4 Fascinating Things Marijuana Legalization Has Already Taught Us


Unroll the tapestries, twist up a joint and crank up the Bob Marley jams! The stoners have token -- excuse me, spoken -- and dope is now legal in two states.

That's the kind of ridiculous banter pundits have employed to discuss a historic moment in US democracy: the legalization of marijuana in Washington and Colorado. Put aside the stoner spectacle-making, and we can begin to make sense not only of voters’ decision in WA and CO, but also why other states -- and nations -- may be following suit in the near future. Here are four of the most fascinating ways marijuana legalization has become the forefront of a groundbreaking discussion to which the media should starting paying attention.

1.  Pot is politically relevant.

Putting pot on the ballot increases young voter turnout-- a lot. While the youth vote hovered at 18% in 2008, states that had legalization on the ballot this election saw young people coming out in much greater numbers. Take a look at this graph from Jon Walker at Firedog Lake’s Just Say Now column.


Clearly, pot policy reform is a hot-button issue for young voters, a fact that many worried might even swing Colorado to legalization-advocate and Libertarian candidate Gary Johnson. It was a legitimate concern for Democrats, as marijuana legalization in Colorado actually nabbed 50,000 more votes than Obama. In WA, Obama came out ahead of legalization by just less than half a percentage point. In other states, too, voters’ interest in pot policy reform was clear. Massachusetts legalized medical marijuana, and Michigan passed a variety of pot policy reforms, including limited legalization in Detroit and Flint and decriminalization in Grand Rapids.

Take-away point? Pot politics are no laughing matter.
2. Ending prohibition is good for racial justice.

As voters were gearing up to decide whether to legalize marijuana, Queens College sociologist Harry Levine released a report detailing marijuana arrests in Washington and Colorado. In CO, his report found that more than 210,000 people have been arrested for pot in the past 25 years, with the annual rate of weed arrests steadily rising. The study also uncovered racial bias embedded in the war on weed. In the last 10 years, police in CO arrested blacks and Latinos at a rate of about 1.4 times that of whites, even though white people use marijuana at about the same rate as people of color. Youths were also disproportionately affected: The study found that more than two-thirds of those arrested for weed in CO from 2001 to 2010 were 25 or younger, and almost 80% of them were younger than 30. In Washington, the pattern of pot arrests paints a similar picture: A skyrocketing number of busts coupled with a higher rate of arrests for youths and people of color. African Americans were arrested at nearly three times the rate of whites, while Latinos and Native Americans had an arrest rate 1.5 times that of whites. 

It will take years to analyze the effects marijuana legalization has on people of color, but prosecutors are already dropping cases against marijuana users in Colorado and Washington.

3. Legalizing marijuana could bring peace to the US-Mexico border.

At least 60,000 people have died in the drug war Mexico President Felipe Calderon declared on the cartels six years ago. But a more peaceful solution may be at hand. Legalizing weed in just two states -- CO and WA -- could deliver a serious blow to Mexican cartel profits; US officials estimate that 60 percent of cartel profits come from marijuana. At the very least, it is the “gateway drug” for hustling, as many Mexican traffickers start with pot before moving up to the harder stuff. 

A recent study by Mexican think tank Mexican Competitiveness Institute estimated that marijuana legalization in Washington, Colorado and Oregon would cut cartel profits by a stunning 30%. Oregon’s legalization initiative did not pass, but even with legal weed in CO and WA, the cartels could lose as much as 20% in profits. Assuming Mexican cartels earn more than $6 billion a year from drug smuggling to the US, the study estimated that legalization in Colorado would cost the cartels an estimated $1.425 billion, compared to $1.372 billion in Washington and $1.839 billion in Oregon. The prediction hinges, however, on the assumption that the feds will not shut it all down. Researchers assumed that marijuana would be cultivated and sold for a lower price than Mexican pot in states where weed is legal. The legally grown, cheaper weed would then be smuggled into other states, driving up the demand for lower-cost, local weed.  
On Friday, one Mexican legislator, Fernando Belaunzaran of the Party of the Democratic Revolution (PRD) went so far as to propose a marijuana legalization bill. "The prohibitionist paradigm is a complete failure," Belaunzaran told the Washington Post. "All this has done is spur more violence, the business continues. The country that has paid the highest costs is Mexico.” 
“I think more and more Mexicans will respond in a similar fashion, as we ask ourselves why are Mexican troops up in the mountains of Sinaloa and Guerrero and Durango looking for marijuana, and why are we searching for tunnels, patrolling the borders, when once this product reaches Colorado it becomes legal,” Jorge Castañe­da, a former foreign minister of Mexico told the Washington Post.  
4. The rest of the world is into legalization, too.

When Colorado and Washington voted to legalize marijuana, the United States paved the way for marijuana policy reform on an international level. Even Canada was looking to its neighbor for progressive advice. “This is an important first step and inspiration to activists in Canada who want to see Canada embrace a smart drug policy,” David Valentin, spokesperson for the Young Liberals of Canada, said in a statement.

More impacted by marijuana legalization in America, however, are our neighbors to the South. Latin America responded to marijuana legalization in WA and CO with new chutzpah to challenge the US-backed  international war on pot. Following the election, leaders from Mexico, Honduras, Costa Rica, and Belize pointed out the drug war’s disparate impact on Latin American countries and called for a review of international drug policy. 

While Mexico is opening up the drug policy debate, Uruguay has been moving toward full legalization for months now. On Wednesday, it moved one step closer, when a bill to create a state-licensed marijuana market was presented to Congress.  

As Latin America increasingly challenges US drug policy, legalization may help give the Obama administration the domestic political consensus necessary to back international calls for reform.

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