There is an old maxim that says, “If it was easy, somebody would have done it already.” Perhaps that is why nobody has changed the marijuana policies before this. In the midst of several major crises, and shortly before the 2022 mid-term elections — President Biden announced a major policy shift on federal laws dealing with marijuana. News of the announcement was overwhelmed by other issues like Ukraine, Hurricane Ike, Herschel Walker’s lies, the economy (symbolized by the price of gasoline), mass shootings and gun control, classified documents at Mar-a-Lago (and other Trump Maga issues like January 6th insurrection), etc. Given the number and magnitude of all of these other issues, it is easy to understand why Biden’s marijuana announcement did not get much press. That will change as he tries to implement the new policy and exposes the related troublesome issues that benefit from the current policy.
We need to start by understanding how marijuana became a perceived threat to American social stability. According to the 2016 Time Magazine report, “A Brief History of Marijuana Law in America”, “Part of Richard Nixon’s war on drugs, the Controlled Substances Act placed cannabis into Schedule 1, along with heroin and LSD, more due to Nixon’s animus toward the counterculture with which he associated marijuana than scientific, medical, or legal opinion. The Schedule I designation made it difficult even for physicians or scientists to procure marijuana for research studies. Defining marijuana as medically useless and restricting research access ensured that it would not be developed for use in medicines through the normal medical, scientific, and pharmaceutical protocols.” It is scientifically absurd to medically link marijuana with heroin, cocaine, oxy, and other addictive substances.
The unforeseen and unintended consequence of criminalizing marijuana turned out to be extremely profitable for the pharmaceutical and criminal justice industries. Some people still think that people fighting for the legalization of medical marijuana are a bunch of stoners looking to get high. Not so. Nearly 70% of voters favor legalization That’s much more than a bunch of stoners. They realize that there is no rational reason to continue these policies.
However, there are two major groups fighting against legalization.
1. Pharmaceutical companies — Big Pharma would lose billions of dollars if marijuana was legalized for medical and recreational use.
2. Criminal Justice industries — Enforcing marijuana laws is a large and lucrative business. “On a national level, national criminal justice expenditures for enforcing marijuana laws are $7.6 billion per year with $3.7 billion being allocated to police, $853 million to the courts, and $3.1 billion to corrections”.
These draconian and invalid laws place severe burdens on Americans in many ways. The Brookings Institute produced a video that captures one family’s determined story to improve their daughter’s life using medical marijuana.
“The Life She Deserves” profiles the difficult choices the Collins family faced and explores what many patients and families sacrifice to get medical relief. Whether it is for a child with epilepsy, a young woman battling breast cancer, an Iraq War veteran with PTSD, or an elderly woman with chronic arthritis, accessing medical cannabis often requires weighing steep costs against the benefits.” 
“The Brookings Institution is proud to present “The Life She Deserves,” a new documentary short film that is an intimate portrait of Jennifer Collins and her family’s struggle to find a treatment to control her debilitating epilepsy and their fight to change medical marijuana laws.”
Take twenty-one minutes and watch this video (linked in the footnote). It is a simple, inspiring, frustrating, and true story of one family’s battle with the government to give their daughter the life she deserves. If you have any doubts about the medical use of marijuana, this will answer your questions and, hopefully, activate you to support changing the laws.
Big pharma profits from limited access to marijuana. Paying for prescription drugs (even just the co-payment) can be financially devastating for low-income families or individuals. Big Pharma plays a role in preventing patients’ access to the medical benefits of marijuana. When patients have access to Marijuana, they buy fewer pain, anti-seizure, and antidepressant medications.
“One striking chart shows why pharma companies are fighting legal marijuana
They found that, in the 17 states with a medical-marijuana law in place by 2013, prescriptions for painkillers and other classes of drugs fell sharply compared with states that did not have a medical-marijuana law. The drops were quite significant: In medical-marijuana states, the average doctor prescribed 265 fewer doses of antidepressants each year, 486 fewer doses of seizure medication, 541 fewer anti-nausea doses and 562 fewer doses of anti-anxiety medication.
As with most things, if there are vast sums of money involved, then politics and greed will appear. Healthcare is a major portion of everyone’s budget, and they are all connected to poverty and our current democratic process’s inability to improve it. So as Biden’s effort to legalize/decriminalize marijuana proceeds, we should anticipate vigorous resistance from Big Pharma.
The other industry we can expect to be vehemently resistant to the proposed policy changes is criminal justice. Incarceration is expensive, ineffective, racially biased, anti-democratic, and inhumane; and yet the United States incarcerates more of its citizens than any other country in the world. You are probably familiar with most of these issues, but ‘anti-democratic’ may not have been on your list. Many states take away a convicted felon’s right to vote while they are serving their sentence. A few of them take it away for life. Given the statistical reality that more poor and minority citizens than middle- and upper-class citizens are incarcerated, and that those demographics are more likely to vote Democratic, denying the felons their voting rights can have an effect on an election outcome. Follow the trail. If a person is poor, they are more likely to commit a crime than middle- and upper-class citizens. If they are convicted felons, they lose their right to vote. This penalty falls disproportionately on voters likely to vote Democratic. Completing the circle, Poverty is bad for democracy.
Legalizing marijuana is also a good economic policy. It costs an average of $40,000 per year to incarcerate a prisoner. The average sentence in state prison is 5 years. (Federal sentences are longer.) At $40K per year, that means that each prisoner costs the taxpayer over $200K. First-offender non-violent drug prisoners are typically on the lower end of the spectrum. Recidivists, (people who go back to prison) typically serve longer sentences, so their cost is even greater. Add to this, ex-offenders are labeled and therefore have difficulty earning a living when they get out. According to the National Institute of Justice, among state prisoners released in 30 states in 2005:
· “About two-thirds (67.8%) of released prisoners were arrested for a new crime within 3 years, and three-quarters (76.6%) were arrested within 5 years.
· Within 5 years of release, 82.1% of property offenders were arrested for a new crime, compared to 76.9% of drug offenders, 73.6% of public order offenders, and 71.3% of violent offenders.
· More than a third (36.8%) of all prisoners who were arrested within 5 years of release were arrested within the first 6 months after release, with more than half (56.7%) arrested by the end of the first year.
· A sixth (16.1%) of released prisoners were responsible for almost half (48.4%) of the nearly 1.2 million arrests that occurred in the 5-year follow-up period.
· Within 5 years of release, 84.1% of inmates who were age 24 or younger at release were arrested, compared to 78.6% of inmates ages 25 to 39 and 69.2% of those age 40 or older.”
Efforts by the Brennan Center for Justice and the Vera Institute paid off a few years ago and state and federal prisons instituted programs to reduce their prison populations. As the research has raised awareness of and outrage over the incarceration problem, the Prison Industrial Complex has insidiously evolved into The Treatment Industrial Complex. Essentially, they rebranded their programs from incarceration to treatment and carried on business as usual. Their incentives are still upside down. They make money by keeping people in their programs. They lose money if their facilities are not kept full. The Politico article, “Stop the Treatment Industrial Complex”, describes the problem in frightening terms.
Keeping people in prison is profitable for companies in the PIC but not for the rest of society. The PIC industry’s incentives are upside down. If the prisons do well in facilitating a prisoner’s successful return to society, the prisons get no further revenue from that individual. On the other hand, if they do poorly and the ex-offender commits another crime and returns to prison, they profit from their failure. The incentives are rewarding the wrong outcomes. Besides the financial cost of recidivism, there is the public safety cost. When ex-offenders get desperate and commit crimes, there is at least one victim involved. Because the ex-offenders spent time in prison (sometimes called ‘crime school’), they are better criminals, so they may commit several crimes, with multiple victims, before the police catch them.
The PIC lobbies for stiffer sentencing and maintaining criminal status for many otherwise victimless drug offenses. Money presently being spent on incarceration produces extraordinarily little benefit to society. Politicians must take immediate steps to reduce spending on incarceration and to use the money on programs that reduce poverty and in turn reduce crime and improve public safety.
So, thank you, President Biden, for taking this important step in fixing America’s misguided marijuana policies. I look forward to the important ancillary benefits of your brave leadership in taking on these industries.