When you talk with to alumni who graduated before the 1980s about the College of William and Mary, many claim that you could not enter a dorm without being overwhelmed by the smell of marijuana smoke. Today, being found with marijuana in the dorms will result in removal from campus housing or dismissal from the College altogether. Students who use marijuana are disproportionately punished compared to those who drink underage, although both are illegal. A first-time marijuana offense bars students from campus housing, which for freshmen — who are required to live on campus — translates to a suspension until the next academic year. Such condemnation is neither logical nor helpful, but is the result of years of misguided federal and state enforcement.
It is in our country’s interest to legalize marijuana for financial, environmental and societal reasons. During the 1920s, Popular Mechanics Magazine called marijuana a “billion-dollar cash crop.” Now according to a CNBC report, U.S. marijuana sales are at approximately $40 billion annually, making it the country’s largest cash crop. The revenue from marijuana, however, supports neither beneficial federal programs nor small business owners. Gangs and cartels are reaping the benefits of America’s most profitable resource.
Rather than benefiting from the sale of marijuana, Americans are instead paying for their own prosecution.
According to the FBI’s annual Uniform Crime Report, 858,408 Americans were prosecuted for marijuana violations in 2009. Only 12 percent of those charges were for distribution, the rest were for personal possession. In Virginia, police made 19,764 arrests for marijuana offenses in 2009, accounting for 6 percent of all arrests in the state. While gang leaders make their income from prohibition, individual Americans suffer the consequences of its enforcement.
They also pay for it. The war on drugs has placed an undue burden on our correctional facilities and law enforcement operations. According to a study by the Department of Justice, the average annual operating cost per state inmate was $22,650 in 2001, totaling at around $100 spent by every U.S. resident. Harvard economist Jeffrey A. Miron finds that legalizing marijuana would save local, state and federal governments around $8.7 billion in prohibition enforcement costs. Another $8.7 billion in government revenue would be generated from its legal production and sale. With all levels of government suffering from overwhelming deficits, it is nonsensical to ignore such an obvious source of profit.
Industrial hemp could provide another needed stimulus to the economy. Hemp provides a natural alternative to paper, textiles, plastics and even fuel, and its legal cultivation would greatly help the environment. China is the world’s largest producer of hemp, but the United States is its premiere importer. Legalizing marijuana, or at least distinguishing between industrial hemp and recreational or medicinal cannabis, would reduce our dependence on foreign imports while helping both our economy and the environment.
The financial benefits of legalization are substantial, but the societal benefits are no less pronounced. Countless studies have proven marijuana to be considerably less harmful than alcohol and tobacco. There is no evidence to suggest that marijuana causes physical dependence, unlike alcohol, tobacco and many legal medications. In the Netherlands, where marijuana can be bought and used by those over 18, the rates of adult use are comparable to those in the U.S., and adolescents are less likely to use it. The legalization of medical marijuana in several states has benefited countless patients suffering from diseases that range from “night terrors” and migraines to cancer, AIDS, schizophrenia and anorexia nervosa. Legalizing marijuana would help our economy, our environment and our peace of mind, and it is high time for the federal government — as well as the College’s disciplinary codes — to enact common-sense solutions rather than unscientific and illogical fear mongering.