Marijuana Legalization: 20 Billion Is the One Number That Says It All

Can you guess how much money the U.S. government wastes every year on the ineffective, inefficient, foolish, destructive, and downright insane war on marijuana? 

$20 billion dollars a year.  

This is how much money marijuana prohibition costs the U.S. each year, Harvard University economist Jeffrey Miron estimates.  

To put that number in perspective, the 2013 budget allocated to NASA was only $17.7 billion. That means the U.S. would rather spend more money stopping people from getting high, than exploring outer space.  

The amount of money being spent on marijuana prohibition isn’t the problem per se. The problem is that the government is spending all this money on a prohibition that has not accomplished much, and instead has had a heavy price in terms of lives and freedom. 

In fact, let’s look at some of what this $20 billion has failed to get us: 

A true reduction in marijuana usage. In 2011, marijuana was the most commonly used illicit drug in the United States, with an estimated 18.1 million people using the drug in the past month. Furthermore, a recent Pew Research Center Survey found that 48% of adults have ever tried marijuana. This is the highest number ever recorded.  

So not only are people still consistently indulging in pot, there has been research done that shows that there is no strong correlation between rates of marijuana use and patterns of drug law enforcement.  

A true reduction in marijuana availability. According to the U.S. National Institutes on Drug Abuse, despite over 30 years of marijuana prohibition, 12th grade Americans still find the drug almost universally available.   

Since prohibition has not resulted in significantly fewer people finding or using marijuana, then you may ask yourself, “Surely if the U.S. government is wasting this much money and resources on prohibition, it has to be accomplishing something? I mean certainly the government wouldn’t continue to aimlessly spend money in a way that has been proven to be ineffective?” 

Well guess what, you are absolutely correct. The government prohibition has indeed had several notable accomplishments...

Frequent arrests and large amounts of incarcerated prisoners. In 2011, according to FBI figures, a marijuana arrest occurred approximately every 42 seconds, and around 87% of those were for simple possession.

Think about that tomorrow morning when you are getting ready. In the time it will take you to brush your teeth approximately two people will have been arrested on a marijuana-related charge. Ask yourself if that makes you feel safer or healthier, or better yet, less likely to light up this weekend. 

Not only are people being arrested frequently for possessing or distributing pot, they are also being jailed frequently as well. Since 1989, more people have been incarcerated every year for drug-related offenses than for all other violent crimes combined. 

Government "protection" against something that causes fewer direct deaths than alcohol and is less addictive than caffeine. Out of the six following substances — nicotine, caffeine, alcohol, heroin, cocaine, and marijuana — can you guess which one is the least addictive? That’s right, it is marijuana. Even though it is less addictive than nicotine, caffeine, and alcohol, marijuana is illegal while the others are not. Furthermore, marijuana causes much less physical harm to the body than most of the other substances. To give you an example, excessive alcohol consumption causes approximately 80,000 deaths every year in the U.S. On the other hand, marijuana over-consumption directly causes few to no deaths every year.

Now, you will note that I didn’t say marijuana causes no harm or is not addictive at all, as some marijuana advocates claim. However, just because something has the potential to harm the user does not mean it should be illegal. In fact, for people who are truly misusing the drug or being harmed by it, prohibition may be doing them more harm than good.

At the end of the day, the marijuana prohibition has been a complete failure. It hasn’t stopped people from smoking pot. It hasn’t made pot any scarcer. What is has done is contribute to black-market violence, and send a lot of otherwise innocent people to jail. When you look at it this way, continuing to waste $20 billion dollars keeping marijuana illegal is just completely crazy.