By Joan Eberhardt
Globally, marijuana is at a turning point in its own history. For decades it has been federally illegal in the United States, and many other nations followed suit. Public opinion has turned considerably in the last five or six decades. When PEW started tracking public opinion on legalizing marijuana in 1969, only 12 percent of Americans favored it, by 2016 that number had risen to 57 percent, a clear majority. States have reacted by introducing medical marijuana laws, which allow people with serious illness to access safe medicinal marijuana and by reducing the severity of the sentencing laws to lower the number of people incarcerated for marijuana.
Today 29 states and Washington D.C. have medical marijuana laws, eight states, and Washington, D.C. allow an adult to recreationally use marijuana, with certain restrictions for age and location. Nearly 60 percent of Americans live in a state with some level of legal marijuana at the state level. Under President Obama, the Justice Department largely reigned in heavy sentences for low-level drug offenses. Mandatory minimum sentencing laws helped to fuel the War on Drugs, which ballooned the prison population 500 percent, disproportionately affecting low-income and minority communities. Current Attorney General Jeff Sessions has signaled to the Justice Department that the Obama-era practices of seeking more lenient sentences for low-level, non-violent crimes, will come to an end. In a memo to all federal prosecutors, Sessions said any prosecutor who does not want to seek a harsher penalty for any and all drug related crimes must get permission in writing from his or her supervisor.
The message Sessions is sending is clear. Marijuana is illegal at the federal level, and it will be treated as a serious crime. For many states the old approach was untenable, as evidenced by the number of states with progressive marijuana laws. So who benefits from the old system and who stands to profit from the status quo?
Private prisons, for one. The federal prison population declined during the Obama administration, but an increase in the number of drug cases being tried and an increase in the length of each sentence will lead to a reversal of that trend. Former Attorney General Eric Holder said, “These reversals will be both substantively and financially ruinous, setting the Department back on a track to again spending one-third of its budget on incarcerating people, rather than preventing, detecting, or investigating crime.” The use of privately-owned prisons is expected to increase as the need to house more prisoners increases.
Police and prison guard unions also spend a great deal fighting pro-legalization efforts. Local police forces have become dependent on federal funding resulting from the War on Drugs and legalization would lead to a decline in police budgets. Police unions say legalization would limit the tools available to police officers as a result of reduced budgets, and by not having harsh marijuana-related charges available as a law enforcement tool. An overall reduction is prisoners would lead to an overall reduction in prison guards and prison guard budgets, as well.
Pharmaceutical companies give similar reasoning for their anti-legalization lobbying efforts. States that have robust medical marijuana laws see a 25 percent reduction in deaths from opiate overdoses in the first year the law is in effect. And there are more deaths each year that result from overdoses of prescription painkillers than there are from the illegal opiate heroin. For many marijuana is a safer, beneficial tool that can help them overcome a harmful opiate addiction, clearly pharmaceutical companies see that as a threat to their bottom line.
Our other legal vice, alcohol is also fighting marijuana legalization. Casino magnate Sheldon Adelson donated over $2 million of his own money to fight marijuana legalization in Nevada last year. Of course, his casinos rely heavily on alcohol to make a profit and marijuana runs the risk of affecting the bottom line. The Beer Distributors of Massachusetts and the Wine & Spirits Wholesalers of Massachusetts, two trade associations, contributed $75,000 to the Campaign for a Safe and Healthy Massachusetts, an anti-legalization group, reported The Boston Globe. Even beer distributors in California fronted $10,000 to fight legalization efforts in that state.