Tiny Uruguay made waves a month ago by becoming the first nation anywhere to fully legalize the sale and use of recreational marijuana. Colorado and Washington, however, had already beaten them to the punch, and a handful of other states are expected soon to follow suit.
In addition, 18 states and the District of Columbia permit marijuana for medical purposes. A proposal to legalize medical marijuana could appear on Florida’s ballot in November.
What this all means is that the United States is without a national policy toward marijuana. Although legally banned throughout the country by federal law, cannabis use is, in practice, governed by an incoherent patchwork of state regulations, and further muddled by staggering disparities in enforcement and punishment.
Legalizing cannabis, a step most Americans now favor, is the only way out of this jumble, particularly after President Obama made clear that he would not enforce a federal ban on marijuana use in those states where it was now lawful. “We have other fish to fry,” he said. In another interview, he said marijuana is no more harmful than alcohol.
Legalization should also contribute to easier relations with Mexico and other neighbors to the south on issues of public security.
To be sure, legal marijuana comes with costs and risks. The American Medical Association considers cannabis a “ dangerous drug” while the American Psychiatric Association asserts that its use impedes neurological development in adolescents and can cause the “onset of psychiatric disorders.”
Some studies suggest it interferes with learning and motivation. It should be anticipated that legalization will lead to greater use, at all ages, as marijuana becomes more accessible and less expensive, and the cultural and social stigmas surrounding its consumption literally go up in smoke. Abuse and addiction — including among juveniles — will rise as well.
But keeping marijuana illegal also carries a high price tag. Particularly devastating are the human costs of arresting and jailing thousands upon thousands of young Americans each year. Roughly one-third of all U.S. citizens are arrested by age 23. Racial and ethnic minorities are most vulnerable. African-American marijuana users are over three times more likely to be arrested and imprisoned than whites, even though the two groups consume the drug at virtually the same levels.
With cannabis accounting for roughly half of total drug arrests, legalization would sharply reduce this egregious disparity. It would also save money by reducing the U.S. prison population. A half a million people were incarcerated for drug offenses in 2011, a ten-fold jump since 1980 — at an average annual cost per prisoner of more than $20,000 in a minimum-security federal facility.
Cannabis legalization would also help to lift an unneeded burden from U.S. foreign policy in Latin America, where Washington’s drug war has long strained diplomatic relations.
Most governments in the hemisphere have concluded that U.S. anti-drug policies are just not working and, in many places, are actually contributing to mounting levels of crime, violence and corruption. Colombia has been a notable exception. With U.S. support of nearly $10 billion, the country has become far more secure in the past dozen years.
Yet Juan Manuel Santos, Colombia’s president and arguably Washington’s closest ally in the region, is now a leading advocate of alternative drug strategies. In an exhaustive report last year, prompted by President Santos, the Organization of American States analyzed a range of alternative policy approaches, including cannabis legalization.
Few Latin American countries are actively contemplating legalization a la uruguaya. But many have stopped arrests for use and possession of marijuana, and virtually all are keeping a close watch on developments in Uruguay. Nowhere is there much enthusiasm for cooperating with the United States in its continuing efforts to eradicate drug crops and interrupt drug flows.
A decision by the U.S. government to legalize marijuana would be a bold step toward breaking today’s bureaucratic and political inertia and opening the way for a genuine hemisphere-wide search for alternative strategies.
Cannabis legalization will not be a cure-all. It will not solve other critical drug abuse problems or change the security question dramatically — and as noted, it comes with substantial risks. It would not be an attractive option if there were other ways to address the twin tragedies of mass imprisonment of young Americans and Washington’s ineffective and widely unpopular anti-drug programs overseas. But nothing else is visible on the horizon.
Peter Hakim is president emeritus and Cameron Combs is program associate at the Inter-American Dialogue.