The news media have been alive with talk about legalizing marijuana for some time now, especially since the 2012 votes in Colorado and Washington. But no one is really sure what legalizing marijuana means. The easiest way to answer this question is to just apply the words literally. It simply means to apply rules and regulations to an already existing lawless market, thereby bringing safety and order to that market.about
The marijuana market exists now. It existed before the Marihuana Tax Act was passed. Many in states along the Mexican border were using it by 1915 (The federal government issued its first large study before 1920). Use in the military was so common that the Army Surgeon-General issued a report in 1932 (His conclusion: marijuana presented no risk to effectiveness, discipline, or health and no regulations were needed). Musicians in Chicago and Kansas City used it in the 1930s (Louis Armstrong was arrested for possession in Los Angeles) and it was common in Harlem and Boston. And it will continue to exist whether its Prohibition ends or continues. Federal government surveys show that more than 15,000,000 people use each month.
But that market is different from the market for prescription drugs or automobiles or blue jeans. Because of Prohibition the marijuana market is law-less. It operates in the dark where the law cannot reach: a black market. Legalization does not mean creating a market – that already exists; it only means applying the usual rules and regulations to that market: bringing it into the light.
Markets without regulation are always expensive and destructive at every step in the process. Manufacturing or processing the goods are hazardous both to the consumer and to the neighborhood. Before the Pure Food and Drug Act, millions died from spoiled meats or adulterated foods; and bathtub gin, denatured alcohol and jakeleg killed or crippled tens of thousands during alcohol Prohibition. Most of the deaths attributed to heroin are actually due to adulterants, substituted drugs, or unexpected potency; the same can be said for all of the reported MDMA deaths. Marijuana has also had its purity problems with herbicide, pesticide, and fertilizer contaminants. These poisonings have been almost eliminated from food and drink (including alcohol) by modern regulation and inspection.
Preparing drugs illegally also creates unnecessary hazards. Bathtub gin stills exploded, burning down crowded tenement apartments. Illegal meth cookers spill hazardous chemicals and explode in populated neighborhoods. Marijuana growhouses burn from improper electrical installations and innocent passers-by have been killed by booby traps at illegal grows. But Jim Beam and Jack Daniels have been safely distilling whiskey for generations; and licensed pharmaceuticals have safely manufactured methamphetamine (yes, it is a legal prescription drug) for eighty years. Legal marijuana would be grown and processed as safely as tomatoes.
The most dangerous part of an illegal market are the people who run it. The combination of artificially high prices and high risks of imprisonment or death attracts only the most ruthless and violent to compete in it. During alcohol Prohibition, modern organized crime got it start in the mobs that ruled Chicago and New York with tommy guns and bribes. After repeal lowered prices and overt regulation forced these gangs from alcohol into the other Prohibition-based markets of prostitution, gambling, and drugs. The height of the cocaine era was dominated by first the Colombian, then the Mexican Cartels, who elevated violence to military levels. They have also been prevalent in the marijuana trade. These Cartels combine with local street gangs at the retail level of the market. Repealing Prohibition replaced the murderous gangs by law-abiding breweries and distilleries. Legalization and regulation by repealing marijuana would accomplish the same transformation.
The marijuana market existed before the passage of the Marihuana Tax Act; it has not only continued, but has flourished and grown since; and it will continue into the foreseeable future. The only question facing Congress and state legislatures is whether that market will continue to fester in the dark of a criminalized black market or will it be brought out into the healthy sunlight of a legal market kept well and strong by rules and regulations – rules that protect not just the consumers in that market but also the by-standers whose lives, homes, and livelihoods are jeopardized by the Prohibition parasites that repressive laws foster among them. Legalizing the marijuana market will protect everyone.