Four decades ago, Richard Nixon waged the modern war on drugs that still severely impacts Americans today, especially in our quaint neighborhood of Southwest DC. According to a study published in July 2013 by the Washington Lawyer’s Committee for Civil Rights and Urban Affairs, there were roughly 950 drug arrests in Ward 6 in 2011. More than 80 percent of those arrested were African American, despite African Americans making up only 41 percent of the Ward 6 population and drug usage rates being similar amongst various races. These statistics show an obvious disparity within the district’s legal system when it comes to drug arrests.
Recently, Councilmember Tommy Wells (D-Ward 6) proposed the Marijuana Possession Decriminalization Amendment Act of 2014, which has passed the Council’s vote and is now heading to Mayor Vincent Gray for signature approval. This act would reduce cannabis* possession in DC to a civil penalty, rather than a criminal offense, with a punishment fee of just $25, or $100 if caught using cannabis in public. 16 states have already decriminalized cannabis use, with two states fully legalizing the sale and use of recreational cannabis.
Macro policies influence micro lives very deeply. The policies of the war on drugs have severely impacted the lives of everyone in our community. America has the highest incarceration rates in the world: 743 per 100,000 citizens compared to many Western European countries with less than 100 per 100,000. In 2009 and 2010, 20 percent of all arrests in DC were for drug-related charges, with 40 percent of those arrests being in relation to cannabis. Arrests for non-violent crimes have escalated over the years, and are still continuing to do so. These arrests affect mostly marginalized groups in lower socioeconomic status, who are already in vulnerable situations. These drug regulations have broken up communities on a large and small scale. Studies have shown that when parents go to jail, their children are more likely to end up in jail as well. The war on drugs has created a prison industrial complex worth $35 billion annually, where private prisons benefit from the profits of enslaving people in jails.
With legalization on the horizon, let’s examine the economics in Colorado, the first state to cash in on cannabis legalization. In January 2013, sales of medical cannabis led to a tax revenue of $256,856; compare that to January 2014 sales, which led to a total tax revenue of $3,519,756. The governor of Colorado estimates that the sales tax on recreational cannabis will bring in $610 million in taxes for the state by the end of the year. In terms of what that could mean for DC, the entire public school system was allocated $523 million for fiscal year 2014 and the budget of the entire Metro Police Dept. was $480 million in 2012. With the amount of tourism that DC already receives (almost 19 million people per year) you can imagine the potential fortune the District could inherit. Factor in the already admirable surplus to the city’s budget in past years ($321 million for fiscal year 2014) and the city stands to really benefit from full-on legalization of cannabis.
Opponents of legalization make many arguments that have some ground, but it may be too early to tell from society’s experiment in Colorado. In a look at crime statistics from January and February 2014 vs. 2013 in Denver, CO, there was an increase in crimes against persons by about 13.7 percent; a decrease in crimes against property by six percent; a decrease in crimes against society by two percent; and a statistically significant increase in disorderly conduct/disturbing the peace by 85 percent, however police observational bias may need to be taken into account on that one. Of note, the amount of drug and narcotic violations has remained roughly the same – 383 in 2014 vs. 389 in 2013 (keep in mind this is only January and February). These statistics are interesting to look at, but do not contain enough data for us to make any substantial conclusions on the effects on society from legalization of cannabis.
Cannabis was once prescribed as legitimate medicine back in the 18th and 19th centuries. It was not until the turn of the 20th century that certain drugs were deemed illegal because of high rates of drug abuse. Media propaganda was used to influence people’s judgment of cannabis; Reefer Madness (1936), a cult classic, portrayed the dangers and perils of cannabis so severely that America’s people stopped questioning the government and agreed to outlaw cannabis. The cultural revolution of the 1960s, however, brought the usage back into question and it has remained a controversial issue to this day, and is gaining momentum.
Although two states across the nation have already legalized cannabis, Mayor Gray has proclaimed he is “not there yet” when it comes to full legalization of the plant. Most ideologies of drug policies are rooted from puritanical beliefs that harsh and severe punishment will lead to a safer and more secure society. Billions ($9.6 billion for fiscal year 2014) of taxpayer’s dollars are spent every year on law enforcement agencies in the US designed to fight the War on Drugs. However, we are currently losing the war on drugs, big time. Not only are drugs more easily available, they are cheaper and a lot more potent.
Studies have shown that there have been zero deaths associated with cannabis since the history of its cultivation, while alcohol and tobacco are associated with killing more than 500,000 people every year in the US. If policies are supposed to benefit the interest of the people, how are these drug laws logical?
In a city that is supposed to represent the nation’s capital, decriminalization would be the first step to progressing as a country. Ward 6 mayoral candidate Tommy Wells says that, “decriminalizing would be about unifying the community and making it a better place for people of all classes.” With the Democratic primary election taking place on April 1st, the residents of DC have the potential to elect a leader who will raise the standard of living and make this city a better place to live. Marijuana law reform is clearly an issue that will arise during the next mayor’s term in office and it is time to think about a progressive plan that will benefit the city and it’s residents.
By: Paula Lin and Joseph Chin
*The term cannabis is used to denote marijuana because it is the official medicinal term that was used when it was still legal.