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George on Georgia – The case for marijuana legalization

Crime and public safety Editor's Pick George on Georgia Trending

George on Georgia – The case for marijuana legalization

The Georgia Hemp Company mascot Brian Hemp cools off in the misting fans during the Decatur BBQ, Blues & Bluegrass Festival at Legacy Park on Saturday, Aug. 14, 2021. Photo by Dean Hesse.

Editor’s note: George Chidi now publishes a Substack newsletter called “The Atlanta Objective.” If you want to support him directly, sign up for a paying subscription to his newsletter by clicking here.

The Georgia Legislature is trying to figure out how to give marijuana to children with violent seizures. The state tried to legalize cannabis for medical purposes, but only allowed licenses for six growers. The growers who lost the competitive bids sued, stalling the whole thing out. Two bills are up for a vote to try to untangle the suits, but neither is guaranteed to work.

I propose a solution to this dilemma. Legalize marijuana entirely.

Because, seriously, what the hell are we doing futzing about at this point? Marijuana has been street legal in 18 states for years now, at least to the degree that cannabis can be legal, while federal law still schedules weed like its black tar heroin. If legal marijuana was some terrifying social problem leading to social catastrophe, I think we would have seen that effect by now. (Yes, yes: it might be hard to distinguish a weed apocalypse from all the other calamities we’re facing right now. But still.)

The state governments of Colorado and Washington have millions of dollars and their voters tens of thousands of new jobs from legalization, without some massive increase in crime or public safety hazard stealing their glory. The broad consensus by policy experts has been that legalization has had no significant impact, positively or negatively, on public health.

For crying out loud: we’re behind Mississippi at this point.

George Chidi. Photo by Dean Hesse

Atlanta is in a peculiar place with marijuana; one of the largest cities in America in a state with no legal weed. In a 2019 report, the Drug Enforcement Agency said the street availability of weed is high everywhere in America, except for four field divisions: New Jersey, El Paso, its Caribbean coverage … and Atlanta.

Legalization opponents suggest that legal marijuana use will lead to more crime. I will argue, strongly, that criminalization has led to more crime, particularly violent crime. Atlanta today is facing a significant spike in violent crime, and no small part of that involves trafficking marijuana to the downtown club scene. The shootouts we see on the nightly news? A lot of that involves weed dealers protecting territory or getting ripped off. Yes, weed and cocaine and heroin and what not too. But mostly … weed.

Any argument for continuing to criminalize marijuana possession and use has to contend with all the ways alcohol creates substantially more damage to public health and public order. Marijuana is not a gateway drug while alcohol is. People don’t get into bar fights from smoking weed. About 95,000 people die from alcohol abuse every year. The number of deaths from marijuana abuse is approximately zero.

I know several people whose lives have been utterly ruined by alcohol: people who died on the streets of downtown Atlanta, homeless because they drank themselves to death. I like to say I would ban alcohol tomorrow if I could, but we’ve done that before.

So, why do we keep arresting people for weed? Two reasons. First, the alcohol legislative lobby is powerful. Every legislator gets a campaign donation check from liquor distributors, every year. And the liquor lobby is still torn about what to think about legal cannabis. Some view it as a competitive threat. Others see it as a business opportunity. The alcohol industry’s lack of consensus fuels legislative inertia.

Second, we keep arresting people for weed because cops want an excuse to arrest people, period. The smell of marijuana provides a legal pretext for a police officer to approach and search someone. Cops can and do lie about whether they’ve actually smelled marijuana, of course, but it’s hard to disprove. If weed is legal, cops won’t have a race-neutral excuse to search people.

And race here is a critical consideration. Black people are about four times more likely to be arrested for marijuana possession than white people. Almost all those arrests are for simple possession, which is to say that the only law that was broken was the law about marijuana itself. Simple possession remains the single most likely reason someone will be arrested. For a cop looking for a way to get someone off the street, it’s an easy charge.

Every one of those arrests represents money spent by the government to process a case, and opportunities lost by whoever has to face a courtroom, for no one’s appreciable gain.

Those arrest records have created an underclass in American society that itself breeds crime because for Black people an arrest record effectively shuts them out of professional career tracks.

I found myself with old friends at a birthday party a few days ago, in the basement of a house full of geeky metal band musicians. Someone passed me a joint. I refused politely.

And I hate myself for it.

Do you know why I don’t smoke cannabis? Because I have been conditioned to believe that if I were ever arrested for it, my career as a practical matter would end. It would give someone cause to question my credibility, which is the same thing as ending my life as a journalist. Or so the line goes in my head. It’s not the use of marijuana that would cause the problem. It’s the arrest.

Most sources say the rate of marijuana use is about equal by race. It’s not. Black people are slightly less likely to use marijuana than white people. That’s one of the reasons why.

Marijuana enforcement has been and almost certainly will continue to be fundamentally racist. It should end. 

– George Chidi is a political columnist, public policy advocate and a veteran. He also writes for The Intercept.

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