The United States holds the title of highest incarceration rate of the western world. With over 2 million Americans put behind bars in 2016 alone, we’re forced to evaluate our judiciary system. Why is our incarceration rate so high? According to the World Prison Brief, for every 100,000 American citizens, 666 of them are in prison.
That is over ten times higher than comparable nations such as Japan, Germany, and all countries of the UK. There are a number of factors that can contribute to these discrepancies. However, it is certainly interesting to see why so many people are getting arrested in the U.S. No, most of these people are not in prison for being murders or thieves. In fact, the overwhelming majority are there because of drugs. 1,572,579 arrests were made in 2016 for drug violations alone, making it the leading cause for Americans to end up behind bars. That means that billions of dollars a year are spent keeping drug users behind bars.
Now, sure, drugs are illegal and breaking laws has to come with consequences. Although, with so such overcrowded cells we have to ask if drug possession really deserves prison time. Incarceration facilities are used for a number of reasons. However, a large part of why criminals are put behind bars is to keep the general population safe while they undergo rehabilitation. Laws are put in place to discourage dangerous activities. Does drug possession really endanger the population? It goes without saying that are some drugs that really should be outlawed. Take drugs like crystal meth or heroin for instance.
They are highly addictive and have severe consequences to your health, not uncommonly resulting in death. It makes sense that we would invest our resources in reducing this drug activity. Not all drugs are the same, though. There is one very popular drug that has become a huge focus in drug legalization disputes. Of the 1,572, 579 arrests made in the United States in 2016 for drug violations, over a third of them (574,641) were merely for the possession of marijuana, or cannabis. The substance is the most commonly used illicit drug in the U.S and hundreds of thousands of people are ending up in jail for it. The legality of marijuana varies widely from state to state, and the events surrounding its original ban have been controversial from the start.
Many claim the drug first faced limitation with the Marijuana Tax Act (1937) due to economic pressures and abuse of power among wealthier families. However, the Controlled Substance Act enforced back in the 1970s is what dictates the legality of marijuana today. The Controlled Substance Act regulates drug policies in the United States. Part of Nixon’s War on Drugs, substances are divided into different categories depending on their danger level. Under federal law, cannabis is grouped together in the same level as heroin and cocaine. This is due to claims that is possesses a “high potential for abuse,” “no currently accepted medical use,” and “lack of accepted safety.
” The problem is, research has failed to confidently support any of this. Although the potential addictiveness of marijuana as well has been the topic of much debate, there are an overwhelming number of studies that support its medical use and relative safety. In fact, humans have been using cannabis for medicinal purposes for nearly 5,000 years. Biologically speaking, marijuana can offer a lot of medical benefits. The primary psychoactive cannabinoid in marijuana, THC, activates CB1 receptors in the brain, potentially numbing pain.
THC may also help with reducing inflammation as well as nausea. Another cannabinoid, CBC, activates receptors allowing it to manage epileptic seizures and even treat mental illness. It is often recommended for people with chronic conditions or those undergoing chemo. There are countless testimonials from individuals who have turned to marijuana as an alternative treatment or even last resort for their condition. The National Institute for Drug Abuse even claims that it can offer these benefits without some of the harsh side effects that come with legal treatments such as prescription opioids that have much higher dependency and overdose rates. Why hasn’t marijuana gotten that FDA approval yet? Well, it all comes down to legalities. A federal agency cannot approve studies using federally banned substances. Hindering research, a cycle of technicalities prevents researchers from exploring the possibility of this potentially life-changing treatment.
Luckily, this has not stopped states from taking cannabis policies into their own hands. California was the first state to legalize medical cannabis in 1996 with Proposition 215. Twenty-six states (and Washington DC) followed suit allowing medical professionals to prescribe medical marijuana where they saw fit. This medical legalization was met with some harsh criticism and concern.
However, the only direct result was that it stimulated the economy and helped people legally get a safe treatment. The success of this opened the doors for further legalization possibilities. The same THC that can dull the pain of a patient can give off a pleasant high, making it great for recreational purposes. One could even argue it can be a safer legal substitute to alcohol or tobacco use. Research has shown that cannabis acceptance is at an all-time high and in increasing with time. Now, more people are in support than against the complete legalization of this substance. In 2012, Colorado became the first state to legalize marijuana for purely recreational use with the groundbreaking passing of Amendment 64. This new law allowed people in Colorado to legally purchase, smoke, and even grow marijuana with similar policies for alcohol use.
As other states followed, the nation watched to see how this little experiment would go. What has this legalization resulted in? So far just a drop in marijuana related arrests, no increases in underage use, tax revenues exceeding $522 million (between Colorado, Washington, and Oregon), and no changes in traffic fatalities. There has even been a drop in opioid-related deaths in Colorado. In other words, legalizing marijuana has been shown to have nothing but good consequences.
Marijuana users do not belong in jail. Evidence seems to support the notion that the substance was never dangerous enough to ban to begin with. Continuing to legalize marijuana will stimulate the economy, provide a safe treatment, and all while simultaneously help bring down our incarceration rate.
The U.S. has better things to focus on than cracking down on cannabis.