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The Marijuana Debate: What Students Should Know

This election cycle, news media, activists, and politicians have turned with renewed focus to criminal justice reform–with special attention to the issue of marijuana legalization. Unfortunately, the debate over marijuana is filled with misinformation from both sides, obscuring the true flaws that plague our criminal justice system today. Last semester, as an intern at the Criminal Justice Policy Foundation in Washington, DC, I critically examined these controversies and began to unravel some of the misconceptions surrounding the marijuana debate. Here are five things I learned that Haverford students should know:

  1. Don’t believe the rhetoric.

“I was given my first joint in the playground of my school,” says one testimonial on Foundation for a Drug-Free World. “I’m a heroin addict now.”

Anti-marijuana activists and overzealous drug-prevention educators such as Foundation for a Drug-Free World spread overhyped claims about the evils of marijuana, from dubious medical warnings to ‘gateway effect’ horror stories. But while marijuana isn’t healthy, scientists have not found any link between regular cannabis use and mortality, and there is no evidence for long-term cognitive effects in any but the heaviest users. Lastly, the gateway effect can be explained most easily by underlying risk factors leading separately to marijuana use and further drug experimentation.

Unfortunately, the rhetoric from the other side is just as inaccurate. Hillary Clinton, in the first Democratic debate of the 2016 election cycle, perpetuated the idea that “we have a huge population in our prisons for nonviolent, low-level offenses that are primarily due to marijuana.” As an intern, I attended the Drug Policy Reform Conference, and reformers there knew that while the harms of marijuana prohibition are numerous, they are not the cause of our prison epidemic. Fewer than 0.3% of people in state and federal prisons are there for marijuana offenses. But with figures as prominent as Clinton perpetuating the myth of marijuana user-filled prisons, is it any wonder that a 2005 pamphlet by the Office of National Drug Control Policy responded to similar claims by warning that “drug legalizers want you to believe a lie”?

  1. The real harms of marijuana prohibition are subtler–but they can ruin lives.

Our state and federal prisons may not be overflowing with marijuana users, but plenty of people arrested for marijuana use or possession spend time in local jails. Local jails tend to be a black hole from which data cannot escape, but this report conservatively estimates an average of 12 hours in jail for people taken there for marijuana. However, many stay in jail overnight or for 24 hours or more. Even a few hours or days of incarceration can be enough to make someone lose their job or drain their savings for temporary child care, while individuals whose cases go to trial can get caught up in a tangled and arbitrary bail system.

Once courts convict someone of a marijuana offense, their record is stained. Students caught with drugs can lose their federal financial aid and people with felony drug convictions can lose access to public housing, food stamps, and voting rights. Employers often reject applicants out of hand for a criminal record. For those facing more than one of these challenges, it is enough to ruin a life.

All these negative impacts fall disproportionately on the shoulders of young black and Latino Americans. Americans of all races use marijuana at similar rates (with the exception of Asians, who use the drug less) but black people are nearly four times more likely than white ones to be arrested for marijuana possession. Even as marijuana reform has gained momentum, the racial gap in marijuana arrests has increased. The net effect is a system of unnecessary arrests and discriminatory repercussions, all aimed disproportionately at people of color.

  1. Legalization is a solution.

Marijuana legalization efforts offer an alternative to the damage of marijuana prohibition. Washington and Colorado both have functioning legal recreational marijuana systems, and other states are preparing to follow their lead. So far, it has been a success – both states collected over $65 million in marijuana tax revenues during fiscal year 2015 and expect even more profits to come. Meanwhile, law enforcement resources previously used to battle marijuana have been diverted to worthier channels, and casual users no longer fear criminal prosecution.

Of course, even in states with legal marijuana, politics blur the truth. Advocates on both sides of the legalization debate have pointed to youth use and crime rates in legal states to prove their points. One group claims both measures are up; the other displays different numbers to claim they are down. Most of the time, both sides are cherry-picking numbers from arbitrary age groups, cities, or crime categories to bolster their own agendas. The truth is, legalization hasn’t been in effect long enough to show these kinds of results, and we shouldn’t expect it to make much difference to either measurement anyway. Youth marijuana use is prohibited under marijuana legalization just as it was under criminalization, but teenagers have no difficulty accessing marijuana under either regime. And the types of crimes the public is most concerned about, like violent crime and burglaries, were never plausibly connected to marijuana use in the first place.

Putting aside the political bluster, the evidence we do have from Colorado and Washington provides strong support for nationwide legalization. Though it is too early to know all the effects of legal marijuana, the disastrous repercussions warned of by anti-marijuana advocates have failed to materialize in Washington and Colorado, while the benefits these states have reaped in tax revenues and fairer justice are undeniable. However…

  1. Not all reform is created equal.

With a majority of Americans now supporting legal marijuana, it might seem as if the battle for drug reform has already been won. But how we legalize is just as important as if we do. Careless or malicious legislation could lead to a legal marijuana system guided by profits instead of fairness. In Ohio, for example, voters recently rejected a legalization proposal that would have granted a handful of wealthy individuals control over the legal marijuana industry. As prominent scholar and activist Michelle Alexander put it, “granting an oligopoly to 10 wealthy investors who hope to get rich quick by exploiting an opportunity created by a movement that aimed to remedy decades of relentless punishment of the poorest and most vulnerable is not justice.”

Alexander’s condemnation alludes to a wider problem in the legalization movement: since most legalization proposals bar people with marijuana records from setting up legal marijuana businesses, they explicitly exclude those who have been hurt by prohibition from enjoying the fruits of its removal. Additionally, many marijuana legalization proposals neglect to include even basic retroactive relief provisions, meaning that people stuck with marijuana offense records keep suffering from them even when their actions are no longer illegal. Legalizing marijuana, then, is not so much a “yes” or “no” question as a negotiation: how, exactly, will we replace our failed prohibition, and whose needs will we prioritize when we do so?

  1. Marijuana is just the beginning.

Now that I’m finished with my internship and back on campus, I see more clearly than ever the need for students at Haverford to engage deeply and intelligently with drug policy and other criminal justice issues. Clinton was wrong when she said that our prisons are filled with marijuana offenders, but that means that even the best legalization package will do nothing for the 2.2 million people still behind bars in the United States. Problems are everywhere: our criminal justice sentencing system, based on retributive rather than restorative ideals, continues to separate these people from their families and subject them to the dehumanizing control of a sprawling prison-industrial system; post-release, returning citizens find that re-entry assistance for them and their loved ones is pitifully sparse, perpetuating cycles of crime and poverty.

These issues won’t go away because we legalize one or even a dozen recreational drugs. They can only be addressed by thoughtfully engaging those most affected by our the flaws of our criminal-legal system to create a radically different justice framework for the United States. Small liberal arts colleges like Haverford pride themselves on their ability to instill critical thinking skills in their students, and in the area of criminal justice, we need to put those skills to the test.


  1. bwest578 January 26, 2016

    Good start with the article. Though I think you need to dig deeper with some your analysis of statistics. For example, I double checked what you were citing in the first bullet where you are bunking the Clinton quote. Not only are the statistics you cited fairly old, but a better practice is to not cite special interest websites, and crunch the data yourself. For instance your “.3%” figure is over a decade old. The statistic of arrents based on marijuana possession is fairly different than for distribution. The impact of the arrests I think more the issue. I believe also people who are in jail or prison for distrubution of marijuana is a different story if I’m not mistaken. So the quote from Clinton might be inaccurate, but you have the paint the full picture and say if there is or is not a negative impact on police activity regarding marijuana.

  2. PG January 26, 2016

    Excellent essay, Anthony. It is interesting to note that two of America’s leading experts on the marijuana policy debate — Eric Sterling ’73 and Mark A.R. Kleiman ’72 — are Haverford grads. Eric, as you know, is the head of CJPF, where you interned, and Mark is a professor of public policy at NYU. They don’t agree on all points by any means, but they are both serious-minded, intelligent, good-natured and personally likable, honest in their arguments, and respectful of each others’ work. True Haverford alums, in other words.
    – Peter Goldberger ’71 (Ardmore, PA)

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