The movement for legalizing marijuana, either medically or recreationally, is gaining traction in individual states across the country. While many states are progressing on marijuana policy — i.e., decriminalizing or legalizing medical or recreational marijuana — Wisconsin has been stagnant, if not even regressive, as of late on its own marijuana policy. Just recently the Wisconsin Senate passed a bill which, according to Minnesota Public Radio, “would allow for municipalities to enact ordinances prohibiting possession of any amount of marijuana and give them the authority to prosecute second offenses.” While the “get tough on crime” approach to drug policy is favored by many legislators, both at the state and federal level, it inevitably does not work — especially with regards to marijuana. Instead of the regressive marijuana bill just passed by the Senate, the Assembly and Gov. Scott Walker should advocate for the legalization and taxation of recreational marijuana. At the very least, Walker and the Assembly should enact the proposed bill by Sen. John Erpenbach, D-Middleton and Rep. Chris Taylor, D-Madison, to legalize medical marijuana statewide.
President Richard Nixon declared the start of the ill-advised War on Drugs in 1971. The recent trend for states in regards to their marijuana policy, however, is to reject marijuana prohibition. For example, since California became the first state to legalize medical marijuana in 1996, 19 states have followed suit. Not only is medical marijuana legalized in 20 states, Washington and Colorado have also legalized recreational marijuana in the past year. Why are states now rejecting the federal drug war, at least in regards to marijuana within their own state borders?
It’s simple: the drug war has been an utter failure, both in terms of economic and social harms. As the Global Commission on Drug Policy succinctly reported in 2011, “The global war on drugs has failed, with devastating consequences for individuals and societies around the world.” It has cost the United States more than $1 trillion since 1971 to enforce federal drug laws. Not only has it cost $1 trillion to enforce the American drug war over a cumulative period of more than 40 years, according to a 2005 report by economist Jeffery Miron, the U.S. would save approximately $7.7 billion in law enforcement costs annually from legalizing marijuana, with $5.3 billion of that savings going to state and local governments. According to the same report, the U.S. would collect $6.2 billion annually in new revenues if legalized marijuana were taxed at rates similar to those of alcohol and cigarettes.
Given the negative economic externalities related to marijuana prohibition, it is no wonder that states such as Colorado and Washington have moved away from marijuana prohibition and toward marijuana legalization and tolerance. The federal government has also demonstrated a slight shift in enforcing federal marijuana policy in states that have legalized marijuana. As President Barack Obama said in December, “It does not make sense, from a prioritization point of view, for us to focus on recreational drug users in a state that has already said that’s legal.”
While some states progress slowly on marijuana policy, others regress, such as Wisconsin. Instead of moving closer to legalizing recreational or medical marijuana, the Wisconsin Senate passed a bill that would give municipalities a stronger ability to prosecute nonviolent users of marijuana. There is nothing wrong, as a general proposition, with giving municipalities more power over prosecuting drug offenses. There is a problem, though, with giving municipalities more power over prosecuting marijuana offenses. Prosecuting more nonviolent marijuana users has many negative economic externalities. Not only does marijuana prohibition have negative economic effects, it does not actually reduce drug use rates, as has been demonstrated by reports analyzing Portugal’s policy of decriminalizing all drugs. Instead of prosecuting nonviolent marijuana users, it is time to legalize recreational or medical marijuana, as Erpenbach and Chris Taylor have proposed.
George Bernard Shaw once said, “Progress is impossible without change, and those who cannot change their minds cannot change anything.” Progress, in the form of legalizing medical or recreational marijuana, is an inevitability — it is simply a function of time. But unless Walker and the Wisconsin Assembly can change the mind of the members in the Senate and find a way to legalize either medical or recreational marijuana statewide, Wisconsin citizens will find that — at least for the time being — “progress is impossible.”
Aaron Loudenslager (firstname.lastname@example.org) is a second year law student.