It truly makes absolutely no sense that marijuana is illegal in this country. It is a naturally occurring weed, serves many medical benefits, is virtually harmless, public polls show a growing favorability to at least decriminalization, and it is finally no longer becoming a fringe issue. Even President Obama had his drug czar, Gil Kerlikowske, tell a liberal think-tank (falsely) about the drug war “reforms” that they have made to please their base. With marijuana legalization gaining more press and public acceptance, how is it still illegal?
A huge reason is that there are very influential special interests that make sure the drug war is being fought with vigor. A recent Republic Report by Lee Fang lists the top five industries and groups that spend lots of money lobbying various levels of government against any law or reform on the side of more freedom. Police unions helped California’s Prop 19 fail; Prison corporations back pro-drug war candidates and harsh sentencing; the alcohol and pharmaceutical industries spend millions blocking their cheaper, safer possible competition; and prison guard unions help make sure the prisons are filled with non-violent drug offenders.
It shouldn’t be too surprising that a few, well-connected special interests have more sway in policy than the larger voice; this is the nature of a corporatist economic system combined with a powerful, centralized state. Contrary to public school folklore, more often than not the state protects wealthy and established interests at the expense of consumers and the little guy, wrapping it in the rhetoric of “the public good.”
For example, almost 75% of all farm subsidies go the richest 10% of farmers. Since 9/11, the U.S. government has spent $8 trillion on “defense,” which has been one large welfare transfer from the American people to politically popular corporations. Federal regulations tend to be enacted not from a bottom-up, democratic concern for safety but by special interests. Wal-Mart supports government medicine and minimum wage laws, and the pharmaceutical and insurance industries helped pass Obamacare, which included a mandate to purchase their services. Although hemp can produce textiles, fabrics, clothes, linen, drapes, bed sheets, and ropes with less cost and less pollution, yet politically-connected industries lobbied the government to ban it.
There are countless other examples, but the reason that this phenomenon occurs is because of the state’s ability to initiate force and the incentives this creates for well-connected interests that cozy up to it. Special interests spend money lobbying for benefits that will reap them huge and nearly perpetual rewards, with rules and regulations backed up by the aggression of the state.
But without this centralized multi-trillion-dollar-a-year auction, special interests would actually have to compete in the market. And it’s easy to see why they are afraid of such a thing. Not only is the market unpredictable, spontaneous, and filled with the ever-changing desires of customers, but without the force of government power propping them up, they may find themselves quickly irrelevant and out of business.
In the market, customers might soon find that marijuana is a less dangerous vice than alcohol and a far safer medicine than prescription pills. State police, too, might even be out of a job once people are no longer forced to pay for their services and have competition and options for their security and protection.
Like so many aspects of the economy and society, marijuana prohibition is an example of state power colluding with special interests to prevent the market and the demands of the many from gaining traction. But without this centralized coercive state, special interests would have to rely on pleasing customers, not lobbyists, to gain influence, and we’d all be better off.