When Gallup first asked Americans how they felt about marijuana in 1969, only 12 percent of respondents favored the legalization of weed. That number has increased steadily with each passing decade, and in October 2011, Gallup reported that 50 percent of Americans favor the legalization of marijuana, the country’s most popular illicit drug.
The shift in popular opinion reflects not just decades of scientific research showing that marijuana is relatively safer than both alcohol and harder drugs (including many prescription pills), but also the savvy PR efforts of drug reform wonks and activists. When even conservative Christians such as The 700 Club's Pat Robertson are calling for legalizing pot, you know that the war on the War on Drugs is not just winnable, but practically over.
But that doesn't mean all arguments in favor of legalization are equally good, effective, or factual. Here are the three weakest arguments for legalizing marijuana. As you work to convince the shrinking ranks of drug prohibitionists - we're looking at you, Mr. President! - don't make these rookie mistakes when arguing for changing the legal status of cannabis.
3. Legalizing Marijuana Will End Cartel Violence in Northern Mexico
The election of Mexican President Felipe Calderon in 2006 ushered in a new era of prohibition-fueled drug violence. Six years and 50,000 drug-war deaths later, the argument that repealing marijuana prohibition could stem the violence in Mexico and along the U.S. border is ubiquitous. The claim was a major selling point for Proposition 19 in California, which would have legalized marijuana and subjected its sale to taxation and regulation, and has been made repeatedly by drug reform advocates in the two years since.
“We have created an illegal marketplace with such mind-boggling profits that no enforcement measures will ever overcome the motivation, resources and determination of the cartels,” Libertarian Party presidential candidate Gary Johnson wrote in a 2011 op-ed for The Washington Times. Legalizing pot, he added, would deny the cartels “their largest profit center and dramatically reduce not only the role of the United States in their business plans, but also the motivation for waging war along our southern border.”
But there are objections to that claim. In October 2010, the RAND Corporation released a study saying that Mexican cartels derived only 16 percent of their revenue from marijuana. (As pointed out by NORML, that number conflicted with the ONDCP's estimate that 61 percent of cartel revenue comes from marijuana.)
In June 2011, Mexico analyst Sylvia Longmire argued that cartels have diversified to the point that legalizing marijuana might dent their war chests, but it won’t stop them; they’d still make money stealing oil from pipelines, pirating and selling contraband intellectual property, extorting small businesses, bribing politicians, ransoming kidnap victims, manufacturing and moving harder drugs such as cocaine, heroin, and meth, and trafficking undocumented immigrants and sex workers.
In 2011, David Borden, executive director of StoptheDrugWar.org, emailed me with objections to Longmire’s argument: “Some of the other criminal enterprises that cartels are involved in (enterprises they've been able to enter because of having drug cash and organizations built by drug cash) are less straightforwardly tied to demand, such as kidnapping for ransom, but they have their limits—for all we know they are already doing as much of those things as they think could be sustained, and the more profit they continue to make from drugs, the more money they are going to invest in all kinds of enterprises, both illicit and licit.”
“Will the cartels vanish from the face of the earth because of marijuana legalization?" Borden continued. "Probably not. Would even full legalization of all drugs accomplish that? Unclear.”
That lack of clarity is exactly why marijuana reformers should be careful when promising what legalizing pot can and can’t do for Mexico. The war on drugs has weakened the country’s political institutions, corrupted its military and police forces, and devastated its economy. While pot legalization in the U.S. would allow users to divest from the cartels' brutality, pitching marijuana legalization as anything other than a baby step toward peace and stability in Mexico puts drug reformers on tenuous grounds.
NEXT: Marijuana should be taxed and regulated because it is America’s largest cash crop.