The arguments claiming that decriminalizing marijuana will end the influence of Mexican drug cartels and bring in billions of dollars in tax revenue are incessantly echoed in America — and both were strategically used this year to successfully convince voters to legalize the drug in Washington and Colorado.
Students, especially, have been quick to embrace these arguments and are at the forefront of the movement to end the prohibition of marijuana. Young adults ages 18 to 29 are twice as likely to favor legalization than adults over 60, according to a 2011 Gallup poll.
But the reasoning for both of these talking points is faulty and unsound, and ends up distracting American voters from the negative consequences of recreational marijuana use.
First and foremost, the notion that legalizing marijuana will stop drug violence in Mexico and along the U.S. border is fatuous. The Office of National Drug Control and Policy estimates that drug cartels derive 61 percent of their revenue from marijuana. The idea that drug cartels will be complacent with a dented bottom line is inconceivable.
Though this number is certainly significant for cartels’ bottom lines, it also leaves a gigantic portion of revenue from dealing other illicit drugs unaddressed. Stanford University professor Keith Humphreys determined that if marijuana was legalized across the United States, cartels would adapt and make as much profit on heroin and methamphetamine individually as they would on marijuana. The same projection shows cocaine making up more than one-third of cartels’ revenues. Thus, cartels could respond to legalized marijuana by focusing on moving harder drugs, such as heroin, meth and cocaine. Police forces both inside and outside the United States will have to continue to crack down on drug cartels, efforts which will continue to cost taxpayers.
It is also commonly argued that as America’s most valuable cash crop, marijuana will bring in a large amount of tax revenue for the U.S. government. In 2006, ABC News reported that with “a value of $35.8 billion, marijuana exceeds the combined value of corn and wheat.” But this figure was calculated — in a report published by Jon Gettman, director of the Coalition for Rescheduling Cannabis — based on an estimated street value of $1,600 per pound. Once legalized, the price of marijuana could decrease by 80 percent, according to the nonpartisan RAND Drug Policy Research Center. Thus, many boasted revenue projections could be grossly exaggerated.
Nevertheless, both of these arguments — that legalizing marijuana will end the war on drugs and bring in billions of dollars in tax revenue — are constantly used to distract from the negative consequences of marijuana use. For students, these consequences are especially pertinent. Research shows that teenagers who smoke pot on a regular basis consistently do worse in school and are twice as likely to drop out of high school. A CBS article published in August said that smoking marijuana as a teenager corresponds to an average IQ drop of eight points — which lowered the substance-using student’s IQ rate in comparison to the average student’s by double-digit percentage points.
Even for older users, there are significant side effects to recreational marijuana use. A landmark study published in February by Dalhousie University in Canada found that using marijuana within three hours of driving doubles the likelihood of causing a car crash. Additionally, marijuana contains 50-70 percent more carcinogenic hydrocarbons than tobacco smoke, potentially increasing users’ chances of developing cancer. And in September, USC scientists published a study linking recreational marijuana use among males to a dangerous form of testicular cancer.
Whether any of these side effects justify criminalizing marijuana is certainly open to question, but it is imperative that students are wise enough to question common talking points and focus on the true consequences of legalization. There is no doubt that current college students’ reasoning will play an instrumental role in the future of America’s drug policies. The way our generation handles this first hurdle will have long-reaching implications for decades to come.
Ryan Townsend is a sophomore majoring in business administration. His column “The Blame Game” runs Tuesdays.