Cannabis producers in US state of Colorado have made headlines – and history – this week for beginning the first fully legal sales of recreational marijuana in the United States since the popular commodity was first banned early in the 20th century. With so many other issues facing the country in 2014, does marijuana really deserve the spotlight? Unfortunately, the prohibition of marijuana has done far more than ruffle the feathers of potheads and civil libertarians. It has fuelled the ongoing cartel war in Mexico, the bloodiest conflict in the world. It has far-reaching economic justifications and consequences, and stands poised to significantly impact the US agricultural sector. When advocates of legalization ground their arguments in medical science and the love of civil liberty, they are playing a necessary electoral game. Marijuana legalization is indeed an important issue, but it important for more than just the United States.
As Seth Harp explains, “when the sale of a popular recreational drug is banned, wealth and power flowing from productive capital are amplified and transferred from the arena of competition between legitimate firms to the monopoly control of entrepreneurs whose competitive advantage is a willingness to break the law.” The relationship between prohibitions of in-elastically demanded goods and the subsequent rise of organized crime and black markets is familiar to political scientists and economists in the West. When prohibition cannot actually limit the consumption of a good, its primary effects are to drive up prices, thereby increasing the volume of cash flow to producers, and to deprive actors in the drug economy of all the traditional civil means of protecting business. Legal business entities rely on the institutions of property rights, courts, and the police to make secure transactions, protect their assets, and enforce business contracts. When the production of drugs is prohibited, these entities can only resort to violence and the threat of violence to achieve these ends.
The severity of the current cartel conflict in Mexico cannot be understated. The cartel war is one of the bloodiest conflicts in the world, surpassing the death tolls of the Iraq War and the War in Afghanistan combined, as of 2010. One third of Mexico’s arable land is currently under the control of the cartels. Several attempts have been made to assassinate the Mexican president. Whole divisions of the Mexican military have defected to the side of the cartels, most notably the Mexican special forces, who left the service of the government to form the infamous paramilitary group known as Los Zetas. One fifth of the Attorney General’s office is under investigation for cartel corruption, the Federal Investigative Agency has been corrupted, and every political party is known to accept money from drug bosses. While Congress has been noticeably silent, he situation has not been completely ignored by officials in the United States. The CIA and Department of Defense are now actively preparing for the possibility of the failure of the Mexican state.
The impact of prohibition on the price and quality of marijuana and other drugs has also been the subject of some recent research, as this informative video from Learn Liberty explains.
It is also worth noting the conditions under which marijuana was originally banned. The industrial production of hemp fiber was a major industry in the United States, and this element of cannabis cultivation was in fact the last to fall to prohibition, when the last crop of industrial hemp was planted in Michigan in 1957. Encouraging the government to restrict this dimension of the cannabis economy was of dire importance to American timber producers, who feared a loss of sales to hemp farmers in the paper industry. As a case in point, the assets of William Randoplh Hearst – media mogul and pioneer of the sensationalist ‘yellow press’ – were heavily invested in the timber industry, and Hearst’s own influence on the marijuana prohibition movement is well documented.
If the vehement support of prohibition by vested interests in the first half of the 20th century are any indication, the effects of legalization on the US agriculture economy will be massive. Indeed, current estimates place the value of even the repressed, black-market production of marijuana in the United States at over $100 billion. By comparison, corn and wheat – the next two largest cash crops – collectively account for barely $30 billion. While marijuana legalization advocates have not ignored this economic dimension to the issue, they have too often focused only on the issue of tax revenue. Taxed or not, the legalization of marijuana is a game changer for American agriculture.
Every libertarian is familiar with the civil libertarian arguments for marijuana legalization. Even if it is harmful, what justification can the government have for preventing citizens from doing harmful things? Alcohol, cigarettes, and even Big Macs are demonstrably more dangerous than the occasional enjoyment of marijuana, yet these commodities are not illegal.
However, civil liberties are not the most important consideration.
Why is it that in America, where all the chaos and destruction caused by our drug policies is only a river crossing away, the boldest defenses of legalization that can be conceived are these appeals to civil liberties? Tens of thousands of people are dying. The Mexican state is collapsing. The bloodiest conflict in the world is not happening in Africa or the Middle East, it is happening in North America. The western hemisphere is rattling apart at the seams, and until now only the US and Canada have been insulated from the chaos.
But how long will it last?