What is at stake with marijuana legalization

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(Carolyn Duff / The DePaulia)

(Carolyn Duff / The DePaulia)

Marijuana legalization seems to be more than just another issue for the millennial generation. By the way Barack Obama responded to the question of the drug’s legalization last month, it is clear that this issue weighs heavily on the minds of the younger population.

“Young people, I understand (legalization) is important to you,” President Obama said in an interview with Vice News. “But you should be thinking about climate change, the economy, jobs, war and peace. Maybe, way at the bottom, you should be thinking about marijuana.”

Clearly, Obama sees a hierarchy in the political agenda that isn’t lining up with his younger voters. But should this issue be given more saliency? A lot at stake with this drug’s potential legalization, which can often be overlooked due to the negative associations with the users of this drug.

There are two ways in which marijuana legalization is currently being suppressed as a serious issue. However, this is not to suggest that I am a strong proponent of legalization, as I see the arguments for both sides, but I do believe that legalization should be more seriously examined.

The failure of the War on Drugs as seen through increased incarcerations, combined with this drug’s implications for the health care industry, prove that marijuana legalization shouldn’t be pushed aside as an issue that can sit on the back burner of the political agenda.

The recreational use of marijuana has never had a positive reputation in American history. The drug was introduced after the Mexican Revolution in 1910 when “Mexican immigrants flooded into the U.S., introducing to American culture the recreational use of marijuana,” according to PBS. “Fear and prejudice about the Spanish-speaking newcomers became associated with marijuana.”

During the Great Depression, Americans began to link massive unemployment to Mexican immigrants, therefore associating a sense of fear with not only the immigrants themselves, but also with the perceived problem of their marijuana use.

This fear led to “a flurry of research which linked the use of marijuana with violence, crime and other socially deviant behaviors, primarily committed by ‘racially inferior’ or underclass communities.” PBS also reported, “by 1931, 29 states had outlawed marijuana.”

Later in American history, the drug became associated with hippie culture and was also believed to be a gateway drug. Today, the stereotypes of recreational users generally   haven’t changed.

In the documentary “The Culture High,” which details “the arguments and agendas of both those who support and those who oppose the legalization of marijuana,” the failure of the War on Drugs is exposed. The precursor of today’s modern War on Drugs occurred under former president Richard Nixon.

“America’s public enemy No. 1 in the United States is drug abuse,” Nixon said in 1971 when he called for a national anti-drug policy at the state and federal level. According to the documentary, the Nixon administration knew “the enormous political benefit by declaring a war on drugs that can’t really fight back … they chose the incarceration route for political reasons and then were absolutely overwhelmed at the positive political benefits they received.”

The truth is that marijuana arrests generate money for the government. Mike Trace, the former Deputy UK Drug Czar, said, “One thing about a cannabis arrest is that it’s easy, it’s not dangerous, and it turns into a solved crime very quickly with very little paperwork.” With a surplus of cannabis arrests, it isn’t difficult to frame the numbers of arrests as a step in winning the War on Drugs.

Police are encouraged to go for the simpler targets to fill their arrest quotas. It’s easier to catch a user than it is a trafficker, When police are incentivized to arrest, it not only erodes the democratic system, but it enables unfair standards and harsh laws.

Politicians’ support of this conceptual war can be linked to political lobbyists. “Most states are just like mine of California,” said former Orange County Supreme Court Judge Jim Gray in the documentary. “The largest, strongest political lobbying group in our state is the prison guards’ union.”

Prisons generate money from the government and provide jobs for workers. Groups such as the prison guards’ union want to keep marijuana illegal — the revenue they gain from arrests is so significant that losing it would result in a substantial decrease of pay. Their efforts aren’t for the good of the nation, but serve their special interests as most lobbying efforts do.

Lastly, the statistics that can be shaped from marijuana related arrests act as evidence of a sort of win against the War on Drugs. Arrests are high, so the war must be effective. In actuality, the war’s harsh drug policies are creating the arrests in the first place — hence the inherent failure of the War on Drugs.

Prescription drug lobbyists are just as guilty as prison lobbyists in advancing special interests that aren’t for the benefit of the American people as a whole. Pharmaceutical companies have billions of dollars to lobby Congress to keep marijuana illegal.

Why would these companies invite a natural drug into the health care market that fits the organic standard that so many Americans are currently seeking? Pharmaceutical companies have been known to suppress negative side effects about drugs, as heard through rushed voices at the end of pill commercials and cramped text on pill bottles.

Our prescription drug industry contains a level of public relations that is not natural for any sense of healthcare. This industry too has an incentive to keep medicinal marijuana illegal and therefore not a viable competitor.

In reality, this illegal drug has serious medicinal purposes that coincide with our body. In “The Culture High,” Dr. William Courtney, a physician researcher, reveals how cannabis mimics our endocannabinoids, a group of receptors in the brain that regulate mood, memory and appetite, and how our bodies have been built with receptors that are a part of our endocannabinoid system.

Cannabinoids, which humans and the cannabis plant produce, “regulate cell cluster, cell and intercellular functions,” Courtney said. This can be extremely beneficial to a person’s health when faced with sickness that effect cell production. Ultimately, cannabinoids can help cells function.

“Marijuana is the most non-toxic medicine I have encountered,” said Harvard professor of psychiatry Dr. Lester Grinspoon in the documentary. “Once it’s free of the prohibition tariff, it’s going to be much less expensive than the pharmaceutical products, which it will replace.”

In a Gallup poll conducted in October 2013, “a clear majority of Americans (58 percent) said the drug should be legalized.” American attitudes towards the drug may be changing as our nation becomes more progressive and new research continues to reveal the positive medicinal purposes of the drug.

Although I think that marijuana’s legalization is inevitable, I believe that the groups in the prison system and health care industry will do everything in their power to keep this issue off the political agenda. Because of their lobbying efforts, thousands will be kept in prison on illegal marijuana charges and thousands will be withheld an organic, non-toxic drug that has serious potential health benefits.

Perhaps we can learn a lesson or two from the failed prohibition of alcohol during the 1920s.

“There is little doubt that Prohibition failed to achieve what it set out to do, and that its unintended consequences were far more far reaching than its few benefits,” said Michael Lerner, a historian writing for PBS. “The ultimate lesson is two-fold. Watch out for solutions that end up worse than the problems they set out to solve, and remember that the Constitution is no place for experiments, noble or otherwise.”

Marijuana legalization has been branded as a trivial issue that concerns young people more than anyone else. But when a drug’s impact can affect the prison system and the health care industry, it is clear that it needs to be higher up on the political agenda.