A Grain of Saul is a weekly column that digs into some of the biggest issues we face as a nation and as an international community in search of reliable data, realistic solutions, and — most importantly — hope.
Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has introduced historic legislation to legalize marijuana, and if the United States is smart, it will follow in its northern neighbor's footsteps.
Unfortunately, the Canadian government's plan to legalize and regulate marijuana sales is in stark contrast with the current administration's attitude in the United States. In recent weeks, Attorney General Jeff Sessions has vowed to revamp "The War on Drugs" and went as far as saying marijuana is "only slightly less awful than heroin."
It's almost redundant to point out how absurd the comparison is, considering heroin and other opioid pain relievers associated with it caused more than 20,000 deadly overdoses in 2015, while marijuana didn't cause any (and never has). If you were to take into account the health care costs and emotional damage done to families who are simply battling opioid addiction, the comparison becomes infuriatingly stupid.
But worse than a dumb comparison is the ramifications of it.
If Sessions lives up to his word, we will once again see an increase in men and women going to jail for nonviolent marijuana offenses while our neighbor becomes the second country in the world to legalize marijuana across the board. While those being imprisoned for marijuana offenses here will be thrown away for longer periods of time thanks to increased enforcement of mandatory minimum sentences, Canada will be celebrating an economic boom thanks to legalization.
The damage marijuana offenses are already doing to communities across the country is tough to put into words, but plenty of people have tried. The simple truth is that the punishment for marijuana possession, use or dealing in strict anti-marijuana states does more damage to a person than the actual possession, use or selling of marijuana in the first place.
Some 40,000 people are currently incarcerated for marijuana-related offenses, and in 2015 more than 643,000 people were arrested for marijuana-related charges.
As a result of these arrests, men, women, and teenagers who have done little harm to their community endure a great deal of harm on themselves. Thousands become ineligible for work, lose the ability to get financial aid for college, can't vote, do short stints in prison that lead to a life of crime, or simply become demonized by the people around them. With a permanent record or the inability to go to college, people with minor marijuana offenses often lose their prospects for a successful future.
Apparently, Attorney General Sessions is interested in increasing the frequency of this cycle.
On its face, this crusade would be disappointing and sad enough. But when you consider what's already happened in the states that have legalized pot, it becomes incomprehensible.
Colorado and Washington, the first two states to legalize recreational cannabis use, have been reaping the rewards. Colorado brought in $200 million in tax revenue from marijuana sales last year alone, and Washington brought in even more: $256 million. What are they doing with their money? They are investing most of it into the seriously underfunded public school systems throughout their states.
It doesn't stop with tax money, though.
As I reported last year, more than 100,000 Americans are now employed in the marijuana industry — and that's just with two states legalizing recreational pot and another 28 states with some kind of legal medical marijuana. As cannabis tourism booms in Colorado, marijuana-related industries now account for 2 percent of the state's entire GDP.
Despite all the fearmongering around legalization — that it'd increase use amongst youth, result in more car accidents, more crime, and the degradation of society — we are almost four years into the legal pot experiment and there is little evidence to support these hypotheses.
More baffling than Jeff Sessions' resistance to legal marijuana is the perplexing issue of why President Donald Trump hasn't already embraced legalization.
After all, legalization fits perfectly into a few of Trump's biggest talking points:
For one, he's railed against government waste. Well, in Washington, the state didn't just rake in tax money but it is saving the $200 million it spent on marijuana enforcement between 2000 and 2010.
He's promised to create more jobs for Americans. If the marijuana industry is already employing 100,000 people, how many more Americans could find a career with legal pot in 48 more states?
He's dedicated himself to battling the opioid epidemic. Does he know that medical marijuana is a safer, less addictive alternative for many of the ailments people currently treat with opioids?
He said he wants to fix the inner cities that are riddled with crime and tension between police and their communities. What could be a better way to mend fences than to stop arresting people's family and friends for low-level marijuana offenses? Is there a more obvious strategy to helping improve communities than ceasing to arrest and imprison the members of that community for a nonviolent crime?
While Canada's push for legalization may seem unsavory to some Americans — about 37 percent, to be exact — there's more to the potential of legal pot than just letting stoners run amok.
If Trump wants to keep his promises and if Sessions wants to keep with up the times, they'd be wise to consider that potential.
You can follow Isaac Saul on Twitter at @Ike_Saul
Cover photo: Shutterstock / Gideongs
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