The first and most obvious effect is that it will virtually depopulate the court dockets and the prison system of new “criminals.” Roughly 50% of the prison population is in prison for “drug use.” Roughly 27% of those — the largest single category — are incarcerated for marijuana use. So the day that marijuana is legalized, nationwide, 14% of our “criminals” will simply vanish. Court caseloads will drop by 14%. Law enforcement will lose the need for 14% of their manpower. Prisons will give up 14% of their expansion plans. If there is any kind of retroactive amnesty, prisons might immediately disgorge 14% of their current inmates.
But that’s only the direct effect.
One of the things about criminalizing milder drugs is that it promotes the use of harder drugs. In the years before 1920 and the disastrous US experiment with Prohibition, the most popular alcoholic beverage was beer, by a large margin. During Prohibition, the most popular beverage was whiskey. After Prohibition, the most popular beverage was … yes, beer. Why?
It has to do with what you can get, and that’s controlled by the black-market suppliers. They, in turn, are not going to waste their efforts on the weak stuff — they’re going to push the high-octane alternatives. A whiskey-runner makes more money than a beer-runner. So they don’t run beer, they run whiskey. When you go to the speakeasy and ask for a beer, which you prefer, the bartender will say they’re fresh out, how about a shot of whiskey? You’ll pay more for the whiskey, and it will be cheap stuff that’s probably watered, to stretch profits, but it’s what they’ve got, so you’ll take it.
So I think it’s a pretty sure bet that as marijuana becomes legal, the use of crack cocaine, heroin, meth, and other harder drugs will drop. That’s exactly what they’ve found in other countries. If even half of the crack-heads and heroin junkies stop using the hard stuff and go back to marijuana, just as whiskey-drinkers went back to beer at the end of Prohibition, a full 30% of all “crime” in the US will vanish.
Of course, it spreads even further than that. A lot of burglary and robbery is committed by people trying to support a drug habit. A lot of homicide involves the illegal drug trade. That could shave as much as another 7% off the total.
The US prison-industrial complex could lose more than a third of its business overnight.
There will be a lot of lobbying over that one: pleas to not legalize marijuana, because it will spell ruin for the privatized prisons-for-profit industry.
Incidentally, I call this entire class of industries that thrive on human misery the Assassin’s Guild. I don’t know if there’s ever really been such a thing, but it crops up in a lot of humorous fantasy, like the Discworld novels of the late Terry Pratchett, and I’m pretty sure it’s a sardonic poke at this common dysfunction in our modern society. One of the CEO’s of the US automobile industry back in the 1950’s said something like, “What’s good for General Motors is good for the country.” What’s good for the Assassin’s Guild is most definitely not good for the country.
That’s the metaphor: the Assassin’s Guild is the entire class of businesses and bureaucracies which are necessary but not desirable, and their growth certainly isn’t desirable. We have a lot of them: trash removal, morticians, insurance companies, police, courts, and jails are all right up there.
Of course, some government agencies are also members of the Assassin’s Guild, and they’ll face hard times indeed. The DEA will face severe cutbacks, and if the CIA is as deeply involved with the drug trade as some claim, they’ll lose a bunch of their off-the-books funding. That will cause a lot of screaming in high places.
Some days, it just sucks to be an Assassin.
All kinds of Assassin’s Guild members are going to be dead-set against marijuana legalization. In my view, that’s a strong argument in favor of legalizing it.
I think marijuana legalization will also have a huge effect on black communities. In reading about the tense race relations in the US, and the role of the Drug War in promoting that tension over the last century, what’s come through as crystal clear is that we’ve done a pretty good job of implementing apartheid in this country (and if there’s any doubt in anyone’s mind, no, I don’t think that’s a good thing). In many cases, the drug business is the only viable livelihood available to young urban black men, other than doing time in prison.
Legalizing marijuana is going to commoditize pot, just as repealing Prohibition in the 1930’s gave rise to the commodity wine business of California, and pot will suddenly become a respectable and exclusively white industry, all the way down to the dealership level. As an agribusiness, there will be room for expanded migrant labor (legal and illegal), primarily from Mexico, but not so much room for black people from the cities.
So we’re going to see a lot of young black men dumped back on the city streets with even fewer inner-city job prospects than before.
I think that’s going to be an explosive situation. The upside of it is that it may force apartheid US America into facing its deeply-ingrained white supremacy issues. And its overall labor crisis, which will be the subject of another post.
It’s worth noting that marijuana legalization would be merely one potential trigger for something that’s inevitable. Escalating police militarization and brutality against black populations is another potential trigger. The US system of apartheid is unworkable, and always has been: at some point, it’s going to explode.
Of course, a third of the prison-industrial system itself will also end up back on the street, including everyone from judges to attorneys to cops to prison guards to razor-wire manufacturers. The attorneys can shift to corporate pot law. I don’t know where the rest are going to go.
There will be international repercussions. The drug trade coming up from Mexico will get badly hurt in the place where it counts, the wallet. They’re not going to see a 30% drop in profits — they’re going to be effectively wiped out. There will still be opportunity for them, in the hard drugs, but profits will be much reduced and there will be a huge shakeout for control of the business. Without money, they’ll lose power over the Mexican army, and the Mexican government, and (doubtless) the US government. Who knows? We might even see a Mexican government that isn’t controlled by the drug cartels, and that could be very interesting.
We’ll also see further loss of perceived US control in Europe.
Several European governments have already broken ranks with the US on drug policy, and have had far better practical results with controlling addiction and the crime associated with drugs: their results, in fact, have pretty much shown up US policy as a disaster. Legalizing marijuana in the US at this point could be viewed as a kind of humiliation, given the kind of strong-arming the US used to force European states to join them in their ill-conceived War on Drugs.
I don’t personally see this as a bad thing. The one thing that’s clear about international politics, especially in the wake of the utter failure of Dick Cheney’s Neocon wet-dream in Iraq, is that the age of the One Remaining Superpower is over. The US is going to have to adapt to coexisting in a real, multipolar world.
Which amounts to admitting that Uncle Sam doesn’t always know best.
I personally think that legalizing marijuana across the entire country is both a practical and moral imperative, and it will in the long run point the way toward righting a whole series of wrongs in the country: wrongs that serve only to destroy any long-term hope for the nation.