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Why Criminalizing Cannabis Hurts the Economy

By Sarah Rodriguez


According to the FBI in 2018, there was one marijuana related arrest every 48 seconds in the United States, 92% of which were from possession alone. According to Tom Angell, this means, “there were more busts for marijuana [in 2018] than arrests for aggravated assault, burglary, arson, fraud, disorderly conduct or sex offenses, among other crime categories.”

Today, in the 21st century, marijuana use is illegal in the United States, and this ban is enforced by the federal government. If we take a look back in history, we can see the amount of arrests for the possession of weed increased exponentially at the start of Nixon’s “war on drugs.” Many of the negative connotations that come with weed were a derivation from the racial prejudices that link marijuana with the expanding rates of new immigrants from Mexico at the beginning of the 20th century. The racial overtones of the association between cannabis and people of color have undoubtedly caused sources of injustices for society. Unfortunately, many Americans are not concerned with the statistics proving that the outlawing of weed is disproportionately, racially biased against black and brown communities. However, if more Americans knew the repercussions of this prohibition, it could actually be putting them and the entire nation at a financial disadvantage, they may just change their minds about the potential of marijuana.

The two main actors involved when it comes to the federal prohibition of cannabis are cannabis users and law enforcement. It seems simple and straightforward, but, surprisingly, there is an extensive, harmful spillover effect and the U.S. economy takes a massive hit in the fight to prohibit marijuana.


One way we can see this happening is by taking a look at how much it actually costs to keep anti-cannabis laws in place. If you include the expenses for arrests, court costs, and incarceration the amount of money it takes to carry out the war on weed is approximately $14 billion each year. This makes logical sense as the vast amounts of arrests lead to courts being completely overworked and prisons being severely overcrowded. It makes one question why so many resources are used to fight marijuana instead of spending time and effort to prevent and deal with more violent crimes like murder, assault, and rape. It is a waste of money to enforce a weed prohibition and arguably even dangerous to the public safely if law enforcement is preoccupied with cannabis instead of finding actual dangerous criminals.


Another example of how the ban on marijuana hurts the economy is by seeing the long lasting financial effects that it could have on the people who are arrested. Those arrested for marijuana related charges will have to live with a criminal record for the rest of their life and those who distribute marijuana can even be charged with a felony. What does this mean exactly in terms of their financial status? It means these individuals, many of which are qualified to work and had no previous criminal record prior to being arrested for weed, will have to deal with lost wages and unsteady employment during their lifetime. This is especially unfair since according to researcher Bruce Western, “...criminal record-regardless of the crime related to the record- reduces callbacks from prospective employers by around 50%.” As a result, billions of dollars are tied in all the lost incomes due to cannabis related convictions. This damage does not just affect the people who are arrested, but their families are affected as well. Children feel the financial distress when their parents go to prison for marijuana. Intergenerational wealth exists and the income of a parent is a big determinant on how much their children will make in the future. This is a big reason for the income inequalities in the United States.



For even more proof that illegalizing weed puts the U.S. at an economic disadvantage, we can look no further than all the neglected advantages experienced by the states that have legalized weed. States like California, Colorado, Oregon, and Washington all demonstrate that there would be many positive externalities in the economy if cannabis was no longer prohibited. Colorado is the prototype of what can happen when we decriminalize marijuana and place an excise tax on it instead. The taxes from the legal sale of weed supports several, significant public programs. When it came to the Colorado Department of Education alone, in 2018-2019, $40 million went to school capital construction, $5.4 million went to early literacy competitive grants, $11.9 million on school health professional grants, $2 million on school bullying prevention and education grants, and $2 million on drop-out prevention programs. Programs like these invest in our youth and the future and would not have been as successful or possible if weed was still illegal in Colorado. In addition to how legalizing cannabis has raised tax revenue for good causes, it also creates an entire underappreciated industry with monumental potential. In 2019, the cannabis industry employed about 300,000 people in the nations and is one of the fastest growing job markets in the country. Imagine how many more jobs would be created if the entire United States supported cannabis and the possibilities it has to boost the economy. By not taking advantage of this amazing opportunity, the U.S. is only hurting itself and doing a disservice to Americans who could be profiting as well.


There are plenty of reasons to dismantle the war on marajuana: the racial disparities in weed enforcement, the health benefits, the phasing out of black markets, the decreased crime rates, and the ethical violation of rights. Sadly, many Americans are not convinced by these reasons, are indifferent, or are too stuck in their ways to want to see change. However, many are also unaware of the devastating effects that the ban on cannabis has on the nation’s economic status. By prohibiting weed, the United States is spending billions of dollars through enforcement, losing wages and decreasing income for thousands of individuals and families, disregarding the opportunity to fund beneficial public programs, and missing out on the construction of hundreds of thousands of needed jobs. If you think that the federal criminalization of marijuana only involves police and exclusively impacts users, you may want to think again. It is damaging more aspects of society than many people would like to acknowledge; the economy influences everyone’s livelihood and well-being in this country.



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