europe, despite our more punitive policies. And 13 U.S. states have decriminalized marijuana, but marijuana use rates in those states go up and down at roughly the same rates as in other states.
Other claims by opponents of reform don't stand up either. The Institute of Medicine and other research bodies have concluded there is no evidence that marijuana is a "gateway" drug — certainly no more so than alcohol or tobacco. While some people use marijuana to excess, most people who smoke marijuana never become dependent. And unlike alcohol, no one has ever died from a marijuana overdose, marijuana is not associated with violent behavior, and marijuana is only minimally associated with reckless sexual behavior.
There are, of course, some risks associated with using marijuana. These risks, however, should be weighed against the harms associated with current marijuana policy. Every comprehensive, objective commission that has examined marijuana throughout the past 100 years has concluded that criminalization of adult marijuana use does more harm than marijuana use itself, including President Nixon's 1972 marijuana commission, the National Academy of Sciences' 1982 marijuana report, and recent government reports in Canada and the United Kingdom.
As drug war violence rises in Mexico and along the U.S.-Mexican border, more and more policymakers are calling for a national debate on reforming our country's failed marijuana policies. Many parts of Mexico today are like Chicago during the days of alcohol Prohibition and Al Capone — times 50. The U.S. Joint Forces Command recently warned that the Mexican government is in danger of becoming a weak and failed state and could descend into chaos, which could cause tens, perhaps hundreds, of thousands of Mexicans to flee into the United States.
In the border city of El Paso, Texas, where several Mexican mayors live and commute to work out of fear their families will be killed if they live in Mexico, the city council passed a resolution in January calling on Congress to debate drug legalization as a way of reducing prohibition-related violence.
In February, the Latin-American Commission on Drugs and Democracy, a high-level commission co-chaired by former presidents of Brazil, Colombia and Mexico, called for a "paradigm shift" in global drug policy, including decriminalizing marijuana and "breaking the taboo" on open and robust debate about all drug-policy options.
The attorney general of Arizona, citing evidence that Mexican drug trafficking organizations get 60 percent to 80 percent of their revenue from marijuana, has suggested that national policymakers debate legalizing marijuana as a way to cripple both Mexican and U.S. gangs. Although he was careful to say he wasn't advocating legalization, he nevertheless asked the right question: Should marijuana be taxed and regulated like alcohol?
It's a question being debated almost weekly now on CNN, MSNBC and Fox News. It's starting to pop up in congressional hearings, too. With strong poll numbers in support of reform, rising state and federal deficits, overflowing prisons, and a national security crisis on our southern border, we may very well be at a tipping point on this issue. Now is the time for policymakers, columnists and leaders in both the conservative and progressive movements who support reform to speak out.
Hundreds of thousands of Americans a year are arrested for marijuana. Doors are kicked in. Children are put into foster care. Cars, houses and bank accounts are seized without trial. Yet it's hard to find a presidential candidate or Supreme Court justice who hasn't smoked marijuana. Reform will happen. It's just a question of how many tax dollars will be wasted before elected officials catch up with the American people.
• Bill Piper is the director of national affairs at the Drug Policy Alliance, and Ethan Nadelmann is the executive director of the Drug Policy Alliance (www.drugpolicy.org).