Marijuana legalization is on the ballot in five states this November. Many perceive these measures as aimed at ending a racially-biased war on drugs, or boosting tax revenue for education and infrastructure.
However, a closer read of the actual initiatives reveals a different reality: These ideals, while important, are simply not reflected in the text of the initiatives themselves. Instead, an exploitative new industry, reminiscent of Big Tobacco, has hoisted the banner of “Ending the War on Drugs” for an ulterior, but far more straightforward motive—making a lot of money at the expense of public health.
You need not take our word for it, though. The provisions of the initiatives speak for themselves, e.g.:
- Special economic handouts to the pot and/or alcohol industries (Arizona, California, Maine, Massachusetts, Nevada)
- Could allow pot advertising to appear in print, radio, and television (Arizona, California, Maine, Massachusetts, Nevada)
- Expressly permits pot advertising on television, including prime-time shows (California)
- Requires state oversight committees to include pot industry representatives (Arizona, California, Massachusetts)
- Weak DUI laws for stoned drivers (Arizona, California)
- No apparent criminal penalties for selling pot to minors (Maine)
- Permits sales of kid-friendly pot edibles and high-potency pot concentrates (Arizona, California, Maine, Massachusetts, Nevada)
- Criminalizes home-grown marijuana within 25 miles of a pot store; multiple violations can result in a felony conviction (Nevada)
These are not the hallmarks of measures aimed at decriminalization, racial justice, state revenues, or even public health in general. If that were the case, we’d see a focus on penal reform, racial profiling, drug prevention, and help for addicts; instead of provisions aimed at boosting pot investors’ profits.
Because, as it stands, the only common thread is money. How else can you explain such a heavy emphasis on advertising, pot candies, biased oversight boards, and criminalizing home grows? Why else would the initiatives permit marijuana commercials, slogans, theme songs, billboards, and coupons? What public health justification is there for opening pot shops near after-school programs, rehab facilities, and churches?
The only people those laws help are businessmen looking to make a fortune at the public’s expense, particularly in communities of color. Existing post-legalization data tells a disturbing, and ironic, story of racial injustice. Two years after Colorado legalized, arrests of underage Latinos actually rose 29 percent, arrests of underage blacks rose 58 percent, and arrests of underage whites fell by 8 percent.
Worse, the highest concentration of marijuana stores and dispensaries exist in minority neighborhoods. One low-income community of color in Denver has a pot business for every 47 residents. The response from the Colorado pot lobby? Nonexistent—because this sort of racial injustice helps their bottom line. Moreover, the legalization initiative in Nevada actually recriminalizes pot, making it illegal to grow your own marijuana within 25 miles of a retail marijuana store.
The other principal argument of pro-legalization advocates—increased tax revenue—should also be put into appropriate context. Expected revenues will accomplish very little, and pale in comparison to the expected costs. For example, legalization advocates in Arizona project an additional $30 million in marijuana taxes for education in FY 2019. That sounds like a lot of money, but it’s actually only about 0.6% of the state budget. That isn’t even enough to buy a single textbook for each student in the state. Furthermore, the Colorado experience with revenues has not been so positive. Denver schools haven’t seen a dollar of pot revenues, and the average amount per school district is very low—averaging less than $225,000 per district, according to one report.
Meanwhile, the percentage of traffic deaths from stoned driving has spiked—in Washington state, that number more than doubled in just one year after retail sales began. Juries award over $1 million per wrongful death, on average. Even looking only at DUIs, the costs quickly outweigh the revenues, just as with tobacco and alcohol.
Luckily, people are catching on to these trends. In a recent Nevada poll, 71 percent of Hispanic voters were opposed to legalization, citing the damage that they have already seen marijuana cause to their communities. And even in a state like liberal Massachusetts, the latest polls show the “Yes” and “No” sides so close they are within the margin of error.
That’s because people are beginning to understand that rejecting “Reefer Madness” doesn’t have to mean Big Tobacco 2.0. They see that legalization initiatives allowing tactics like televised pot ads prioritize profits over public health and racial justice.
The truth is, we can get marijuana reform, given enough time to find a balance somewhere between the flawed policies of mass incarceration and legalization. We urge voters to learn more about these proposed laws before they vote. Let’s take a smart approach to marijuana, based in facts and science, and refuse to surrender public health to the false allure of commercialization, corporate profits, and special interests.