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Editorial: Time to talk pot

BY DI EDITORIAL BOARD | NOVEMBER 08, 2012 6:30 AM

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After ballot measures in Colorado and Washington legalized possession of recreational marijuana for people over the age of 21, it is clear that it’s time to have a serious discussion about legalizing marijuana — in this state and around the nation.

The societal problems born of the nation’s strict marijuana laws dramatically overshadow the potential consequences of legalizing a drug that is, by any reasonable measure, no more harmful than tobacco or alcohol. The current laws make too many people criminals, greatly exacerbate the massive racial disparity in the American prison system, and simply cost too much to enforce.

According to the FBI’s 2011 Uniform Crime Report, law-enforcement officials nationwide made 1,531,251 arrests for drug-abuse violations last year. Drug violations were 2011’s most common crime, accounting for more than 12 percent of the nation’s arrests. Approximately 49.5 percent, or 758,000, of those arrests were marijuana-related; in total, 663,000 people were arrested for simple possession of a drug with no worse effects than alcohol.

These arrests are not distributed equally among the population. Nationwide, 31.7 percent of those individuals arrested for drug crimes are African American, despite the fact that African Americans make up only 12 percent of the U.S. population.

This disparity is one of the drivers behind a particularly unfortunate national trend — the mass incarceration of black males. According to Department of Justice statistics, there were 561,000 black males in federal or state prison in 2010 — almost 40 percent of the national prison population.

Marijuana prohibition not only disproportionately affects minority communities, it also inflicts massive financial costs on society as a whole. A 2010 study by Harvard University economics lecturer Jeffrey Miron found that the average annual cost of marijuana prohibition — including the costs of enforcing the law and all post-arrest costs— nationwide comes to approximately $8.7 billion. Combined with the potential federal and state tax revenue that would follow legalization, ending prohibition could save the United States $17.4 billion every year. In Iowa, the potential savings and tax revenue would combine to add $66 million to the state budget annually.

Given the myriad negative societal trends caused in part or in whole by marijuana prohibition, it makes sense for Iowa to begin heading down the path to legalization. Opponents of such a measure cite impending social decay as a natural outcome of legalization, but the positive effects of driving a popular criminal enterprise into the light and some modest economic benefits would almost certainly outweigh the potential consequences. 

There is, of course, one more major obstacle to state-level legalization that could be problematic to the green machine chugging toward victory in Colorado and Washington and could quash the legalization plans of other states: the federal government.

Because no states have, up until now, established legislation contrary to federal law, it is unclear how the federal government will deal with the new state-level rules. Given the current administration’s history of strict marijuana enforcement, it is possible that the federal government could continue to enforce federal drug laws in states where marijuana possession has been made legal.

So, whether or not Iowa is ready for this discussion, two states have begun a clash between the relationship of state and federal government, bringing to light the obvious realization: We need to talk about marijuana legalization in Iowa.


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