Something that has troubled me for a long time is the absence of any public debate (or media coverage) of the US's out of control rate of incarceration. With 5 percent of the world's population, we hold 25 percent of the world's prison population: 7.3 million people, one out of every 31 adults in the country (in 1982 it was one out of every 77 adults). Beyond the outrageous fact that the US imprisons more of its citizens than any other country, there is a long trail of statistical evidence of pervasive racial bias in the criminal justice system.
Meanwhile, consider the following:
1) a study by the Sentencing Project in 2005 found that almost half (45%) of the estimated 1.5 million drug arrests in the US that year were for marijuana.
2) An article in today's NYT reports that spending on prisons is growing faster than any part of the budget except Medicare spending; it costs an average of $29,000 a year to keep someone in prison.
3) A recent study by the Congressional Research Office reports that marijuana sales may account for more than 60% of the $8 to 25 billion of Mexican drug cartel profits through the sale of drugs in the US. This is the money paying for the weapons used in the escalating violence that is destabilizing Mexico.
4) It has long been recognized that taxes on legal marijuana would be a significant source of revenue for states. The San Francisco Chronicle reports that in California, where the annual budget gap is now at 42 billion dollars, marijuana is the most valuable crop, with an estimated worth of 14 billion dollars: completely untaxed.
5) The main obstacle to legalizing marijuana is political: public opinion has been consistently against it. But the situation is not static: Gallup reports that today over a third of respondents favor legalization, and the trend line is strongly towards pro-legalization. Going a little further into the politics: almost half (44%) of men between ages 18 and 49 favor legalization, as well as almost half (49%) of residents of Western states, half (44%) of independent voters, more than one out of three (37%) of registered Democrats, and a majority (54%) of self-described "liberals." This indicates that a popular Democratic president could reform federal marijuana laws without undue political risk; Attorney General Eric Holder stated last week that the government would halt DEA raids on medical marijuana vendors.
People, this one's really not that hard, is it? Full legalization of production, distribution and sale, with full taxation, sales through licensed vendors with proof of age, just like alcohol. It's not just "OK": it's urgent.