Opinion: A Neveruser's Guide to Legalization - Marijuana Week

By Matthew Cain

In the fifth grade, I graduated from the Drug Abuse Resistance Education program at my school.

DARE was one of those 80’s/90’s “just say no”-type school programs that counted on its coolness to deliver a message. It had a hip, pantsless lion mascot, and invited police officers into classrooms to teach about the dangers of back-alley drug deals.

If you went through the DARE program in elementary or middle school, you probably remember, well, nothing. Basically since its inception, study after study has shown that DARE does nothing to reduce kids’ later drug use, and can actually increase usage rates in some cases. In 2001, a report from the Surgeon General said, “One school-based universal prevention program meets the criteria for Does Not Work: Drug Abuse Resistance Education.” But still, schools and police departments pour resources into the program.

DARE-brand barbecue sauce, because really, what goes with drug and alcohol abstinence than some ribs…?

Photo by Aric McKeown.

Despite the studies, I loved DARE. I won a special award from the program, and at our DARE graduation, I read a poem I had written called “Remember What You Learned in DARE.” I knew exactly what I’d do when the creepy back-alley thug approached with the inevitable question: “Hey, kid, want some drugs?”

I lived in a small town that didn’t even have back alleys, so that thug never appeared. Mostly propelled by DARE-induced self-righteousness, I made it through high school and even my first year of college without so much as a drink. Yeah, I was that guy.

No back-alley thug ever presented me with drugs, but Someone I Know did. (Our DARE officer always encouraged us to avoid using names, but instead tell our stories about “Someone I Know,” so as not to incriminate drug-using friends or family members. Though, evidently not every officer was as worried about accidental incrimination.) Actually, several Someones I Know. With them, I smoked twice, but never really enjoyed it.

Yes, that was a long and roundabout introduction, but here’s the point: I don’t like smoking pot, but that doesn’t mean I think you shouldn’t be able to do it.

By this point, many of the arguments are well worn. Marijuana is less addictive and less harmful than tobacco or alcohol. It can have beneficial medicinal effects. Much of the enforcement is racially biased.

But the most compelling case by far is economics. If you believe that our national debt is a problem (even though it isn’t), legalization is for you. If you want to reduce the number of children using drugs, legalization is for you. And if you don’t think we should make subsidies for murderous drug cartels and street gangs a national policy, then legalization is definitely for you.

Every year, the federal government spends an estimated $20 billion of our money conducting its long-standing “War on Drugs.” That price tag doesn’t count the cost of locking up thousands of nonviolent drug offenders — a group that makes up about a quarter of the U.S. prison population, up from a little less than 10 percent in 1980. It also doesn’t count the economic loss of the thousands of young people whose lives are disrupted by a marijuana arrest and the felony conviction that could accompany it.

Meanwhile, states make more than $17 billion a year taxing cigarettes. It’s true that cigarette taxes are regressive, but they’re an important revenue stream for many states. There’s some evidence that marijuana taxes would be less regressive than cigarette taxes. One National Institutes of Health survey found that wealthier neighborhoods of New York City had higher rates of marijuana use than low-income neighborhoods. Whether that’s true or not, ending the drug war and taxing marijuana sales could have a positive effect on state and federal budgets.

Studies have shown that a blanket prohibition on marijuana actually makes it easier for children and teenagers to get it, because dealers and friends don’t card. Keeping pot out of the hands of minors was one of the major arguments of proponents of legalization in Colorado last year. The numbers say they’re right — teen cigarette, alcohol, and prescription drug use have declined in recent years, while use of unregulated marijuana is increasing.

Even with prohibition, people (obviously) continue to buy and use marijuana, and we should be concerned with where their money is going. It’s hard to estimate how much Americans spend on pot, but CNBC tried in 2010 and decided that it’s reasonable to assume we spend $35-45 billion buying marijuana every year. If that money were going to shade-grown artisanal cannabis farmers in Central America, it would arguably be a good thing. But it’s not. None of it is. The money Americans pay for pot goes to finance some of the most brutal drug cartels in the world, and it’s leaving a trail of blood behind it.

Legalizing marijuana would take the deadly middle man out of the equation. Allowing farmers to grow marijuana — with heavy government regulation, like tobacco — could bring an end to much of the violence that has plagued Mexico in recent decades. And providing legal distribution channels would go much further to end drug smuggling than the War on Drugs has in the last forty years.

Enough is enough. You don’t have to personally enjoy using marijuana to know it should be legal, regulated and taxed, just like alcohol and tobacco. Even the pantsless DARE lion should be able to get behind that idea.