When I started writing this column a little more than a year ago, I thought medical marijuana was a thinly veiled cover for folks who wanted to legalize the substance. Not that I opposed the notion, nor did I doubt that marijuana has medical value — I've seen it stop nausea in people who couldn't keep any food down and I've seen people who were wasting away get an appetite. But I saw the overall marijuana drama as something of an amusing middle-class cause that really didn't mean much in the big picture. I also saw an explosion of marijuana-related storefronts around town and thought there was money to be made.
My perspective has changed over the past year. Yes, there are profiteers and people who just want to get high among the medical marijuana fold, but I believe the vast majority of people working in the field are sincere. Even if their ultimate goal is legalization, they see that at least protecting people who are sick and need the medicine is a sincere and effective step.
Even further, I now believe that ending marijuana prohibition has the potential to make so many positive changes in the United States that legalization can't wait. Here's why:
The War on Drugs is lost
The War on Drugs is an utter and farcical failure. It was doomed from the start because it was developed counter to the scientific evidence available at the time and was conceived of as a political tool against President Richard Nixon's enemies. Since it kicked off in 1972, the country has spent $1 trillion on this failed policy, 37 million people have been arrested for drugs (10 million for marijuana) yet more people use drugs than ever before, illegal drugs are readily available in practically every community, most of the violence associated with drugs is due to their illegality, and foreign drug cartels routinely bring illegal drugs across our national borders in amounts that police are incapable of slowing down. When it comes to the War on Drugs we're flushing money down the toilet.
Marijuana is safe medicine
And if you doubt that people are sick and need medication, look at the $300 billion a year (according to the Bureau of Investigative Journalism) we spend on pharmaceutical drugs. The pharmaceutical industry is among the nation's most profitable. On the way to those profits in 2010, according to statistics from the Food and Drug Administration, there were 82,774 deaths and 471,291 serious outcomes (i.e. death, hospitalization, life-threatening, disability, congenital anomaly) were attributed to prescription drug mistakes. In comparison, there has never been a reported marijuana overdose death. Not only is it safe, but the most common side effect is you get a bit of euphoria. OK, you can get dry throat too, but that beats the long list of negative side effects listed for most medications on TV commercials.
Harm to ethnic communities
The original criminalization of marijuana in the 1930s was in part a move to send Mexicans back to Mexico during the Great Depression. The 1972 declaration of the War on Drugs was aimed at blacks and hippies. The consequences of the war have been devastating on those communities while not stopping drug use. Police have fought the drug war more vigorously in black and Hispanic communities than in affluent white neighborhoods. And even when middle-class whites get arrested, due to being able to afford more competent defense and disparities in sentencing, they don't go to jail in nearly the numbers as others.
When an urban person of color gets arrested for a nonviolent drug offense, their life takes a downswing they may never recover from. They go to jail and their families are ripped apart. They meet other criminals in jail who teach them how to conduct a life of crime. When they get out of jail, they've been out of circulation for a number of years, any education they were getting is over; they're ineligible for federal education funding because they have a felony record. Without education or job skills, there's little chance for employment. Pretty much all they have to fall back on are the criminals they met while in jail. The community loses a possible productive citizen, the family loses a potential breadwinner and the user is probably going back to jail at a cost to taxpayers
Police are addicted to drug money
Police know the War on Drugs is lost, but it is so profitable they won't tell the truth. Police get federal money, foundation money and forfeiture money for pursuing the failed drug war. It behooves them to pump up the statistics on their anti-drug efforts because they get paid. Recently, in Bay City, a lawyer complained that the city should save the cost of participating in the Bay Area Narcotics Enforcement Team. The ensuing discussion revealed that the federal government gave Bay City police a $60,000 grant to participate in the drug enforcement team. In Detroit, Mayor Dave Bing recently announced that police could use more than $2 million in drug forfeiture money to purchase crime-fighting technology that the city could not otherwise afford.
In an atmosphere where education dollars are hard to come by, where budget cuts threaten the existence of social services, where health care costs have nearly paralyzed the nation, anti-drug money still flows without impediment into dark coffers across the nation.
There's money to be made
I believe a lot of the talk among political entities about being able to control dosage and purity of the drug is partly cover for deciding just who is going to make the profits from a plant that has been used by indigenous peoples since the dawn of history. In a Dec. 5 press release, California's Union of Medical Marijuana Patients revealed that the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services is "about to award an exclusive license to Kannalife Sciences, Inc. of New York to develop medical therapeutics based on the chemistry of cannabis."
There's big money to be made, and the folks who handle big money want to keep it for themselves. In 2005, Milton Friedman and 500 economists supported a Harvard study showing that legal taxed and regulated marijuana would produce annual savings and tax revenues of $10-$14 billion for the United States. California pot sales alone already are an estimated billion-dollar industry. It's not like we couldn't use that kind of money in Michigan.
Science supports medical marijuana
There is no factual basis for marijuana prohibition. There are at least a couple of thousand peer-reviewed scientific articles out there that support the medical use of marijuana for treating diseases such as cancer, multiple sclerosis, AIDS and numerous other ailments including chronic pain. The only science contradicting these favorable findings comes from scientists working for anti-drug organizations — and they have the credibility of the scientists who claim that global warming does not exist.
There are a lot more things that I learned about marijuana over the past year. I've learned about how the active ingredients in marijuana work, and that it's not all about THC. I've learned that whole plant medications can be more effective than synthesizing one "active" component. I've learned that polls show the vast majority of Americans support medical marijuana and a slim majority supports out-and-out legalization. I've learned enough about marijuana that I believe that changing our laws and attitude toward the weed could indeed change our nation.