One consequence of covering marijuana now and then and of being pretty outspoken in my support of legalisation is that many people assume I am a smoker. Or that I consume marijuana in some other way, for surely, only stoners deeply care about legalisation or are interested in covering drug issues for the media; why would anyone else find it of interest? Such assumptions are irritating, because they come with a lot of baggage, but they also betray a lack of cultural understanding when it comes to our national relationship to drugs and the people who use them.
I don’t smoke. But I still favour legalisation. I favour full legalisation of marijuana and other drugs for a variety of reasons, including economic and social ones. You don’t have to be a drug user to support legalisation, just like you don’t have to be directly involved with any other cause to support it, and you don’t have to be able to benefit from a cause to think it’s a good idea. I happen to think I will indirectly benefit from legalisation, but that’s not why I support it: I do so because substantial evidence suggests it’s the right thing to do.
Certain drugs are stimatised in the US, and criminalisation is a big part of that stigma. While marijuana is generally considered socially acceptable in many regions, other drugs are not as ‘acceptable,’ especially crack and meth, which are primarily seen in use among low-income communities and people of colour (among which there is considerable overlap thanks to structural oppressions). This country has a strange, warped narrative surrounding beliefs about drugs and drug abuse, substance dependency and addiction, and has numerous regressive laws that penalise people for using drugs, make it hard for people to seek treatment for additions, and patronise drug users.
These laws, I’d argue, often pose a public health threat. As long as drugs are stigmatised, the people who use them are driven underground, which means they won’t be seeking health care in a timely fashion and won’t be able to access resources they need. It’s notable that one of the major vectors of transmission for HIV at the start of the epidemic and now is injection drug users, and a big part of the reason why is not that injection drug use is inherently risky, but that stigma forces users underground and pushes them to reuse needles because they can’t freely buy them, needle exchanges aren’t always available, and many don’t have training in injection safety. This could be avoided through harm reduction that promotes safe access to needles, which many cities offer, but legalising injection drugs could also contribute to a significant drop in transmission rates.
Economically, of course, there are tremendous advantages to legalisation, including a vast untapped pool of tax dollars. I see no reason drugs shouldn’t be taxed, and those revenues can be used for a huge variety of services and programmes. Legalisation would take black market economies out, and it would lower and stabilise drug prices, which would also, incidentally, remove many of the incentives to go into drug dealing, removing many of the big, corrupt, competitive, and ruthless players in the industry. Not all, of course, because the profits to be made stand to be huge even with lower prices as a result of legalisation, but the market would definitely shift in nature.
And socially, legalisation would provide one important, critical, key thing: it would change the nature of what is effectively a war on young men of colour, especially Black men, in the United States. Our prison population is huge, with the Untied States having one of the largest percentages of population incarcerated in the world, and it is heavily stacked with men of colour, with Black men representing an especially statistically disproportionate number of inmates. Many of those people are in prison because of drug convictions, for two reasons:
1. Mandatory minimums and harsh sentencing laws such as three strikes laws are putting more people in prison in general, creating a situation where people with relatively minor drug offenses are placed in prison for extended periods of time — even if they could be much better served through community service, rehabilitation, and other restorative options that might create opportunities for them instead of narrowing their options through prison time.
2. Men of colour are profiled by law enforcement agencies, prosecuted more aggressively, treated less favourably by juries, and judged more harshly when it comes to the sentencing phase. Consequently, they sit at the intersection of ludicrously regressive drug laws and racism in the United States, leaving them with nowhere to hide — and thus, our prisons fill up with people who shouldn’t be there, while the ‘war on drugs’ rages on, costing us billions of dollars and not offering much to show for it other than broken lives and broken homes.
These are all issues that anyone should care about as a resident of the US and someone interested in politics and social structures, regardless as to whether that person smokes, or snorts, or injects, or anything else. I don’t use drugs because it’s not something that personally interests me, but that doesn’t mean I don’t favour free, safe, legal access to them for people who want them. People interested in using drugs deserve the right to access them and use them in a controlled way that allows for maximum safety, and society needs to stop wasting money, resources, and lives on a futile attempt at concerntrolling people. The drug war is also a thinly veiled attempt at keeping young men of colour out of society and under social control in prison environments, and the racial disparities in the prison system are a testimony to that.
It’s time to admit that the war we never should have started in the first place has been lost. It’s time to move on, and it’s time to make a difference.