The United States holds the title of the highest incarceration rate of the western world. With over two million Americans put behind bars in 2016 alone, we’re forced to evaluate our judiciary system. Why is our incarceration rate so high? According to the World Prison Brief, the incarceration rate of the United States in 2017 was over ten times higher than comparable nations such as Japan, Germany, and all the countries of the UK. There are a number of factors that can contribute to these discrepancies, however, there is a rather surprising reason why so many people are getting arrested in the U.S. No, most of these people are not in prison for being murderers or thieves. In fact, the overwhelming majority are in prison because of drugs. 1,572,579 arrests were made in 2016 solely for drug violations, making it the leading cause for Americans to end up behind bars. That means that billions of dollars a year are spent keeping drug users behind bars. Now, sure, drugs are illegal and breaking laws has to come with consequences, however, what if a drug possession didn’t land you behind bars? Incarceration facilities are used for a number of purposes, but a large part of why criminals are put behind bars is to keep the general population safe while they undergo rehabilitation. Laws are put in place to discourage dangerous activities, but does drug possession really qualify for a reason to arrest someone? It goes without saying that there are some drugs that really should be discouraged. Drugs like crystal meth or heroin are highly addictive and have severe consequences to your health, not uncommonly resulting in death. It makes sense that we would expend resources to reduce this drug activity. However, there is one very popular drug that has become a huge focus in drug legalization disputes. Of the 1,572, 579 arrests made in the United States in 2016 for drug violations, over a third of them (574,641) were merely for the possession of marijuana or cannabis. The substance is the most commonly used illicit drug in the U.S and hundreds of thousands of people are ending up in jail for it. The legality of marijuana varies widely from state to state, and the events surrounding its original ban have been controversial from the start. While many claim the drug first faced limitation with the Marijuana Tax Act (1937) due to economic pressures and abuse of power among wealthier families, the Controlled Substance Act enforced back in the 1970s is what dictates the legality of marijuana today. The Controlled Substance Act regulates drug policies in the United States. Part of Nixon’s War on Drugs, substances are divided into different categories depending on their danger level. Under federal law, cannabis is grouped together in the same level as heroin and cocaine due to its “high potential for abuse,” “no currently accepted medical use,” and “lack of accepted safety.” The problem is, research has failed to confidently support any of this. Although the potential addictiveness of marijuana as well as safety has been the topic of much debate, there are an overwhelming number of studies that support its medical use. In fact, humans have been using cannabis for medicinal purposes for nearly 5,000 years. Biologically speaking, marijuana can offer a lot of medical benefits. The primary psychoactive cannabinoid in marijuana, THC, activates CB1 receptors in the brain, potentially numbing pain. THC may also help with reducing inflammation as well as nausea. Another cannabinoid, CBC, activates receptors allowing it to manage epileptic seizures and even treat mental illness. It is also often recommended for people with chronic conditions or those undergoing chemo. In addition, there are countless testimonials from individuals who have turned to marijuana as an alternative treatment for their conditions. The National Institute for Drug Abuse even claims that it can offer these benefits without some of the harsh side effects that come with legal treatments such as prescription opioids that have much higher dependency and overdose rates. Why hasn’t marijuana gotten that FDA approval yet? Well, it all comes down to legalities where they cannot approve studies using federally banned substances. This has not stopped states from taking cannabis policies into their own hands. California was the first to legalize medical cannabis in 1996 with Proposition 215. Twenty-six states (and Washington, D.C.) followed suit allowing medical professionals to prescribe medical marijuana where they saw fit. Although this medical legalization was met with some harsh criticism and concern, the only direct results were that states stimulated the economy and this helped people legally get a safe treatment. The success of this opened the doors for further legalization possibilities. The same THC that can dull the pain of a patient can give off a pleasant high, making it great for recreational purposes. One could even argue it can be a safer legal substitute to alcohol or tobacco use. Research has shown that cannabis acceptance is at an all time high and is increasing with time. Now, more people are supportive than against this drug for both medical and recreational purposes. In 2012, Colorado became the first state to legalize marijuana for purely recreational use with the groundbreaking passing of Amendment 64. This new law allowed people in Colorado to legally purchase, smoke, and even grow marijuana with similar policies for alcohol use. As other states followed, the nation watched to see how this little experiment would go. What have been the results of this legalization? So far, just a drop in marijuana-related arrests, no increases in underage use, tax revenues exceeding $522 million (between Colorado, Washington, and Oregon), and no changes in traffic fatalities. And there has been a drop in opioid-related deaths in Colorado. In other words, legalizing marijuana has been shown to have nothing but good consequences. Marijuana users do not belong in jail. Evidence seems to support the notion that the substance was never dangerous enough to ban, to begin with. Continuing to legalize marijuana will stimulate the economy while simultaneously help to bring down our incarceration rate. The U.S. has better things to focus on than cracking down on cannabis.
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