Legalize it

The case against legalized cannabis is rooted in flawed science, folklore, and the United States’ own troubled history with racism and nativism. Indeed, it was largely anxiety about immigrants from Mexico and Latin America that sparked the initial brushfire of cannabis prohibition laws in the U.S. almost 100 years ago: fear of the darker skinned, Spanish-speaking newcomers inspired extraordinary legends about their so-called “killer weed,” and outlawing it was also a good way to put the unwelcome immigrants in jail. In the years that followed, those hysterical whisper campaigns became conventional wisdom and the U.S. led a successful effort to criminalize cannabis throughout the world.
 
Contrary to myths about its pernicious effects, however, scientists and doctors the world over have found that the properties of cannabis – primarily the non-psychoactive components called “cannabinoids” –have a wide variety of positive health benefits. Cannabis has been successful in treating epilepsy, chronic pain, diabetes, MS, PTSD, the side effects of chemotherapy and certain types of cancer. Studies routinely find nicotine and alcohol to be both more addictive than cannabis and to have more serious long-term side effects. Countries like Israel have a legal medical cannabis regime that has allowed them to research the drug and its effects for decades, yet American scientists and universities cannot even study the plant itself because it would be illegal to do so.
 

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The enduring stigma around cannabis would be comical if the cost of its prohibition weren’t so grave: The United States has spent over one trillion dollars on drug enforcement since Richard Nixon declared war on drugs in 1971; nearly $50 billion annually fighting an industry generating $320 billion a year in revenues. Cannabis makes up half of the industry. U.S. law enforcement officials make 750,000 arrests each year for possession of small amounts of cannabis and 500,000 Americans are currently imprisoned on cannabis- related charges. Most of those half million Americans are African Americans and Latinos who are no more likely to use or sell drugs than anyone else but five times more likely to be arrested on drug charges. Meanwhile, the illicit trade of prohibited substances, including cannabis, is responsible for hundreds of thousands of deaths in drug-producing countries and horrific violence in border communities. And even with all of this wasted blood and treasure, the U.S. remains number one in illegal drug use.
 
Witnessing these grim realities, the shift in American public opinion on drug policy is now rivaled only by gay marriage in its rapidity. Twenty states and the District of Columbia have approved the use of cannabis for medicinal purposes and two states, Washington and Colorado, have legalized adult use of cannabis. Eighty five percent of Americans – including 80 percent of Republicans – support medical cannabis, 74 percent don’t want to imprison people for possession, and for the first time since Pew Research Center started polling the question forty years ago, a majority of Americans now support full legalization. Perhaps it’s not surprising then that leaders from President Clinton and Mayor Bloomberg to Rand Paul and Pat Robertson have all come out in favor of decriminalization. Even so, the federal government continues to classify cannabis as a Class 1 drug, as if it were equivalent to LSD and heroin. Class 1 drugs are those the federal government considers the most dangerous, and are defined as having "no medical use." Yet the National Cancer Institute, the National Academy of Sciences, and the National Institute on Drug Abuse all agree on the medical value of cannabis. The federal government’s classification of cannabis as a "Class 1" drug indicates that it is more dangerous and has less medical use than cocaine and crystal meth.
 
The criminalization of cannabis is having a devastating impact in the United States and around the world. It terrorizes the child whose seizures are only controlled by cannabinoid capsules and punishes the child in foster care whose mother is in prison for cannabis-related crimes. The health benefits of cannabis are so numerous and the negative social impact so exaggerated that those who continue to wave the prohibition flag deserve the same tinfoil hat treatment as climate change deniers.
 
Given the history of anti-Latino xenophobia that precipitated this absurd prohibition, it is altogether fitting that the small Latin American nation of Uruguay will soon be the first to fully legalize cannabis within its borders. It is imperative for us to make sure that Uruguay is only the beginning.
 
Kennedy is CEO of Privateer Holdings, the first private equity firm investing in the legal cannabis industry. Kennedy received his MBA from Yale School of Management, and formerly served as COO of SVB Analytics, a subsidiary of Silicon Valley Bank.