Don't be fooled - Marijuana legalization is not about advancing social justice

Four Democratic presidential hopefuls have signed onto a marijuana legalization bill that Sen. Cory Booker, D-N.J., also a presidential contender, introduced last month. In explaining the bill, Booker assailed marijuana prohibition as an “unfair, unjust and failed policy.”

The aim of these candidates is misguided. Legalizing marijuana will only further undermine poor communities and foster addiction. It is time for progressives to choose between social justice and legalizing marijuana.

Proponents of legalization are correct to point out the racial and socioeconomic discrepancies in enforcement of marijuana arrests. And yet, that is an argument for decriminalization or changing policing tactics – not for legalization. In fact, statistics collected from states that have already legalized marijuana disprove the beliefs of those who think legalization is a cause célèbre for social justice.

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Consider Washington state, where legalization did not decrease racial disparities in marijuana-related arrests. A University of Washington report noted that such “criminal justice rhetoric” had “yet to be supported by data.” In Colorado, the number of Hispanic and African-American youth arrested for marijuana-related crimes has risen after legalization.

Furthermore, marijuana companies target the most vulnerable communities. Nearly one-third of marijuana is consumed by people in homes with incomes below $20,000, and marijuana dispensaries overwhelmingly locate in low-income communities. Marketing tactics target children by offering THC-infused gummy bears, brownies and other treats.

Advocates frequently argue that marijuana should be legalized as a source of new tax revenue. But considering that most marijuana is smoked by low-income individuals, such a tax would be regressive in nature. Increasing harmful consumption taxes on poor communities does little to advance social equity.

Legalization would also contribute to poverty by hindering a user’s ability to gain meaningful employment. Business owners simply do not want to hire individuals who fail their drug tests. Research backs up this point by showing that marijuana legalization has negatively impacted labor productivity by nearly $1,300 per worker.

Legalization’s social impacts are damning, too. In Pueblo, Colorado, the percentage of newborns testing positive for marijuana increased 17-fold from 2013-2017.

Perhaps even more concerning for the state of our communities is that marijuana is extremely habit-forming. “Adults who use fewer than 10 times per month and who suffer no problems with substance abuse or dependence account for less than 5 percent of consumption. More than half of marijuana is consumed by someone who is under the influence more than half of all their waking hours,” according to drug policy expert Jonathan Caulkins.

By this measure, marijuana creates significantly more dependence than alcohol. Given the number of Americans who suffer from marijuana addiction, it is remarkable that Sen. Kamala Harris, D-Calif., would advocate for legalization on the grounds that marijuana brings people “joy.”

Easy access to pot would harmfully impact young people too. Studies show that nearly 25 percent of high school seniors would smoke marijuana if it was legalized. In addition to negatively impacting the teenage brain, evidence from Colorado shows that youth emergency room visits would likely spike. Worse still, one recent meta-analysis showed that, across 11 studies, the use of marijuana in adolescence was linked to “increased risk of depression and suicidal thoughts.”

Research has also continued to show marijuana’s connection to psychosis. In January 2017, the National Academy of Medicine declared that “Cannabis use is likely to increase the risk of developing schizophrenia and other psychoses.” Higher rates of psychosis will likely lead to higher rates of violent crime.

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So, why do progressive politicians continue to ignore the facts behind marijuana legalization? The most likely explanation is that they are simply vying for the votes of the young, urban, progressive crowd that will play a potentially decisive role in future elections. It’s a push for “bourgeois bohemian” interests, meant to excite the brunch crowd – not a social justice ploy.

Progressives have a clear choice: They can seek to empower and embolden low-income communities, or they can pander to a powerful special interest. We won’t hold our breath.

Alex Entz is a graduate student at Princeton University. He was formerly a policy advisor and speechwriter in Washington, D.C.