The 18th amendment, ratified with the best of intentions, began the era of prohibition in 1920. It’s remembered as an era of violent gangsters and the none-too-secret speakeasy. It’s less remembered for the significant decrease in tax revenue from liquor sales and the disproportionate way that enforcement fell on the poor. By the time of its repeal, 13 years later, prohibition was widely recognized for the disaster it was.
The similarities between the prohibition of alcohol and the continued criminalization of cannabis are not coincidental; rather they are mirror images of one another, involving the banning of a widely consumed substance. Al Capone’s murderous Chicago Outfit is long defunct, but it has a spiritual successor in El Chappo’s Sinaloa Cartel, similarly named after its home town, in an area known best for growing (you guessed it) marijuana. Significantly, legalization in just a handful of states has already done what millions of “Just Say No” posters and billions of dollars spent by the DEA have failed to, significantly reduce the amount of marijuana crossing the border from Mexico, and ipso facto reducing the drug cartels’ profits.
Not long ago, I was a student in Nevada’s public school system, from Carson Middle School through UNR. I can attest at every level, almost everyone knew someone who could get them marijuana. Just as speakeasies never checked IDs, drug dealers today don’t care who they sell to. Licensed, legitimate businesses on the other hand, do. Tightening ID check laws have led to marked decreases in underage drinking and smoking, and once it’s moved out of the shadows, a similar thing happens with marijuana. This has already been demonstrated in Colorado since legalization, where according to a study by their Department of Public Health, the instances of teenagers who had used marijuana at least once in the past year declined from 42.6 percent in 2009 to 38 percent in 2015.
I would be remiss not to address the issue of health. Whereas alcohol has some benefits from mild consumption, such as reducing the odds of a stroke, the effects of heavy drinking, from long-term cirrhosis to potentially fatal overdose are well known. Marijuana has a long list of legitimate medical uses, from treating nausea associated with chemotherapy to epilepsy. Perhaps most significantly though, it’s useful for treating chronic pain where the primary alternative is dangerously addictive and easily abused opioids. In 2014, according to the National Institute of Health, 25,760 Americans died overdosing on prescription drugs, and 30,700 lost their lives to alcohol induced causes. The number of deadly marijuana overdoses was zero.
This November, Nevadans will have the opportunity to vote on ballot Question 2. This ballot question would make purchasing and use of marijuana for adults 21 or older legal in Nevada. I think my fellow Nevadans are ready to join me in admitting we’ve been criminalizing marijuana for too long at great cost and no discernible benefit. I urge you to vote “Yes on 2.”
Will Adler is the Nevada Medical Marijuana Association executive director.