Dear 2016 Presidential Candidate Hillary Clinton,
You recently gave a speech at Columbia University calling for broad criminal justice reform. You said, “There is something profoundly wrong when African-American men are far more likely to be stopped by the police, charged with crimes, and given longer prison terms than their white counterparts,” and “There is something wrong when trust between law enforcement and the communities they serve breaks down.”
I’m writing today in the hope that you will further articulate your opinion on marijuana policy. I’m currently a law student in Washington, DC, and received my bachelor’s degree in Criminology. For the past 23 years I’ve watched you fight fearlessly for women’s rights and human rights. While I don’t think of myself as a one-issue voter, I simply cannot support a candidate who believes that marijuana smokers are deserving of criminal prosecution, jail, and the lifelong stigma associated with a criminal record.
In your speech you called for smart policing strategies to fight crime and rebuild trust, especially in communities of color. According to the ACLU, 52 percent of all drug arrests in 2010 were for small amounts of marijuana, and blacks are nearly four times more likely than whites to be arrested for possession. This is despite the reality that African Americans and Caucasians use the substance at similar rates.
You also discussed the importance of using federal funds to bolster the best criminal justice practices. States waste over $3 billion enforcing marijuana laws and prosecuting minor marijuana offenders annually. This funding could be better utilized focusing on violent criminals rather than non-violent offenders. By giving the police the authority to stop and search an individual based on a suspect smell, an avenue is created for police to discriminate against hardworking Americans based on age and appearance. This disproportionately affects not just blacks, but all minorities.
Some people fear that if marijuana is legalized crime rates will skyrocket, organized crime will take over the industry, the number of young marijuana smokers will increase, and the number of traffic fatalities will rise. These arguments are simply not supported by evidence.
Cannabis regulation, contrary to popular belief, is associated with a decrease in violent crime. In March 2014, the Public Library of Science published a study concluding that the passage of statewide medical cannabis laws is not associated with any increase in crimes of homicide, rape, robbery, assault, burglary, larceny, nor auto theft. These findings counter the arguments suggesting that legalization for medical purposes poses a danger to public health in terms of exposure to violent crime and property crime.
Recent legalization has started undercutting traditional Mexican marijuana trafficking. Legalization and decriminalization in certain states causes Mexican drug farmers to turn away from cannabis. Over the past five years, the wholesale price of marijuana has collapsed making it simply not worth the risk.
One of the more popular and unfounded arguments against regulation and legalization is that more young Americans are going to try marijuana. In June 2015, however, a federally commissioned study published in The Lancet Psychiatry explains that the amount of adolescent smokers does not increase with the enactment of medical marijuana laws.
The presumption that the number of traffic fatalities will rise if marijuana is legalized is also a false. In 2015, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration found that drivers who tested positive for marijuana were no more likely to crash than those who had not used any drugs or alcohol prior to driving. I’m not suggesting that drivers should operate a vehicle under the influence of marijuana or any substance capable of impairment. Those who text and drive, however, are twenty-three times more likely to crash; yet the federal government has not banned mobile phones.
Cannabis is comparably safer than other conventional medicines and intoxicants. It has a relatively low dependence liability in comparison to many prescription drugs, alcohol, and tobacco. In 1988, the DEA’s Chief Administrative Law Judge, Francis Young, concluded, “[M]arijuana, in its natural form, is one of the safest therapeutically active substances known to man. By any measure of rational analysis marijuana can be safely used within a supervised routine of medical care.”
I know that in order to win elections politicians are often advised to avoid polarizing issues. Given the hardline partisan political environment of the last nearly 40 years, it is rare for Democrats and Republicans to agree on anything. Both parties, however, acknowledge the need to amend current marijuana laws.
Public support for marijuana legalization is rapidly changing. A Pew Research survey states that 53 percent of Americans (including 63 percent of Democrats) believe that cannabis should be legal. Additionally, seven-in-ten Americans believe that alcohol is more harmful to a person’s health than marijuana.
Mrs. Clinton, we can not have a serious national conversation about criminal justice reform and smart community policing efforts without revisiting marijuana criminalization. In the coming months, I hope that you will consider cannabis law reform as a core plank on your broader criminal justice reform efforts.