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Our National Conversation

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Reforming Marijuana Use

Big Picture

The failure of the drug policies of the late twentieth century has resulted in unnecessary incarceration and racial disparities within our prison system. Despite similar consumption rates, Black people are arrested for marijuana possession at alarmingly higher rates than White people. Moreover, these outdated marijuana policies cost the government an unnecessary amount of money in incarceration and policing expenses. Both economically and politically, current U.S. drug policies are in desperate need of reform.

Operative Definitions

  1. War on Drugs: A campaign led by the U.S. government to end the drug epidemic by way of making the possession and consumption of drugs illegal. The campaign began in the early seventies under former President Richard Nixon, who exaggerated the scale of drug use in a “tough on crime” approach.

  2. 1986 Anti-Drug Abuse Act: A law signed by former President Ronald Reagan during the crack cocaine epidemic. The law established minimum sentences for drug possession based on quantity and lengthened sentences for users of crack cocaine, but not powder cocaine. Crack cocaine is used more prevalently in Black communities than powder cocaine, which is more expensive.

  3. Controlled Substance Act (CSA) Scheduling: The federal categorization of drugs based on their potential for abuse. Schedule I drugs are drugs with “no currently accepted medical use and a high potential for abuse.” Marijuana is listed among them.

Important Facts and Statistics

  1. Support for legalizing marijuana is as high as ever. According to a November 2020 Gallup Poll, 68% of U.S. adults support legalizing the drug. More specifically, 83% of Democrats, 72% of Independent voters and 48% of Republicans support legalization. 

  2. Since Colorado first legalized marijuana in 2012, national support for its legalization has grown by 20%.

  3. According to a Center for American Progress essay, the U.S. makes up nearly 25 percent of the world prison population, despite making up just 5% of the total population. Of the 2.2 million incarcerated individuals in the U.S., one in five are in prison for drug-related crimes. 

  4. Marijuana-related arrests make up between 40-50%of all drug arrests.

Four-Point Plan

(1) Legalize marijuana nationwide. Legalizing marijuana will result in reduced racial disparities in drug arrests, which will help ensure that sentences are consistent regardless of race. Its legalization will also lead to less government spending on marijuana policing and incarceration, leading to millions in tax revenue. This money could be redirected to fund housing for the homeless, professional development programs, and cost-effective addiction treatment centers. Furthermore, it will contribute to the success of banks and credit unions as the marijuana industry will be legitimized.

(2) Remove marijuana from the Schedule I CSA list. Marijuana’s stigma as a CSA-labeled Schedule I drug unfairly classifies it as a dangerous substance with a high potential for harm. However, its classification overlooks the fact that marijuana has significant medicinal purposes for conditions ranging from anxiety to glaucoma. Though it can lead to addiction, it is not nearly as dangerous as other Schedule 1 drugs such as heroin and LSD. Removing marijuana from the Schedule I CSA list will help fight against the stigmas that prevent people from seeking it for medical care. Reclassifying marijuana will also allow scientists to more readily conduct experiments on the drug.

(3) Provide the opportunity to expunge past records. Having to present prior criminal charges for marijuana often prevents individuals from starting their lives afresh, keeping them from new opportunities and often leading them to resort to crime again. This policy would put more people in the job market, boosting the economy and making fewer people dependent on government programs for sustenance. 

(4) Use rehabilitation, not jail, to move past the war on drugs. Redirect 50% of the War on Drugs budget ($27 billion) to drug rehab clinics. Harsh punishments for drug-related charges vastly increase violence and drug demand. Incarceration comes with the price of food, clothing, security and medical care. Rehabilitation, on the other hand, requires much fewer resources and funding, making incarceration an unnecessary expense in terms of marijuana sentencing.

Why This Initiative Is Important

By legalizing marijuana, the U.S. will begin to dismantle the prison industrial complex and significantly enhance decarceration efforts. This reworking will also reduce sentencing disparities that affect minority groups. Most importantly, substance abuse will be treated in a medical setting rather than a legal one, allowing addicted individuals to get the treatment they need without a criminal history holding them back from opportunities. Ending the war on drugs is long overdue, and it is a critical step toward necessary criminal justice reform. Adjusting our approach to drug use and abuse in the United States can lead to a brighter future for everyone affected by the drug epidemic.

Economic Impact (From Our Student Economist Team)

If Marijuana was legal, regulated and taxed in all states the way it is in states like California and Massachusetts, it would generate an additional $4 billion, spread over several states.

Acknowledgment: The opinions expressed in this article are those of the individual authors, whose information is listed below.

The following student(s) worked on this proposal: Deaven Rector, Morehouse College; Zariya Jeffers, Clark Atlanta University; Olivia Bronson, Barton College; Anna Birman, College of William and Mary; Paul Samberg, University of Kansas; Katelyn Owens, The Open University; Diego Andrades, University of Southern California; William Duffy, University of Massachusetts Amherst; Shreya Shesadi, Elizabeth Haub School of Law at Pace University.

The following individuals gave feedback during the creation of this proposal:

  1. Brian Churchill, Officer-In-Command, LAPD, Los Angeles, CA.

  2. Thomas Datro, Police Sergeant, LAPD; Doctoral Candidate, University of Southern California, Los Angeles, CA.

  3. John Frederick Schuck, Attorney at Law, San Francisco, CA.

Note: Not all participants necessarily agree with every aspect of this proposal.


Brenan, Megan. “Support for Legal Marijuana Inches Up to New High of 68%.”, 2020. (February 14, 2021).

Chung, Ed, Maritza Perez, and Lea Hunter. “Rethinking Federal Marijuana Policy.” Center for American Progress,2018. (February 14, 2021).

Espinosa, Sophia. “Clearing Criminal Records through Cannabis Expungement Act.” WAND-TV, 2021. (February 14, 2021).

“Mapping Police Violence.” Mapping Police Violence. (February 14, 2021).

“Marijuana Legalization and Regulation.” Drug Policy Alliance. (February 14, 2021).

Matthews, Dylan. “The Black/White Marijuana Arrest Gap, in Nine Charts.” Washington Post, 2013. (February 14, 2021).

Resing, Charlotte. “Marijuana Legalization Is a Racial Justice Issue.” American Civil Liberties Union, 2019. (February 14, 2021).

Vagins, Deborah and McCurdy, Jesselyn. "Cracks in the System: Twenty Years of the Unjust Federal Crack Cocaine Law." American Civil Liberties Union, October 2006.


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