But familiarity with marijuana isn’t by itself going to drive changes in the legal code. Political consensus is necessary too. And while national political leaders aren’t necessarily falling over themselves to endorse marijuana legalization, there isn’t a lot of room in the current political climate to defend it, either. The political right has done an excellent job over the past thirty years convincing the American public of the limitations of government. They have argued that even when the government has the best of intentions it can be astoundingly ineffective at achieving its stated goals, and often creates unintended and pernicious consequences to boot. This is the same argument that has led to deregulation of industry, historically low tax rates, and legislative efforts like welfare reform. It’s only logical to extend it beyond social welfare programs to something like drug policy.
And supporters of ending marijuana prohibition do indeed point to the unintended consequences of the policy as reason to legalize. According to the FBI, in 2011, 1.5 million people were arrested on drug charges, and roughly half of those were for marijuana, costing billions per year in law enforcement and court costs. And that doesn’t count the human toll on those arrested, like potential loss of work, government benefits, the right to vote, and student aid. Meanwhile, the government simply hasn’t come anywhere close to achieving the stated goal of marijuana prohibition, which is to prevent drug addiction. According to the National Survey on Drug Use and Health, since the beginning of the so-called war on drugs, the addiction rate in America has remained steady at 1.3%, despite the fact that each year state and local governments spend more and more money – over $1 trillion in total – fighting the drug war.
What’s more, the unintended consequences of marijuana prohibition do not stop at our borders. In fact, the brunt of the side effects may be being felt in places like Mexico.