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(USA) Marijuana Prohibition Versus Regulation


The 40th anniversary of the “War On Drugs” launched by Richard Nixon is an occasion that is inviting serious discourse on the topic of marijuana regulation.

Are the tens of billions of dollars spent on the drug war a vast misallocation of resources at a time we’re struggling to pay for education and health care?

Many respected individuals and organizations have recommended a regulatory rather than a prohibitionist approach to marijuana. Political leaders, including Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger and former Mexican presidents have suggested it is time for open debate on legalization.

Testifying recently before Congress,  Arizona Attorney General Terry Goddard said U.S. demand for marijuana is a key factor in the Mexican drug war. “The violence that we see in Mexico is fueled by the trade in one drug: marijuana,” he said. “I’ve called for at least a rational discussion as to what our country can do to take the profit out of that.”

A new Zogby poll found 52% voter support for treating marijuana as a legal, taxed, regulated substance. 37% were opposed, and 11% unsure.

Marijuana remains illegal under federal law, but U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder has said the Obama administration will not target medical marijuana dispensers that follow state law.

In 1972, the National Commission on Marijuana and Drug Abuse told Congress that possession of less than 1 ounce of marijuana should be decriminalized. Today, a dozen states have decided to decriminalize possession of an ounce or less of marijuana.

Rep. Barney Frank (D-Mass.) has introduced legislation to end federal criminal penalties for possession or not-for-profit transfer of small amounts of marijuana. Frank’s bill would remove federal criminal penalties for possession of up to 100 grams of marijuana and the not-for-profit transfer of up to 1 ounce (28.3 grams) of marijuana.

According to estimates by Harvard University economist Jeffrey Miron, regulation of marijuana could save the country at least $7.7 billion in law enforcement costs and generate more than $6 billion in revenue if it were taxed like cigarettes and alcohol. Hundreds of economists, including former Fed chairman Milton Friedman have endorsed the report.

In 1998, researchers at the World Health Organization reported that marijuana is in many ways safer than tobacco or alcohol. Evidence suggests that moving from prohibition to regulation of marijuana will not result in a significant increase in use or abuse. The myth that using marijuana causes a person to become an abuser of “hard drugs” was disproven years ago.

However, many opponents of decriminalization remain. Russell Laine, president of the International Association of Chiefs of Police says: “We’re opposed. We think it’s the wrong message to send our youth”.

I’ve heard this argument before, and I don’t find it compelling. The last time I heard it was during my testimony at a hearing before a Colorado legislative committee. The chief medical officer of the State public health department and the district attorney of Denver were asking the State to change a “drug paraphernalia” law so Denver could start a needle exchange program to cut the spread of HIV/AIDS. The evidence that needle exchange programs cut disease and did not increase drug abuse was compelling. Nevertheless, the Republicans on the committee voted against the change so as to “not send the wrong message to our children”.

In my opinion, there is absolutely no argument about the need to keep children away from alcohol, tobacco and marijuana.

Strategies for adults should be the same: the way to control access is through regulation, not prohibition.

It will be interesting to see if ideology continues to trump public health and wise allocation of public resources.

By Matthew Hine