If the current economic crisis leaves behind a substantial legacy, it will be embodied in lost educations. These educations will primarily be lost to minority and low-income students now that many colleges, including Lehigh, are quietly eliminating the practice of “need-blind” admissions. In other words, at the margin, admissions counselors will distinguish between two qualitatively identical applicants based on each one’s ability to pay full tuition. And while discrimination is a fact of life at private universities, we should not tolerate the same from the federal government.
In denying federal tuition assistance to any student with a minor drug conviction, the government is actively discriminating against those who rely on financial aid to enroll, or remain in college. The law, passed by Congress in the 1990s, applies to any offense committed within a decade of the aid application and includes misdemeanors that are typically punished with fines and community service. This policy is substantively identical to one that would only expel students below a certain income level.
But our drug problems go deeper than this one injustice. Recent events in Mexico are revealing the full consequences of our abortive “war on drugs.” Violent conflicts between rival drug cartels have put Mexico in a league with Pakistan: at the risk of becoming a failed state, defined as the “wholesale collapse of civil government.” Considering the large, porous border we share with Mexico, this could be our most imminent national security threat.
Last year alone, the death toll in this Mexican civil war was at least 5,000 (including civilians and government officials), and the violence has already spilled over into the border states of Arizona and Texas. This violence, of course, is committed in the name of capturing a share of the black market that American drug policies have created. Legalization would shrink the cartel’s income, making it more difficult for them to continue to arm a paramilitary force just south of the border. When you combine 5,000 dead and a country teetering on the brink of collapse with the proven medicinal value that marijuana has for glaucoma and cancer patients, prohibition seems increasingly at odds with any notion of fundamental human decency.
But it’s not just prohibition that feeds the problem. Our prison systems are more proficient at producing, rather than rehabilitating, criminals and drug addicts. One-third of those in prison today are there serving time for nonviolent drug offenses. Like the restriction on federal aid, our sentencing guidelines disproportionately harm poor minorities, who are more likely to be prosecuted for drug offenses and less adept at manipulating the legal system.
Luckily, the zeitgeist may be shifting, as states from Massachusetts to California are taking steps to legalize medicinal Marijuana. Polling whiz Nate Silver (who had the 2008 election down to a science) projects that a supermajority of Americans will favor marijuana legalization in the year 2022, assuming current trends hold. Only then, he opines, will legalization be politically viable. In the meantime, however, there’s much that can and should be done to pave the way.
Senators Jim Webb (D-VA) and Arlen Specter (R-PA) have proposed a substantial prison-reform bill, with an emphasis on addressing drug policy. Webb notes that the US, with only 5% of the world’s population, holds 25% of the world’s prison population. With $150 billion spent annually on policing and courts, almost half of all arrests are marijuana-related. I’m certain that a substantial contingent on the right, with their ranting about seven-figure planetariums and bear DNA research, wouldn’t mind if a large chunk of that $150 billion could be kept in taxpayer hands.
Conservative libertarians in the political chattering class like Andrew Sullivan of The Atlantic and Will Wilkinson of the Cato Institute are taking a different approach. They are advocating that public figures and ordinary citizens alike come out of the “cannabis closet,” to prove that marijuana use is widespread among productive, normal, healthy Americans – from PTA moms to soccer coaches.
Some of those Americans were probably responsible for making a question on “marijuana legalization as economic stimulus” the single most popular inquiry on whitehouse.gov. When President Obama dismissed the suggestion, he was right in the abstract. Imagine the headlines: “Obama’s Green Economy?” With more than enough political battles to fight, our overstretched President certainly doesn’t need to put his foot in this one. As a strategy of economic recovery, legalization is both politically suicidal and fiscally impotent. Reformists need not dismay, however, as Obama has spoken in favor of decriminalization outside of this politically heated context.
While decriminalization is likely to happen in individual states long before legalization becomes relevant, it’s important to note the unique benefits and potential pitfalls of legalization. Legal marijuana, subject to a substantial tax and strict regulations on marketing and distribution, could provide significant government revenue while making it harder for kids to get their hands on marijuana, which anecdotally is easier to acquire underage than alcohol and cigarettes.
It’s important not to get carried away, though. Marijuana isn’t “safe,” but neither are cigarettes, alcohol, Oxycontin, or toys from China. And no offense to those who are coming out of the “cannabis closet,” but you’re still stoners, and as relevant as the caricatures of drunkards and chain-smokers are, so will your epithet remain.
But nobler ideals are at stake than those embodied in the sanctimonious drones of social conservatives. We continue to feed a vicious piece of machinery that eats up taxpayer dollars, spits out death and destruction in our backyard, and exacerbates poverty and crime at home. For the first time in ages, there is tangible recognition of these facts, and a glimmer of sanity in the drug war debate, but how far will it take us?