Marijuana is illegal in almost every country on Earth, with punishments ranging from a written warning right up to a mandatory prison sentence. In the UK, the punishment for cannabis possession is a written warning for the first offence, an on-the-spot fine of £80 for the second offence, and arrest and possible criminal charges for the third offence and beyond.
In the United States, a war on drugs such as marijuana has been raging for decades, seen as a way to tackle the perceived social degradation and rising substance abuse that comes from using. This war has been largely ineffectual, costing over a trillion dollars and resulting in nothing but higher imprisonment rates. There is sadly a huge racial element to America’s war, with African-Americans being disproportionately targeted despite marijuana use being roughly equal between all racial groups. Writers such as Michelle Alexander go so far to call it a new expression of Jim Crow or slavery, since those convicted of a felony cannot ever vote again.
Thankfully our anti-marijuana statute in the UK is less racially motivated, but we do openly allow one drug that is arguably more dangerous than marijuana – alcohol.
Clear-UK reports that there were 1.1 million alcohol related hospital admissions in 2009, and only 750 marijuana related admissions. In fact, more people were admitted to the hospital because of peanut related problems than marijuana related problems. In the same year, there were 1467 people admitted for alcohol for every 1 person admitted for marijuana. From a purely statistical standpoint, alcohol is more costly to the NHS, and yet it is distributed widely and cheaply.
It must be said that marijuana is not some side-effect free drug that gives you a high without consequence, especially given the massive difference in growing techniques between the 1960’s and today. While scientists still debate the long-term effects it has on the mind (especially those vulnerable to mental illness), there is a large consensus in the scientific community that marijuana does very little damage to the body.
Marijuana arrests may not ruin as many lives in the UK as they do in the US, but it is an issue which should not be ignored. With decriminalization, there is great potential to cut crime rates and to make millions in revenue. Colorado alone, a state of some 5 million people, is expected to make $137 million in tax due to legalizing the sale and use of marijuana last year. Without all the drug busts, Colorado’s incarceration rates (and the subsequent cost to the taxpayer) is only expected to decline.
Marijuana and alcohol are both dangerous if consumed in excess, but only one of them is distributed and put on sale. This is an arbitrary line to draw with drugs (alcohol is, after all, a drug), and so if we want a serious discussion about where to draw the line, we must not forget that alcohol ought not get a free pass. Unless a significant difference between alcohol and marijuana can be shown, we ought to re-assess whether it makes any sense to criminalize one and mass distribute the other.