With the recent decision by the DEA to expand the number of marijuana growers in the US, while keeping it classified as a Schedule I drug, it seems as if the legalization movement is constantly taking one step forward, only to take one step back again. Dr. Sanjay Gupta, Medical Correspondent for CNN and creator of the documentary “Weed,” has called the gesture “symbolic” meaning that while the number of growers and opportunities for research have technically expanded, the Schedule I classification still makes it extremely difficult for research centers to get approval for study and that the decision “could further delay potential therapies to countless people.” In light of this recent decision, the big question is, who is the main opposition behind the anti-legalization movement? It seems that the opposition is mainly composed of those who currently profit most from the War on Drugs: Big Pharma, private prisons, prison guard unions, police unions, tobacco companies, and alcohol companies.
Numerous attempts have been made in recent years to decriminalize cannabis, and numerous times these attempts have been blocked by lobbyists concerned with the health, not of the community, but of their bottom line. In 2010, California’s Proposition 19 was on the ballot to decriminalize marijuana for adults and tax it the same as alcohol in the state. That year, police unions contributed $100,500 to defeat Proposition 19, and it’s not surprising when you hear the facts.
In 2009 and 2010, California counties of Shasta, Siskiyou, and Tehama, received $550,000 in federal funds to support the “Campaign Against Marijuana Planting” program. The money, however, was not spent directly on the fight against cannabis. Instead, it was split between flight operations, the deputy’s salary and benefits, the administration assistant salary and benefits, and police officers’ overtime. It’s clear that the opposition of cannabis legalization by the police unions is merely an excuse to receive more funding.
In 2014, Florida tried to pass the Right to Medical Marijuana Initiative, but the bill failed. Behind the anti-legalization movement was the Florida Sheriff’s Association whose sheriff has claimed seizures from marijuana grow houses as a key revenue source for his department.
While police associations absolutely should receive the funds they need to keep operations running, it should never be at the expense of citizens’ health nor should the funds come under the guise of drug eradication. It is clear that there is a much bigger problem if our police force must devise excuses to receive funding from the American government.
Another industry that has a major stake in perpetuating the War on Drugs is privatized prisons. Their business model is simple: the more prisoners they have “filling beds,” the bigger their profit. The largest operator of private prisons in the US, the Corrections Corporation of America, has given millions of dollars to lobbyists and politicians to keep marijuana illegal and prison sentences harsh. Here is an excerpt from their 2010 10-K (financial filings) regarding the concern over relaxed drug or immigration laws:
“The demand for our facilities and services could be adversely affected by the relaxation of enforcement efforts, leniency in conviction or parole standards and sentencing practices or through the decriminalization of certain activities that are currently proscribed by our criminal laws. For instance, any changes with respect to drugs and controlled substances or illegal immigration could affect the number of persons arrested, convicted, and sentenced, thereby potentially reducing demand for correctional facilities to house them.”
Their efforts prevent not only marijuana legalization, but more practical solutions to nonviolent crimes such as emphasizing drug treatment over imprisonment. The Center on Juvenile and Criminal Justice states:
“Special interest groups heavily influence policy in California. As a result, criminal justice policy is often informed by campaign contributions rather than what research has determined to be in the best interest of long-term public safety.”
Similarly, prison guard unions stand to lose revenue if reforms were made to the current Drug War laws. California prison guard unions, for example, have been behind some of the most draconian drug laws in the state. They have helped fund the “three strikes” ballot measure in 1994 that rapidly filled state prisons, and they helped finance the failure of Proposition 5 in 2008 that would have created prison diversion programs for nonviolent drug offenders.
The final three opponents of cannabis decriminalization are the industries that would face competition from a federally legalized cannabis landscape: pharmaceutical, tobacco, and alcohol companies.
Pharmaceutical companies are worried that with national cannabis legalization, demand for manufactured drugs would decrease, and for good reason. They stand to lose big time when the cat is out of the bag that cannabis can replace many of their products, and for a much smaller price tag. Among other things, cannabis has been found to relieve pain, and big pharma makes a killing on pain.
Major pharmaceutical companies like Purdue Pharma, Reckitt Benckiser, and Alkermes who profit from pain killers and opioids like OxyContin, Nurofen, and Zohydro, respectively, have gone as far as to place academics on their payroll to espouse the dangers of legalizing marijuana. For instance, Dr. Herbert Kleber of Columbia University who works as a consultant for all three of these major pharmaceutical companies, has warned in multiple interviews with reputable publications the “wide-ranging addiction and public health issues” resulting from marijuana use.
But the numbers speak for themselves. While legal prescription drugs like those manufactured and sold by pharmaceutical companies have killed 25,760 Americans in 2014, cannabis has continued to kill exactly zero people per year (Check back with us next week for an article on that very subject).
Alcohol, beer, and tobacco companies have an obvious reason for opposing marijuana legalization: it could potentially shift Americans’ dollars from nights out at the bars and cigarette habits to nights spent watching TV and smoking a joint. In 2010, the California Beer & Beverage Distributors (CBBD) donated $10,000 to the lobby group Public Safety First, which opposes cannabis decriminalization. At the time, the donation was made to prevent Proposition 19 from passing. Interestingly enough, they cited their concern over “stoned school bus drivers and crossing guards” and their claim that the bill would cause California public schools to “lose as much as $9.4 billion in federal funding.”
Side note: Other major contributors to Public Safety First were the California Police Chief’s Association ($30,000) and the California Narcotics Officers Association ($20,500).
While the CBBD warns of stoned bus drivers, alcoholic beverages continue racking up death tolls, with 41,000 people dying each year due to drunk driving incidents. On the reverse side, the death toll for marijuana-related driving incidents is so negligible as to be excluded from federal government statistics.
Another negligible number? $9.4 billion in presumed monetary loss to California public schools when alcohol-related incidents cost taxpayers $38 billion per year and cannabis legalization is predicted to bring in $3,098,866,907 nationally, and $519,287,052 in California alone through legally taxed cannabis products.
The 2016 elections are just around the corner, and the California Adult Use Marijuana Act that would legalize cannabis for adults in California, is on the ballot. Now is the most important time to get all the facts, find out who is really opposing decriminalization and why, and make sure that the community gets the health care they need. Don’t forget to vote on November 8th to legalize cannabis in California!